How to Grow an Organic Vegetable Garden

For millions of years, plants grew, bloomed and set fruits or vegetables without any interference from gardeners. With the growing interest in home gardening came a growing collection of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Most of these do their job and make quick work of diseases and pests, but they also leave residues that many people would prefer not to eat. An organic vegetable garden doesn't come with chemical convenience, but it does produce fresh, natural produce that's safe to eat.

There's no single definition of organic gardening. Some people believe a garden is organic if no pesticides are used, while others define organic more strictly and also ban the use of chemical fertilizers and use only seeds and plants that were grown organically. Growing an organic garden takes a bit more work and carries a slightly higher risk of crop loss, but the reward is wholesome, nutritious food for your family's table.

It Starts with the Soil
In organic vegetable gardens, the soil plays a key role. Healthy soil creates disease- and insect-resistant plants. Any type of soil can be improved with 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 and straw. Some include shredded newspaper as an organic material, but the paper itself contains some chemicals and black newsprint ink is often made from petroleum, so those aiming for a strict organic garden shold avoid it.

Start the vegetable garden in the fall by layering lots of organic matter on the garden site. Continue by adding more organic material in the spring and mulching around growing 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; layered it on top and let the worms and other soil organisms 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 the plant roots.

Arrange your garden rows so that you don't have to walk on the plant beds. Compacted soil is harder for microorganisms to use and plant roots to penetrate. 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, which gets burned off as organic matter decomposes. Sources of nutrients for organic vegetable gardens include manure, bone and blood meal, fish and feather meal, alfalfa hay, cottonseed meal and seaweeds. There are now organic bagged fertilizers on the market. While they are easy to use, they don't add as much organic matter to the soil as natural sources often do.

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

Manure mixed with bedding, such as wood shavings, is good organic matter for the soil and contains some nutrients, but the bedding has a tendency to rob nitrogen from plants.Only use this material in the fall or very early spring, when plants are actively growing.

Avoid adding manure to gardens in the last few weeks before harvesting crops to prevent foodborne illnesses. Never add human, dog or cat manure to the garden as it can 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, squirrels and coyotes. It's best to use these fertilizers only in fenced areas, as a single raccoon can devastate a garden overnight. Fresh manure can have an overpowering smell, so it's best to use it only during cooler times of the year when windows are closed.

Organic Pest and Disease Management
Organic vegetable gardening practices lean heavily on preventing rather than curing problems. Plant varieties of vegetables that are disease resistant. Space your plants so that there is good air flow 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 water early in the morning so that they will be dry by nightfall. Don't harvest or work with your plants when they are wet. These steps 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. Beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, can also be bought and used to control garden pests.

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. This prevents certain diseases from taking hold in the soil.

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