This guide is intended for new gardeners wanting to start a new organic garden, and for experienced gardeners wanting to change to organic and sustainable practices for their gardens. In a sense, these ideas are based on permaculture principles, or could be called smart lazy gardening.
The idea is to set up a garden that largely looks after itself, and requires minimum tillage, weeding, disease and pest control - because everything you plant is growing vigorously and remains healthy.
Watering is required, but not very often because moisture is retained in the soil and the plants are tolerant of dry times. Organic gardening simply means not using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals and choosing to be sustainable by using equipment and methods that are less demanding on the Earth's limited resources.
Though the article is focused on vegetables and fruit plantings, the same principles apply for flower and shrub gardens as well. It is also focused on tips for small urban home gardens. The tips are brief, but very smart and profound. Enjoy gardening the easy way!
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The following tips will get your started on your way:
Don't be too ambitious, even if you have big ideas and big plans. Do the planting and implement your design in stages. Think Vertical and three dimensional. Setting up and maintaining your soil is the hardest part, so begin with a small patch to learn the principles and techniques. It is remarkable what you can achieve in a small patch or even in a large pot when you adopt easy-care and sustainable principles.
Ideally the area should have good soil, a minimum of about 60% of direct sunlight, good drainage, some protection for strong winds and easy access. Think carefully about how you are going to maintain the area. Raised beds have many advantages because you don't have to bend over as much. Similarly if the originally soil has poor quality or is mostly clay with poor drainage you can develop news soil on top with a raised bed. You may want to think about planting seeds into straw bales or using potatoes grown in straw as a first crop in a raised bed.
If you start big there is a risk that you won't be able to manage it properly and it may become a chore. There is more risk of failure with a big garden that can get unhealthy and riddled with weeds and diseases. A 4 x 8 ft (1 x 2 m) raised bed garden is a good size to start with. You can add extra modules as you get better at it, or extend existing beds. Eventually you will want to have about 20% of the area of the garden resting and reviving at any one time.
The best way to control weeds is to keep the garden clothed in a deep layer of mulch and compost. This smothers any weeds and stops any seeds that germinate from becoming established. So you need to surround plants with good quality organic mulch, such as hay and straw (weed free) and organic fertilisers. Recycling your organic waste, grass clippings, prunings and kitchen scraps through a compost heap is a great idea, though you need 2-3 heaps going at once - 'new', 'active' and 'mature ready for use'.
► The 'new' one is the heap into which you are adding material.
► The 'active' once is in the process of being broken down, but is not receiving new stuff.
► The 'mature' one has material that has matured fully broken down mulch and is ready for use.
Once again start small.
Another good idea is 'compost trenches'. Simply dig a trench in a part of the garden that is resting and put kitchen scraps and bulky items directly into the trench and cover with soil. This is a very old idea, but it is a very good one.
Here is your Cheat List
► Look at what your neighbors grow easily and well, or ask them.
► Check your 'wish-list' of options with your local nursery and ask them to rank your options in terms of how easy they are to grow and maintain.
► Don't try to be a pioneer or to 'go where many have tried and failed before'.
► Choose vegetables and flowers that are easy to grow in your area.
► Choose plants that are not prone to local diseases. If pumpkins, cucumbers, beans and peas are subject to powdery mildew that is prevalent in your area, then choose other options. Similarly, certain insect pests that occur in your area may rule out other options.
Seedlings should be the best choice, but take care that they have not been pampered in the nursery and may get shocked when they face the reality of your exposed garden beds in the real world. Don't buy seedlings from supermarkets - they will be pampered and riddled with chemicals, growth enhancers and insecticides. Buy seedlings that are displayed outside in the open air and look tough and are growing vigorously (not pot-bound)
Seeds can be very hard to grow and take a lot of looking after. Bigger seeds are a lot easier to grow than the smaller ones. Though they are expensive, it is worth considering planting seed into 'Jiffy Pots' or similar units. These mini-fiber pots are made from compressed peat or other material. They swell to seven times their size when soaked in warm water and they retain moisture very well. Seedlings grown in these 'pots' can be directly planted into the garden as there is no plastic pot to remove. One tip is to insert seeds directly into the swelled-up peat pots and place them directly into the garden. This is quicker, but waiting for the seedlings to emerge is better, but more time consuming, and in a way it is double handling.
At the start, especially if you are a new gardener, you need to be ruthless with your choices as first time success is critical to keep you motivated.
Before you begin planting, make a plan for both vegetables and flowers. One obvious consideration is space and height of the plants and how quickly they will grow. Put the taller plants at the back and smaller ones in front. For a larger garden, think about having a garden with multiple layers: trees, tall-shrubs, low-shrubs, herbs and ground covers. These height layers can be aligned back to front, but the various size plants can also be interspersed to for multi-layered 'towers' throughout the garden. Some of the best first-time vegetable choices are plants such as radishes, zucchini, tomatoes, beans and peas. For deeper and larger beds try potatoes and carrots.
► Buy some moisture meters. They are inexpensive and many don't even require batteries. This will help you learn to read the signs or dehydration.
► Don't over-water the plants as this can be harmful.
► Deeper watering encourages stronger root growth. Seeds and seedlings require watering regularly, but only water those areas not the entire garden.
► Mulching keeps moisture in the soil and stops plants from drying out.
► Plants are more vigorous and less prone to disease and pests when they are growing well continuously. Checks in their growth through poor soil, inadequate moisture of nutrients makes them vulnerable.
There are many options, books and articles about organic pest and disease control you can read to get this advice. One universal natural remedy for controlling pests and diseases is to use warm water containing a small amount of dish-washing liquid. Spray this on affected areas.
Controlling annual weeds in a garden in which you have planted vegetable or flowering plant seedlings can be a nightmare, as the weeds grow faster than the seedlings you have planted. Pulling them out disturbs the soil and the new seedlings.
The best tip is to apply the 10 day rule. You need to scrape under the soil between the rows of seedlings after no longer than 10 days to chop the weeds off before they emerge from the soil. At this stage they will be easy to treat because they will only have a single shoot and a small taproot.
So rake or hoe the entire seed bed just before planting to eliminate any weed growth. Plant the seeds and mark your calendar for 10 days ahead. At this time you won't see many weeds, but they are there, under the soil and about to emerge. Get in early and run your hoe along under the soil between the rows, just under the surface of the soil. You will notice a lot of slender white threads which are the juvenile weeds. If you leave them longer than 10 days, the roots will branch out and the weeds will be much more difficult to remove.
Treat the weeds before they emerge, just 10 days after planting seeds. That is one of the best tips for organic gardening - The 10 Day Weed Control Plan.
Good gardening is not rocket science. Being Smart and Cheating a Bit with your first steps, can inspire and energize you to learn more, to try more and to develop bigger and more productive gardens. As the seasons pass, you will feel confident to expand your garden and grow an even wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to feed your family and produce flowers to admire.