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Using organic gardening techniques to improve your at-home garden

Art of Homegrown Happiness

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An example of what biologically active soil looks like. | Lance Ellis, EastIdahoNews.com

Organic food production comes up a lot when I teach gardening and horticulture classes in the community.

And there are usually three schools of thought from my students: those who believe in it and are willing to pay for it, those who don’t care about it, and those that believe it is a lot of hype to try and sell a product that is no different from other conventionally grown food. And there are a lot of misconceptions about organic food production, both in support and against this method.

So here’s some basic information to better inform you about what organic gardening is and how it’s principals can be used in home fruit and vegetable production.

  • The first principle of organic food production is to feed the soil rather than trying to just feed the plant.

    Focusing your efforts to continually improve the soil rather than just trying to grow a specific crop is a long term approach with sustainability as the overall goal. “Sustainability” in this situation means having a gardening method that is ecologically friendly, reduces the amount of external man-made inputs, and improves the quality of life of the gardener.

    A “healthy” biologically active soil is your best tool in having a successful crop. Plants that perform poorly due to unhealthy soil are also prone to disease and insects.

    Start first by having the goal of creating healthy soil by increasing the organic matter content. By doing this you automatically increase the microbial activity in the soil. Keep in mind that most of our native soils are almost all mineral content, and have less than 1 to 3 percent organic matter. In these soils, the microbial count isn’t very high, and while they do exist there, these microbes don’t have a lot to eat and thrive on.

    By providing and increasing the organic matter content, you give them something to decompose, and afterward, it makes nutrients available to our vegetables for uptake.

    Sources of organic matter include composted manure, peat moss, composted tree leaves and garden residue. Ensure you have good water drainage, as a wet stagnant garden is also a dead garden. If this is an issue for you, good drainage can be
    accomplished by adding a small amount of sand with your organic matter. Too much sand added in the place of organic matter can turn your garden soil into a concrete-like soil structure. This mixture of sand and lots of organic matter will create a good balance of drainage, nutrient holding capacity, and still be loose enough for plant roots to develop.

    Another option for increasing organic matter is putting your garden into a green manure crop for a season. A green manure crop is simply a crop of plants that you plant, grow up, and then till into the soil before it goes to seed. You can take this one step further and grow a green manure crop in the fall after your garden has pretty much finished its production. In our area, a good Fall green manure crop would be peas or beans.

  • An example of what soil with low organic content looks like. | Lance Ellis, EastIdahoNews.com
  • The next principle of organic food production is growing crops that insects naturally avoid or that are disease resistant. This preemptive step will reduce the use of chemicals to control pest issues later on in the season.
  • Use mulches to hold moisture around your plants, and reduce evaporation as well as keep weeds at bay, and reduce your workload.
  • You can also till small weeds up before you plant to help reduce their numbers. Do not over till your soil as you will develop a hardpan in your garden, and also do not till when your garden is wet as this leads to compaction.
  • To help reduce insect numbers or insect problems, try introducing beneficial insects which you can buy through local nurseries or online. An example is controlling aphids with ladybugs.

    Lance Ellis, EastIdahoNews.com
  • If you want to keep beneficial bugs in your garden, and are trying to grow as organically as possible, then it would behoove you not to use insecticides as much as possible, and if needed try to use an organic insecticide first before using a non-organic product.

    Most insecticides kill both undesirable insects and beneficial bugs in the area, although there are a few products that have a more selective formulation. For example, if you overuse insecticides early in the season, then later that summer populations of bad bugs can multiply, and without the natural predators around in sufficient numbers to keep them in check, they can devastate your garden. This can lead to having to apply insecticides again and increases your workload, so protect and use your beneficial insects to your advantage.

    On the other hand certain insects may not have natural predators that keep them under control and may require control via a mechanical or non-organic chemical control method. It is a balancing act, but learning about specific bugs in your garden and their life cycles will help you to maintain a healthier and more successful garden.

  • Scout often in your garden for problem bugs, and create an environment that invites predatory bugs to come and live in your garden. Certain plants attract these beneficial insects, and interplanting them in your garden helps to balance insect populations.
  • Rotate crops every year in your garden to prevent a buildup of soil born diseases, and practice good sanitation in the garden area. Good sanitation means removing infected or diseased plants from the site and composting any residues rather than just leaving them lying around and being an incubus for future insects or diseases.

For further garden questions please contact Lance at the Fremont County Extension Office at 624-3102.

Lance Ellis, EastIdahoNews.com
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