How to Garden Organically

How to Garden Organically

It became obvious to me when I started gardening about 40 years ago, that plants that were growing vigorously had few problems with bugs and disease. And the key to this vigorous growth was always in the soil. Once I got the soil to a point where it had a good balance of humus, earthworms, and micro-organisms, plants grown in it were rarely attacked and if they were they had a good chance of winning.

But there is always the occasional situation, as every gardener knows, where extreme weather and perhaps a too-mild winter come together to produce unusual attacks of insects or disease. I always give plants and insect predators; spiders, shrews, birds, bats, frogs, toads, lizards, dragonflies, and the many other insect-eating insects, a good chance to deal with the problem on their own before I step in. One year an old-fashioned floribunda rose came into heavy bud and I noticed that it was covered with aphids.

I hosed them off and the next day of course they were back. I hosed them off every day for a few days and then wasn’t able to get back to the plant for several days. Then one morning I noticed the roses were now in bloom and went to see what damage the aphids had done. They were all gone! And the roses were perfect! I did however see ladybugs in the area, so perhaps they had taken care of the problem for me.

If the problem is a leaf-eating caterpillar I will carefully handpick the guilty parties and dispose of them – if the birds don’t get to them first. If your veggies are inundated by cabbage moths there is a powdered bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that affects only the caterpillars. You can mix a batch of this in water and spray your cabbage or broccoli plants well. Within a few days, the caterpillars will be gone.

In some situations, floating-row-cover cloth has come to the rescue of crops I was determined to grow in spite of repeated insect attacks. Starting seedlings under this light gauzy material allows the plants to grow without insects having access to them. It works well against tiny insects like flea beetles on beets.

Giving the plants a shot in the arm with a dose of fish emulsion fertilizer sometimes helps plants withstand the attack and survive past the life cycle of the insect. And of course, if worse comes to worst, I mix up soapy water with a little vegetable oil (canola is good) as a spray. But this kills ALL the bugs so I rarely do this unless the infestation is ongoing and damaging the plant seriously. I have learned to put up with a few munched leaves and the odd blemish in fruit and veggies.

One of the primary things I learned over the years was not to insist on growing plants that could only survive with extraordinary care. Sometimes it’s hard to give up a favorite flower or vegetable in a new home. I will often try for 2 or 3 years with different varieties to see if that works. But if the plants are always struggling and bug or disease riddled I have learned to let go–knowing that there will be some other wonderful plant to take its place.

Over the years I have become more and more interested in native plants. It is obvious that there are many advantages to using as many natives as possible in a landscape. Once established they need no supplementary water or care of any kind. They are adapted to the weather, soil, insects, and diseases of an area. So the savings in time and money is considerable! I found in each part of the country we have lived in, there are beautiful native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. It sometimes takes extra effort to locate sources of these plants but the time is always worth it.

Florida has one of the loveliest and richest selections of natives to choose from of any state in the Union. And these plants don’t demand that I continually fertilize and amend this sandy soil to keep them growing. I will always enjoy growing a few exotics but I have found with the care you can find many that originate in similar climates and soils and so act much like a native. But care should be exercised here. Many imports that are well adapted to our native climate have become nightmares….like the kudzu vine. Ask a knowledgeable local nurseryman about a plant you are interested in (not someone in the local chain store garden department).

One of my all-time favorite fertilizers is pure Alaska Fish Emulsion. Liquid Kelp or other seaweed fertilizers are great too. They can be used on anything. I grow lovely African violets using just fish fertilizer. It can be put in a hose-end spray bottle and sprayed on lawn and shrubs in place of chemical fertilizers (your yard will have a fishy/ocean smell for a few hours).

A gallon of it can last two or three years depending on how much you fertilize with it. Be careful of substitutes, though. They often have a small amount of fish emulsion and have added urea as a synthetic form of nitrogen. What’s wrong with urea, you ask? Well, it is either manufactured from ammonia and coal or natural gas or from urea and formaldehyde, which is dangerous to bacterial life in the soil.

Ammonia is also a by-product of the oil industry, and is extremely caustic and dangerous to those manufacturing and shipping it and it can also be harmful to plants if not used carefully. Why use something that kills the microorganisms and earthworms in your soil and is dangerous and toxic to create and ship and use when you can use something that is a natural by-product of the fishing industry.

Other good fertilizers are bone meal, blood meal, manure, seaweed, alfalfa pellets, rock phosphate, granite meal, and greensand. Homemade compost is probably the best material you can use on your garden. It adds humus, nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms and keeps useful materials out of landfills.

 The Gourd Garden in Seagrove carries a fairly good supply of organic fertilizers and natural pesticides if you choose not to make your own as needed. Alaska Fish Emulsion is available in most garden departments.

 I guess one of the keys to organic gardening is to work “with” Nature instead of battling her. Once I became committed to doing “no harm” with my gardening practices – by NOT using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides – it was easy.

A garden grown with lots of compost and love is as abundant and beautiful as any garden. It will look no different than a non-organic garden. But you have the peace of mind in knowing that the birds, bees, and earthworms as well as the children and pets that visit your garden are in a safe and healthy place – one that will do them no harm.