Gardening 101: Where Do You Start?

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Perhaps you've been contemplating taking your garden organic, but this thought keeps getting in the way:

"I've always used chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides and I'm afraid that my plants won't grow without them."

Think. Did plants grow on that very spot before you arrived? Of course they did: fruits, vegetables, grasses, trees, you name it. Chemical fertilizers were conceptualized and developed in the 19th century, but only put into wide use in the mid-twentieth century, which leaves... oh, about a billion years that plants - every plant - grew without them. Big Agriculture has done such an excellent job of marketing their products that they've brainwashed consumers into believing that plants will downright choke to death without chemicals. I promise that won't happen if you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Toss the chemicals.

In your first season of Gardening, you may experience some pest problems. This is because you've been dousing your garden with pesticides, killing the target bugs and many others, which has altered the "food web" of your garden: the "good" bugs, birds, and other creatures that used to eat those bad bugs have moved out to find food elsewhere. But don't worry, they'll return and your garden will fall back into balance.

2. Get your hands on lots of compost.

Whether you make it yourself from kitchen scraps, have a local horse stable deliver manure, or buy bags of compost at the nursery center, your health, your plants' health, and your soil's health will benefit. Compost feeds your plants (and the soil) the way nature intended them to be fed, and also supplies everything (and more) that chemical (synthetic) fertilizers supply. The difference is that those bottled chemicals are water soluble and are quickly taken up by plants, while compost supplies nutrients to plants via organic decay (slowly, but surely). If your plants need a boost, you can add fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, or compost tea to their regimen. These are all high in the nutrients that chemical fertilizers impart, but they also have the extra power of bacteria, fungi and micronutrients.

3. Use Mulches

Organic mulches, to be specific. That means the kind made from tree bark, wood, or shrub and tree wastes (what you'll typically find at your local municipal compost pile). Mulches help your soil retain moisture and add to the biological activity and decay that feed your plants. They also regulate soil temperature to protect your plants' roots from heatwaves and frost.

4. Raise Those Beds

Row planting is so...twentieth century. The most efficient way to plant your garden is with raised beds. That doesn't mean you have to build an elaborate contraption like a giant planter. Just design a bed 3 feet across by however many feet long you like and layer top soil and compost until you get it at least 8 inches high. Raising your beds this way helps with water drainage, warms the soil a bit earlier and yields more intensive crops in less space. Read my earlier post on raised bed gardening to learn how to build a raised bed.

Don't believe the chemical hype - Gardening is at least as productive as using synthetic chemicals, but is safer, cleaner, and environmentally friendly.

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Author: Todd Heft Todd Heft is a self-taught organic gardener who lives in Northeast Pennsylvania. He grew up in a rural section of Bethlehem, PA, on the edge of a farm field, where he became fond of the aroma of fresh manure. He is happiest when he has dirt under his fingernails, mud on his boots and an aching back.

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