Signup to receive email updates

or follow our RSS feed

follow our RSS feed

Blog Banner

Know How, Know More

Connecting You with Your Food, Farmers and Community
tachinid wasp larvae on hornworm caterpillar

Organic Gardening Basics

Posted by Beth Allhands -


If you are considering growing an organic garden this year, but unsure how to; there are specific ways to help you succeed. First, what does organic really mean? Organic practices, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture's' National Organic Program, "integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity". That's a big way to say that gardens are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and in ways that encourage natural defenses and systems to govern. For best success, multiple strategies must be incorporated to keep your plants healthy.

Whether organic or not, every gardener's mantra "it starts with good soil" is never truer. Plant stress, disease and pest tolerance are all linked to healthy or unhealthy soil conditions. Healthy soil should comprise a combination of 43-47% mineral solids, 3-7 % organic matter and porous space containing 25% each of air and water, with a pH level between 6.0 and 6.6. Testing your soils pH is easily done with kits or by sending a soil sample for more complete analysis in labs that specialize in this. Around Central Illinois, this cost about $15.00.

Depending on what amendments your soil needs, there are ample organic options available. Minerals can be added using granite dust, rock phosphate and limestone, wood ashes or peat to change pH, and compost, shredded leaves and green manures for organic matter are just some of the ways to enrich this all important growth medium.

Next, weed early and often! Use shallow cultivation of weeds by hoeing small weed seedlings, which allows the weed seed to germinate, but not to grow. Over time, fewer and fewer weed seeds will be in your garden to begin with. To maintain a weed free garden, use mulch to create a light barrier to prevent seeds from germinating throughout the season (with added benefits of conserving moisture and regulating soil temperature). Newspapers printed with soy ink, cardboard, shredded leaves, and straw all work well. Avoid glossy, colored newspaper or magazine papers however.

Next tactic, and one that all gardeners should employ anyway, is to rotate crops of related plant families. This will decrease the risk of soil borne diseases and make even use of available nutrients, as most plants use different proportions of them.

Inter-planting and companion planting are huge concepts that successful gardens often utilize. Inter-cropping is actually using living plants for live mulch, sometimes between rows of other plants. An example is the famous three sister method: plant corn in rows, pole beans planted in circle pattern around the corn to grow upwards on the stalk, and winter squash to sprawl around between the rows. Inter-planting reduces weeds and also increases soil fertility, either by planting cover crops to fix nitrogen and/or by tilling under at end of season to return the once living organic matter back to the soil.

Companion planting is the idea that plants provide mutual benefits to each other when planted in close proximity. Some benefits are nutrient related, or even chemical enhancements (chives actually improve the taste and growth of carrots); though most are related to pest determent or attraction. This is a big and exciting topic of its own, so I'm including a chart here, shared from Cornell University Extension

Spend some time exploring this on your own. I know I will be trying some of these companion ideas myself, and isn't it thoughtful that basil likes to grow near tomatoes?

Disease management is as it should be in any garden. Good sanitation of tools, destroying any diseased leaves or plants as soon as they are noticed, using resistant varieties, rotation of crops, good watering practices ( water from ground level) and adequate air circulation between plants are good management practices.

Lastly, are the insects. Of course they are last! In the end, they are the thing that does a plant in more often than anything else; or at least the thing we feel most powerless to control sometimes. According the University of Illinois Master Gardener Manual, the main concepts in this category include avoidance, exclusion, monitoring, trapping, hand picking, encouraging natural enemies" and alas- "accepting some losses".

Examples of avoidance is to vary the planting of some vegetables; waiting until there is plenty of other gardens to pick on, I guess! No, no; I mean, for instance, waiting until the soil is warm enough for rapid seed germination to help your seedlings get a running start.

Common exclusion methods is using row covers ( insects can't eat or lay eggs on what insects can't get at), or using large cans at the base of seedlings to thwart attempts of root worms and other would be plant destroyers. Frequent monitoring is important to treat little problems before they become bigger problems by hand picking insects or looking for disease; so yes- pluck that cabbage worm off. It can and does make a difference. Traps or lures sometimes work well in large gardens- you have something special to lure insects away from what you want by giving them something they want.

Learn what the natural insect predators of the garden pest look like so you don't squash those. Don't hurt the good ones, they are a very important ally in your garden. The photo above is Tachinid Wasp larvae on a hornworm caterpillar. Ladybug larvae look similar to aphid larvae- what ladybugs will eat if they get to grow up.

If all else fails, there are organic certified sprays for insect infestation. They are derived from naturally occurring pathogens or plant compounds, and while they generally break down sooner than synthetic pesticides and are less toxic to humans and animals – they should be used only when necessary and as directed on the product label.

So, really- all of these garden practices are great for any type garden! You can go all organic, mostly organic, or some organic- it all depends on how you increase the soils fertility, in managing the weeds and in reducing insect damage. Happy Gardening!

Please share this article with your friends!
Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Pin on Pinterest


Email will not display publicly, it is used only for validating comment