How-To Get Started With Organic Gardening

A properly planned and planted organic garden will naturally resist disease, deter pests, and be healthy and productive. With the spring planting season fast approaching, winter is the ideal time to get started.

Set Goals
What do you want to do with your plot of earth this season? Begin planning by setting goals. Grab your garden map, a pencil, your gardening guide, catalogs, and your thinking cap. List the areas of your yard and garden separately (i.e. lawn, vegetable patch, flower garden), and, keeping in mind the size and conditions of your site, brainstorm! Are you planning a garden for the first time? Do you want to expand your existing garden? Did you have pest or disease problems last year that you’re hoping to prevent this year? What map? To create a map of your yard or garden, measure the dimensions of your site as a whole, and then the individual dimensions of your vegetable patch, flowerbeds, and lawn. It’s easiest to draw your map to scale on a sheet of graph paper. These measurements will be necessary later, when you are determining how much of a plant or seeds to buy. Once the map is drawn, write in any information you know about soil characteristics, drainage, environmental conditions (sunny, shady, windy), and the names of trees and perennial plants that already exist. Your map will let you know exactly what you have to work with, and will give you a realistic idea of problems that need attention or features you’d like to change or add.

Gardening 101
It is important to understand the magnitude of your project before you begin. Getting the background information necessary to fulfill your goals may take an hour or a week, depending upon your level of experience and how involved you plan to get. Consulting your garden guidebook is a great way to begin – I suggest Warren Schultz’s The Organic Suburbanite, The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman, Rodale’s Chemical-Free Yard & Garden, or The Handy Garden Answer Book by Karen Troshynski-Thomas. You can also go to your local library and investigate their resources or contact your local garden club for their suggestions. As you research, write down how long each project will take, what tools you will need, and the approximate cost of everything you will need. This information will be invaluable when you make up your shopping list and schedule of activities. Scheduling and Organization. A schedule of activities lists what you hope to accomplish in what time frame. It will help keep you on track. It is important to be realistic about what you are capable of.

This is not a project that can be taken on alone in a week. Staggering your major tasks over time will make them easier to accomplish and save you the ultimate frustration of unfinished projects. Planning for the long term will aid in your organization. You can create a year-by-year schedule that maps out a time frame in which to achieve your big goals. Obviously, the schedule can change as time goes by, you learn new methods and you rethink your objectives, but maintaining focus on what you hope to create in the long term can keep you motivated on what you are doing now.

Tool Tutorial
You have a plan! You have knowledge! Do you have tools? Chances are you may be able to obtain most tools at your local lawn and garden store. Bring the list that you assembled in Gardening 101, and, if you are a seasoned gardener, assume that the same pests and plagues will be back that you dealt with last year and buy your supplies now. If you are new to the gardening scene, buy the basic tools that you will need, and then nose around the neighborhood and perhaps your local gardening club to see what is recommended for what you are planting and where you live.

Basic Tools:

  • Diggers – You will need a spading fork for aerating your soil and turning your compost pile. Look for a spading fork with rectangular, flat blades. A manure fork may also be compost-pile friendly when it comes to turning.
  • Weeders – Weeding tools include hoes and short-handled cultivating tools. Both are made in a variety of styles, and you will probably want more than one of each.
  • Hoe
    • hoe types include:
    • Swan-neck hoe – The curved neck positions the cutting blade to skim just below the surface, making it ideal for light work around garden crops.
    • Oscillating hoe – Also called a scuffle hoe or hula, it has a hinged, double-edged blade that barely disturbs the soil surface, minimizing the number of new weeds brought to the surface.
    • Collinear hoe – Designed by Eliot Coleman, the narrow blade and angled handle are useful for cutting off small weeds with little soil disturbance.
    • Eye hoe – Also called a grub hoe, the heavy blade is for hard chopping at tough, overgrown weeds.

Standard short-handled cultivating tools:

  • Hand cultivator – A tined tool, useful for disturbing the soil surface around close planting to uproot young weeds.
  • Dandelion weeder – Made for uprooting weeds with long taproots.
  • Pavement weeder – A trowel for removing weeds in cracks of stone slab or brick walkways.
  • Pruners – Pruning trees and shrubs promotes growth and good health, and pruning out diseased wood helps to control disease problems. Pruning tools come in varying sizes depending on your need. Choose a sharp, high quality pruning tool.
  • Tillers – Tillers will also range in size, depending on the job. There are large, gaspowered tillers for breaking ground or big jobs, and small tillers that are lightweight and are useful for cultivating around perennials. Rent a few tillers to try them out before buying, as they do differ a great deal and can be expensive.
  • Sowers – Wheeled seeding tools that have changeable interior disks for different seed sizes and spacings are available and very handy if you are planting large areas.
  • Comfort tools – There is a plethora of comfort- oriented garden accessories available on the market today. Products range from gloves, to knee pads, to small, wheeled benches/carts. It is up to you to decide what will suit your needs, if you need any at all..

Starting From Seed
Starting your plants from seed will ensure that they are chemical free. Most transplants sold in garden centers have been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Seeds themselves bought at garden centers may be coated in fungicides, so be very careful about what you buy or buy from an organic seed supplier. To start plants from seed, you need sterile soil, sterile planting containers, and labels. It is better to grow each seedling in a separate container to avoid the damage incurred by ripping roots apart, and to make for a less shocking transplant. If you purchase soil mix, be sure that it is sterile to avoid spreading disease to your seedlings.

To make your own mix, use vermiculite (a mica-based mineral that has been heated to make it expand to many times its original size), perlite (volcanic ash that has been heated and ‘popped’), and sphagnum (moss that has been collected while still alive, dried, and then finely ground). Add 1 tablespoon of lime for each 2 quarts of sphagnum that you use to counteract its acidity. Good recipes for soil mix are 1 part sphagnum and 1 part vermiculite, or 1 part each sphagnum, vermiculite and perlite. Seeds actually need heat, not light, to germinate. The heat from a grow light or sunny window may be enough for some, but placing the containers on top of a warm refrigerator or on a seed-starting heating pad may be necessary.

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