Starting an Organic Garden

Probably the most important thing for starting an organic garden is a ready supply of compost. There are plenty of other organic soil ammendments, but compost in one form or another is generally necessary. Compost can be purchased or made by the gardener.

For a simple (but not necessarily easy) method to make compost, see the article on Making Compost by this author, also on Associated Content.

If you have access to a lot of horse, cow, or other manure, let it rot at least four months. It will make very rich compost, suitable for the garden. Many varieties of compost can be purchased, with many different properties. Most will be suitable for the organic garden. Worms, particularly the “professional” compost worms (like California red hybrids), can rapidly turn organic waste to top-quality, finished compost.

Locate the garden, if possible, on a southeast-facing, gentle slope that gets plenty of sun. The closer to the water spigot and the kitchen you place the garden, the less walking you’ll have to do. In planning the garden, allow enough space for as many adult plants as you think you need for a sufficient yield. Superabundance of harvest can be a problem if you can’t give away all your extra tomatoes (for example) and can’t bear to compost them. Read the recommendations on seed packets and catalogs for adult plant spacing.

Many organic gardeners use wide rows and raised beds for planting. Wide rows are an alternative to the familiar straight-line rows seen in mechanized farms. In a wide row, a long rectangle between a foot-and-a-half and four feet wide (no more than twice your comfortable reach) is cultivated and planted with about the same plant spacing as recommended for a straight row. In the intensive agriculture of a home garden, this maximizes the yield to space ratio. It also allows some crop plants to form a canopy, providing a “shade mulch” to reduce the growth of weeds. In a wide row, raised beds are possible. The soil bed is built up above the walking area to a height of four inches or more, allowing better drainage and airation.

Wide beds can be achieved by simply mounding up the soil, or by various containment structures including but not limited to stones, boards, cinder blocks and plastic border strip. Avoid pressure-treated lumber and never use creosote-treated lumber as these contain very toxic chemicals which are antithetical to the organic gardening principle. Containment isn’t necessary for raised beds; just slope the soil at the edge. An occasional stepping-stone in the middle of a wide row can make it easier to weed, and also makes a good place to pour water without washing away the soil.

To start a garden bed, a square spade (a shovel with a rectangular face and flat digging edge) is best, but a shovel or digging fork can be used. It’s possible to just strip off the top layer of sod and build the bed on top of the bare earth, especially if the soil is good. But you will probably prefer to turn over and break up at least one shovel’s depth of soil. It’s a good idea to turn some compost or other organic matter in at this time. Then build up your raised bed using a mixture of soil and compost. Just mixing compost with the turned soil may raise the bed enough. Don’t use straight manure at this stage, unless you do it in the autumn for spring planting. Straight, uncomposted manure is too strong for young plants and may kill them.

Some gardeners don’t turn the soil at all on the theory that the undisturbed soil structure is better. One method is to place about a dozen layers of newspaper over the entire garden bed, cover it with soil and compost, and wait until spring. Less work can sometimes yield better results.

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