garden maintenance

How to start an organic garden for beginners?

 

Whatever we do to help Mother Nature, we are helping the whole human race to move forward another step.

Editor Gardening-resources.com

How to start an organic garden for beginners especially if you have no or very little experience in gardening. And how you can do all these with absolute minimal cost. You’re right that’s the whole purpose of this comprehensive guide. I will hold your hands and walk you through everything step by step, so hang on tight.

Introduction

When Montague Russell Page said “Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart” he was probably thinking about organic gardening! Because it is only in organic gardening that the results are attained not by cold scientific methods but by warm natural means. Organic gardening is not the mere exclusion of chemicals in the garden but a holistic approach that involves improving soil health, providing the right amount of sun and water, and letting nature run its course with a little attentive care from you.

And, how to provide that right amount of care will be the focus of this article. Care giving will require both labor and information. The article will aim at providing information on Organic Gardening for Beginners only.

This article will try to answer the question, How to start an organic garden for beginners in a comprehensive and easy way. Whether you are entirely new to gardening or just new to the word “organic”, whether you have inherited a garden space or want to grow some herbs on your window sill, we will try and cover each and every aspect of growing things organically.

While gardening, just follow the most important principle of taking one step at a time. Remember “There are no mistakes in gardening but only experiments”. So go ahead and experiment and learn new things. You will soon see your efforts bearing fruits (literally!).

So, let us first start by gaining an understanding of organic gardening and how it is different from the inorganic or conventional one.

What is organic gardening?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, products will be labeled as organic if they have been produced without excluded methods and using allowed substances. Examples of excluded methods are genetic engineering, sewage sludge and ionizing radiation. The department has issued a list of allowed and prohibited substance for organic labeling. The list basically has some synthetic and non-synthetic substances. A similar list has also been issued by the Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations authority.

Hence, simply stating Organic farming or gardening will include the following:

  • Organic produce will have to follow production methods that are environmentally safe. The methods should not cause any harm to the soil, water source or humans and animals.
  • The land used for farming should not have any prohibited substances in it.
  • The methods used should minimize soil erosion and improve soil quality.
  • The materials used for organic farming or gardening should not contain genetically engineered seeds, insecticides or growth hormones.
  • Soil improvement methods like crop rotation and composting should be used.
  • Weeding and pest management should include natural ways like sanitation, mechanical removal, crop rotation and so on.

There is an extremely educative organic gardening for beginners’ video on extension site which talks about ABC’s of organic certification. Even if you are not planning to cultivate on a large scale or go for an organic certification you must have a look at it in order to understand what all organic farming includes or rather does not include.

The benefits of Organic Gardening

More and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of using organically produced products. USA has seen a growth rate of nearly 16% in its organic sector over the last 22 years. Today, there are more than 17,000 organic businesses in the country with the sales figure crossing the $35 billion mark. Similarly, Canada has over 5,400 certified organic businesses with the sales figure reaching $5.4 billion.

So, why is there a sudden spurt in the sales of organic products? Why people are turning to organic products from inorganic ones? Let us explore.

Following are some of the reasons for the positive growth in the organic sector in North America:

  • Chemicals in fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides find a way into our food chain. By consuming such products long term health problems can occur. Realizing this fact, people now want products that are free from harmful chemicals.
  • The taste of organically produced products is stated to be much better than inorganic products.
  • Growing concerns over environment safety has given a rise to organic farming.
  • Organic farmers find this method of farming more profitable as it is not energy intensive.

How and Why Organic Gardening was started?

In the early 19th century there was a pressure on farmers to increase the crop yield to sustain the demands of the growing population. Farmers started using modern methods and techniques to achieve this. They started using pesticides and insecticides to avoid crop devastation and loss. Genetically modified seeds and growth hormones were used to increase the production capacity of the farm. Though these practices increased the crop production, they had some serious side effects.

Chemicals started entering the food resulting in various health issues. Heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers resulted in soil erosion and water pollution.

By this time, J.I. Rodale started promoting organic farming. J.I Rodale was the founder of Organic Gardening Magazine which publishes many articles on organic gardening for beginners. He came up with the famous slogan of healthy soil equals healthy food which results in healthy people.

With increasing awareness, people started turning towards organic food. The only downside of organic food is that it is quite expensive. Organic farming is labor intensive and the supply of organic products is less than its demand. All this has led to the increase in the prices of organic produce.

People are looking out for ways to eat organically while still on a budget. One of the ways is to start your own small organic garden or farm and eat safe food without loosening your purse strings.

You will find vast amount of information on the net on how to start an organic garden for beginners. You can always start by planting in small pots or in a small area. Once you become used to the organic farming practices you can increase your area and production capacity.

Organic gardening for beginners starts with gaining knowledge about preparing the garden bed, seeding, compositing, weeding and harvesting.

Let us first start by finding the right place in your home to prepare the garden bed.

Starting an Organic garden in your backyard or terrace

If you have sufficient ground space in your home, then you can start gardening there. In case, you are unable to use the ground space due to any reason (for example you live on rent and the landlord does not permit the use of ground space), then you can always start your organic gardening in containers.

Container/pot organic gardening for beginners

You can either buy some pots for your gardening or use some old buckets that you have at home. Big pots are generally recommended as they are easier to maintain, will hold more soil and moisture. All this helps to produce a better yield.

5 gallon containers or containers bigger than 18” are better for bigger plants like tomatoes. You can use small size containers (half gallon) for growing herbs.

The container should have a drainage hole. The hole is important to prevent your plants from getting soggy due to excess water. Store bought containers will come with a drainage hole and in case you are using a home-made container then you will need to drill a hole in the bottom yourself.

If you are using a plastic container then remember to use a food grade plastic container. Since you are gardening organically, hence it is important that the container chemicals do not enter the soil.

In case you travel a lot, then you can choose the self-watering container available in stores. This way you will not have to worry about your plants drying out in your absence.

Earth box gardening

Earth boxes are rectangular shaped boxes that are an ideal option for vegetable gardening. They come with a watering reservoir and other kits. They are durable and do not require much attention.

Backyard/front yard gardening  

If you have a proper gardening space which you can use then start your organic gardening in a small area there. For beginners a 100 sq. ft. area will be the right size for setting up your garden.

Starting small is important as you will be able to take care of the garden in a much better way. You can create raised beds that will provide better drainage, prevent soil compaction, prevent pathway weeds getting into your soil and create a barrier for pests.

You can build raised beds on a sunny spot in your garden. Use wooden planks to build the sides and fill the bed with soil.

Soil compaction means that the soil cannot absorb water. It leads to poor aeration and insufficient circulation of nutrients. One of the ways in which soil compaction occurs is by stepping or walking on the soil. By creating raised beds soil stepping is prevented leading to reduced soil compaction.

How to start an organic garden for beginners – Step 1

Equipment and materials needed

Equipment needed

The foremost tools that you will need for starting gardening are a paper and a pen. You will need to make small plans, list down tools and materials, seed names and so forth.

Other essential equipment necessary for gardening are listed here:

  • Gloves: You will need a pair of light weight gloves to protect your hands from dirt and thorns.
  • Hand Trowel: You will need a hand trowel for digging, weeding and planting seeds.
  • Rake: Rake will come in handy to clear the garden space off leaves or to level out the ground.
  • Spade: Spade will help you dig holes and also to carry and move dirt from one place to another.
  • Pruners: You will need pruners for cutting.
  • Loppers: Things that cannot be cut using pruners will require loppers. They are ideal for cutting thick branches.
  • Hoe: A long handle hoe is ideal when you have to clear a large space.
  • Hose: Buy a hose that is sufficiently long, lightweight and has an adjustable nozzle. Buy a watering can for your container garden.
  • Wheelbarrow: You will need one to carry soil and compost to your garden area.
  • Hori Hori Knife: It is a multipurpose knife that you can take to the garden for light maintenance work.
  • Shears: You will need them for cutting grass and hedges.
  • Compost bin: You will need it if you intend to create your own compost instead of buying it.
  • Soil test kit: If you want to test the soil yourself instead of sending it to a lab.

Material needed

Container gardening limits the choice of plants you can grow. The reasons are insufficient space and soil temperature differences. Since the container is above ground, the temperature of the container and its soil will be the same as its surrounding temperature. This might lead to the day temperature of the soil to be too high and the night temperature to be too low as compared to the day and night temperature of the ground soil. Hence, it becomes imperative that you grow only those plants whose roots can survive such temperature differences.

Mother earth news lists the following crops that are ideal for container gardening:

  1. Artichoke
  2. Arugula
  3. Bok choy
  4. Celery
  5. Chard
  6. Cucumber
  7. Eggplant
  8. Garlic
  9. Lettuce
  10. Onion
  11. Pepper
  12. Snap bean
  13. Pea
  14. Tomato
  15. Most herbs

On the other hand, garden beds are not limited in their choice of plants due to space or temperature restrictions. Rather they are limited by their content. The garden soil might have undesirable chemicals mixed in it or it might be acidic or alkaline in nature. According to consumer reports you should get your soil tested every three years by your local cooperative extension in order to know the contents of your soil.

Some labs in Canada where you can send your soil sample for testing are:

The soil report generally also contains recommendations to improve soil fertility.

Depending upon the makeup of your soil you can decide to grow plants that will have a better chance of survival and growth.

As first timers, try to choose plant and vegetables that are relatively easy to grow. Some easy to grow plants are peppers, cucumbers, snap beans, carrots, radishes, lettuce and tomatoes.

In order to know more about such plants, check the following two online resources that provide a comprehensive list of plant and vegetables, their pH values and favorable soil type.

  • Thomas Morgan the online retailer of gardening products lists plants suitable for clay, silt and sandy soils.
  • Harvest to Table lists vegetable crops and their soil pH tolerances.

Once you have decided upon the plants you want to grow, you will need to buy their seeds or seedlings.

Seeds are sometimes a little difficult to grow for beginners. They require lots of sunlight and the right amount of water. Too little water will dry them out and too much will drown them. But you can always try to grow them in small pots first. Transfer them in big containers when they sprout. Seeds are also a more economical option than seedlings.

After seeds you will have to decide what to add to your soil to make it more fertile. For container gardening it is always better to get premixed soil. So add organic potting soil mix to your list of things to buy. An organic soil mix should contain more organic components like compost, manure, bone meal, blood meal and so on.

According to an article in University of Illinois extension, do not use your garden soil for your containers as they will hamper aeration and drainage. The garden soil might also contain weeds or old seeds which you will not want to mix with your new plants.

If you are using your garden beds instead of containers then you will need to buy compost to add to the soil.

By this time your list should contain the following:

  1. Name of seeds/seedlings you want to grow
  2. Compost
  3. Potting Mix (for container gardening)

How to start an organic garden for beginners – Step 2

Preparing the soil bed and planting seeds

Let us first start with containers since they are quick and easy to set up. Here are the steps:

  1. You will just need to fill the container with the potting mix leaving a little space on the top (about 2 inches).
  2. In case you are planting seedlings, then you will have to transplant them. To do so you will need to make a hole in the center of the pot to accommodate the seedling.
  3. Take the seedling carefully out from its pot and gently open the circling roots from the bottom.
  4. Plant the seedling in the hole. Make sure the surface of the potting soil and top of the roots are at the same level.
  5. In case you are planting the seed directly, then check for the instructions on the seed packet.
  6. Some seeds can be just sprinkled on the top whereas some require burying.
  7. Water the plant sufficiently. For planted seeds, make sure that your pot gets enough sunlight till the seeds sprout.

If you are gardening in your backyard, then follow the given steps:

  1. Loosen the garden soil by raking. Remove weeds, big clumps or stones. Mix compost with soil and watch the bed for a couple of weeks for any sign of weeds.
  2. Once you have removed all weeds, water your garden and add a protective mulch layer (decaying leaves).

Watering will soften the soil. Also, watering before planting seeds prevents any chance of the seed from being washed away.

Mulch will help retain the fertility of the soil. Mulching also helps to reduce weed growth.

  1. Make shallow holes to plant the seeds. You can organize your garden in rows or in grid squares.
  2. Next, spread the seeds in the holes. Read the seed packet for instructions on gap requirements.
  3. Cover the seeds with soil. Cover those seeds sparingly that require lots of sunlight to germinate.
  4. Sprinkle water whenever the surface is dry.
  5. In case you are transplanting seedlings then dig a hole deep enough for the seedling. Take the seedling out of its pack and tease open the roots gently. Put the seedling in the hole and ensure that the top of the roots are at the same level as the ground. Sprinkle water.

Watering and sun exposure

Watering the plants

Water is an important ingredient for plants to thrive. But remember that too much watering can lead to rotting of the roots. Plants also need oxygen to survive and too much water cuts the oxygen supply of plants. Hence, watering the right amount is essential for the growth and survival of the plants.

Though the water quantity will depend upon the specific plant requirements, soil type and weather conditions, a general rule of thumb is to provide an inch of water per week. According to an article on Texas A&M Agrilife extension, water should be enough to penetrate the soil and reach the roots of the plant. Hence, provide enough water so that soil becomes wet till about 5-6 inches under the ground. To achieve this, your plants will require watering an inch per week by rainfall or other means.

Sandy soil has poor water retention and hence will require more frequent watering. Raised beds also require more water because of their good drainage system.

Here are some points to remember while watering your garden:

  1. During the germination of the seeds water frequently as the water needs of the plant are more during this time.
  2. Instead of daily sprinkling, water thoroughly once a week. Light sprinkling will only wet the surface of the soil and will not reach the roots.
  3. Let the soil dry before watering again. This way the plants are able to extract maximum water from the soil.
  4. Water at the roots rather than on leaves. This will expedite soaking.
  5. Water the plants during the morning. This is in accordance with their natural growth cycle. By watering early in the day the plants become well hydrated and hence are better prepared to face the heat of the sun. If you water in the afternoon during hot weather you might damage the plant. The sun heated water might burn the plant.

Another reason not to water during the day time is to avoid water loss due to evaporation. Since it takes time for the soil to soak water, most the water gets evaporated before soaking if you water the plant during the day.

  1. Lookout for any signs of water stress in plants like brown edges of the leaves, smaller sized leaves or droopy plants. It will mean that your plants require more watering.
  2. Water requirements can also be gauged by inserting a finger a few inches in the soil. If the soil is dry, then it will mean that watering is required.
  3. You can also help the soil retain more moisture by covering the soil with a layer of mulch.

Sun Exposure

According to PennState Extension, plants need 6 hours or more of sunlight to grow. During germination, plants need more direct sunlight. The amount of sunlight will also depend upon the plant type. Fruit plants like tomatoes and peppers require more sunlight, nearly 8 hours of sunlight. Root plants like carrots and beans require less sunlight. Leafy plant like spinach can do with minimum of four hours of sunlight.

You can observe how much sun your garden is getting and decide upon the type of seeds you want to plant.

How to start an organic garden for beginners – Step 3

Composting, weeding and harvesting

Composting

According to the National Organic Rule, compost is defined as “the product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into forms suitable for the soil.” The process of Composting breaks raw organic matter into humus like substance.

You can use compost as a mulch, natural fertilizer, soil changer and seed starter. Hence, compost is an important part of organic farming.

Soil nutrition depletes overtime with gardening and farming. Compost gives back to the soil the nutrients it needs. Add compost to the soil from time to time to maintain the nutrition level of the soil.

Apart from feeding the soil and plant, compost also helps to save water and control weeds. Since compost has higher water absorbing power you will require less watering frequency if you add compost to your soil regularly. Also, if composting is done correctly then it will kill most of the weed seeds present in grass clippings and raked leaves.

You can either buy organic compost from the market or you can prepare your own compost at home. Given below are the steps for making compost at home:

  1. Select a place to keep your composting pile or bin. Though composting can be done through a pile, it is much cleaner to do it in a bin.
  2. Construct a composting bin at the site. You can also buy ready-made composting bins from the market.
  3. Add material to your composting bin, like brown waste (dead plant and leaves, dried flowers and hay) and green waste (grass cuttings, chicken or pigeon manure, fruit and vegetable scraps). The brown waste is high in carbon whereas the green waste is high in nitrogen.
  4. You can put layers of soil in between the brown and green waste.
  5. Turn your pile regularly using a pitch fork to help circulation of air. Turning the pile encourages growth of microorganisms necessary for composting.
  6. You can add water or more green matter if the pile looks dry. If the pile starts to smell you can add more brown matter.
  7. It generally takes 2-3 months’ time to get finished compost.

Take a look at the article on composting by UW-Madison Center for integrated agricultural systems. It explains the whole process of composting in greater detail.

Weeding

Weeds are unwanted plants that take away the vital nutrients from your vegetable and fruit plants. They might hamper the growth of beneficial plants and rob them of nutrients, water and sunlight. Hence, controlling weeds or weeding becomes essential to the survival of your garden plants.

Rodale Organic has listed an important technique to control weeds. You can use it just before planting seeds. It requires you to first pull out as many weeds as you can manually from your garden bed. Then water the soil and cover it with a plastic sheet. Use rocks to hold down the sheet. By leaving the plastic sheet for 5-6 weeks you can solarize the weeds completely. It works well during the hot season.

Other effective ways to control weeds are:

  1. Mulching: Weed seeds like any other seeds require sunlight for growing. You can control weed seed germination by covering the soil with a thick layer of mulch. Mulching has the added advantage of providing compost to your soil as it decomposes and breaks down. Mulch includes weed free hay, grass clippings, compost and dry leaves. By covering the soil with a thick layer of mulch you can even control the soil temperature. It helps keep the soil cool. Mulching also prevents soil crusting and compacting.
  2. Manual pulling: Despite the best efforts weeds can grow in your garden bed and you will have to manually pull them out. Keep an eye on your garden and pull out weeds as they appear. This prevents the weeds from growing rampantly and posing bigger problems. Since they compete for space and nutrients, too many weeds will lead to poor and weak garden plants. Either hand-pull the weeds or use a hoe to cut them.

There is an old saying about weeds- “Pull when wet, hoe when dry”. After a good rainfall you can easily pull out the weeds from the ground. The ground becomes loose and damp after the rain facilitating weed pulling. When the weather is hot you can use a hoe to cut the weeds below the soil line and in most probability the weeds will die out due to the heat. Keep mulch with you to cover the ground that you are freeing from weeds.

You can also cut the heads of the weeds that you find difficult to pull or remove. This prevents reseeding of weeds.

  1. Reduce space between plants: You can try to plant seeds so that there is not much space left between them for weeds. Follow the recommended guidelines stated on seed packets but at the same time do not scatter them in wide areas.
  2. Water your plants and not the weeds: You can use soaker hoses to prevent watering that part of the garden which is not required. Through the soaker hose water is delivered closer to the roots of the plants. It is done via low pressure watering thus preventing water runoff.
  3. Try not to awaken dormant weed seeds: Many weed seeds lie under the ground in a dormant state. By tilling the ground you might move them to upper layer of the soil where they can grow easily. Try and avoid unnecessary tilling of the ground once you have prepared your garden bed.
  4. Use organic herbicides: You can also spray herbicides as a last resort. Use organic herbicides available in the market. But remember that the herbicides are not selective and will kill good plants too along with weeds.

How to deal with insects, pests and diseases

Pests are insects that damage the plants by eating them and laying their eggs on them. They become a nuisance when in large number. They can easily destroy your months of efforts by attacking your fruits and vegetables rendering them inedible. Some common garden pests are slugs, cabbageworm, Japanese beetle, squash bugs and aphid. Planet Natural has images and information related to all the pests which will help you to get familiar with them.

In order to spot pests, you will need to inspect your garden regularly. The sooner you can spot them and get rid of them the lesser damage they can do to your garden.

Remember that pests generally do not attack healthy plants. So the first step to prevent pests from attacking your garden will be to maintain healthy plants. Make sure that your plants are not stressed due to insufficient watering. Ensure that they get enough sunlight. Enrich the soil with compost regularly to get healthy plants.

Despite everything if pests do attack your garden you can follow the given steps:

  1. Not all pests or insects are harmful. In fact some pests will help you to destroy the bad pests. For example, aphids are food for insects like hoverflies and ladybugs. You can attract such beneficial insects by planting flowers and herbs in the garden. The good insects will eat the bad ones thus freeing your garden of harmful pests.
  2. Big animals like ducks and chickens help in clearing off slugs and beetles.
  3. You can pick up some pests like caterpillars by hand as soon as you spot them. Wear thick gloves while doing so. This techniques works when there are fewer pests.
  4. You can buy row covers and cover your garden with it. It is a mesh like material that effectively protects the plants from pests like flies and beetles.
  5. If all else fails you can use some organic sprays like garlic-pepper spray or mineral oils to remove the pests.
  6. Other methods that are effective to prevent pests are crop rotation and planting variety of crops. This makes it difficult for the pests to target a single plant.
  7. You can also attract birds through bird baths as they will help you to clear off worms.

Mother Earth carried a survey on pests and the most effective method to remove them. You can have a look at it to know what works best for each individual pest.

Disease or infections can also destroy plants and give them a poor appearance. You can prevent disease by getting your soil tested and improving its quality. Crop rotation also works well to prevent spread of diseases. Keep the leaves dry and water the plant at the base only. In case you find some diseased plants get rid of them quickly and effectively.

Harvesting

Fruits, vegetables and herbs are harvested depending upon their stage of maturation. Some fruits and vegetables change their physical appearance like shape, size, and color when they are ripe enough to harvest. Harvesting increases the likelihood of more production.

Check the plants daily during the peak season and pick a little each day. Cut clean with scissors to avoid damaging the stems.

Here are some tips for harvesting certain common plants:

  1. Cut herbs often to make them produce more leaves.
  2. While picking leafy vegetables try to pick from each plant.
  3. Generally, a fully ripe tomato releases easily from the stem.
  4. Harvest peppers when they are still green but fully grown. Harvesting them later will result in change in color and flavor.
  5. Cut broccoli when the center head is fully grown.
  6. While picking peas you can always test open a pea pod to ascertain the size and tenderness of the peas.
  7. You can pick cucumbers at any stage. You can also check the seed packet to know the expected length of a fully grown cucumber.
  8. For root vegetables also you can check the seed packet for the expected time of harvesting. Like peas you can check one vegetable by pulling it from the soil.

Conclusion

Organic gardening is the natural way of gardening. It aims at conserving nature, protecting natural resources and providing a cleaner and healthier life.

Hopefully the article has answered the question, how to start an organic garden for beginners comprehensively. If you want to understand each aspect of organic gardening in more detail then you can find many organic gardening for beginners’ pdf online that will help you. If you have any further queries related to organic gardening then please let us know and we will be happy to provide the answers. Till then Happy Gardening!