Organic Vegetable Gardening Primer

If you grow vegetables for your family because you want the best tasting, most nutritious vegetables, chances are you also want vegetables free of pesticides. For the home gardener, organic vegetable gardening practices are easy to follow.

There are different definitions of organic. Some people believe a garden is organic if no pesticides are used on the garden. Others define organic more strictly and also ban the use of chemical fertilizers and use only seeds and plants that were grown organically.

It Starts with the Soil

In organic vegetable gardens, the soil plays a key role. A healthy garden requires healthy soil. Healthy soil creates disease- and insect-resistant plants. Any type of soil can be improved by generous amounts of organic matter. It may take several years to develop good organic soil, but you can work on it each year as your garden grows.

Organic matter includes things like manure, leaves, lawn clippings, compost, straw and even shredded newspaper. You can start the vegetable garden in the fall, by layering lots of organic matter on the garden site. You continue by adding more organic material in the spring and mulching around the vegetable plants with organic material.

A foot of organic material on the garden in the fall and several inches in the spring and around plants in the summer is excellent. As the organic matter is broken down, add more. Organic matter that is in the process of breaking down will use some nutrients, especially nitrogen; however, it will eventually add nutrients to the soil.

Good organic soil will not need tilling each year. You don't even need to till in organic matter, if layered on top, worms and other soil organisms will do the job for you. Layers of organic material will help keep weeds and grass from growing in the garden. Each time you till you disturb microorganisms working in the soil, and they have to start all over again. You also decrease pore space that holds oxygen and water for plant roots.

Arrange your garden rows so that you don't have to walk on the plant beds. Compaction of the soil makes it harder for microorganisms to break down organic matter, and plant roots will struggle through it. Mounded rows or raised beds clearly define paths and allow you to concentrate your soil amendments to growing areas.

Organic Fertilizers

Organic vegetable gardens may also need some added nutrients for good plant growth, particularly nitrogen. Sources of nutrients for organic vegetable gardens include manure, bone and blood meal, fish and feather meal, alfalfa hay, cottonseed meal and seaweeds. Some of these things are easy to find locally and some are not. There are now organic bagged fertilizers on the market. While they are easy to use, they don't add organic matter to the soil as natural sources often do.

Manure can vary tremendously in its nutrient value, depending on what kind of animal it came from, what the animals were fed and how long and where it was stored. Manure may also bring weed seeds to the garden. Fresh manure can cause chemical burns to plants, so manure should be aged for several weeks before applying to the garden during the gardening season.

Manure mixed with bedding such as wood shavings is good organic matter for the soil and contains some nutrients. But as the bedding decomposes, it may actually rob nitrogen from the plants. Use this material in the fall or very early spring and not when plants are actively growing.

Avoid adding manure to gardens in the last few weeks before harvesting crops to prevent food-borne illnesses. Never add human or dog and cat manure to the garden as it may be a source of parasites and diseases. Organic fertilizers can pollute water just as easily as conventional fertilizers, so keep them off paved surfaces and avoiding applying too much.

Bone, fish and blood meal may actually attract some pests to the garden, such as raccoons. There may be a smell associated with using organic fertilizers. If neighbors are close, the use of manure may have to be confined to seasons when windows are closed.

Organic Pest and Disease Management

Organic vegetable gardening practices lean heavily on prevention rather than curing problems. Plant varieties of vegetables that are disease-resistant. Space your plants so that there is good airflow around them. Keep crops like tomatoes and cucumbers off the ground with trellises or cages, and mulch around your plants to conserve moisture and keep down weeds.

Make sure that your vegetable garden doesn't suffer from water stress. Most crops need an inch of water a week. If you are using deep mulch and the weather has been hot and dry, get down under the mulch and check to see that water is getting to the soil. Water at the base of the plants or at least water plants early enough so that they will be dry by nightfall. Don't harvest or work with your plants when they are wet. These things help prevent fungal disease.

Insects may have to be removed by hand. For large bugs like bean beetles, a small hand vacuum can be used. For aphids and tiny bugs, a spray of soapy water may be enough. Use the special garden soaps, not dish soap, which may contain harsh chemicals that burn plants. There are also organic pest controls sold in garden stores now.

To avoid insect and disease problems, organic vegetable gardens should be thoroughly cleaned up in the fall. All old plant parts and fruit should be removed. If possible, rotate your vegetable crops so they are not growing in the same spot each year.

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