By Marty Ross
It’s easy to be an organic gardener in the Midwest. Organic gardening techniques take full advantage of our abundant natural resources, and make the most of our challenging climate. Working with nature in your garden is so much easier than trying to control it.
Midwestern soil is rich in minerals. But no matter what kind of soil you have, you always can improve it. Adding organic material is the secret to really great soil.
When autumn leaves fall, don’t bag them up and put them out on the curb: Put your lawn mower’s bagger to work. Snap on the bag, mow over leaves, and use them as mulch in flowerbeds, or toss them onto the compost heap. Autumn leaves decompose into loamy leaf mold that adds nutrients to the soil, encourages healthy bacteria and microbes, and helps keep weeds in check.
In the fall add crushed leaves and grass clippings -- you can fill the bin with this rich combination as you mow the last few times. By the time you’re ready to plant tomatoes next spring, you'll have rich, dark compost to add to the soil in the vegetable garden. Don’t worry about turning the compost pile; our long Midwestern winter breaks down the organic materials in the heap.
Even in a small garden you can always find a place for a compost pile. You only need a spot about 3 feet on a side. Enclose it with wire or buy a ready-made compost bin. Then start tossing onion skins, banana peels, and other kitchen scraps into the heap instead of into the landfill. Corn cobs help with aeration, but they will take longer to break down. Leave out meat, bones, cheese, sauce, or fat, which attract flies and sometimes animals, too.
There certainly are good bugs and bad bugs in your garden, but a diversity of plants encourages birds and predatory insects to help control the pests. Native plants are great for organic gardeners. They support healthy insect populations, which in turn support the birds.
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) has sparkling purple berries in the fall and is a low-maintenance shrub hardy as far north as Zone 5. Chokeberry (Aronia malanocarpa), hardy in even colder regions of the Midwest, has fiery fall foliage and black berries. Both great native shrubs attract birds to your garden through the winter.
Plants that attract butterflies also attract birds. So include goldenrod (Solidago), asters, spicebush (Lindera benzoin), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and other great butterfly plants in your organic garden.
Learn to recognize pests in your vegetable garden, so you can pick them off before they become problems. Diligence is necessary: Caterpillars on broccoli, kale, and other leafy greens proliferate at an alarming rate. They can ruin a crop if you don’t catch them early.
If you must use a pesticide, I recommend Bt. This targeted, organic pesticide kills the caterpillars (follow label directions to the letter) and does not harm beneficial insects or birds. Always use pesticides with caution and restraint.
Strategic use of spun-fabric row covers also helps protect crops from pests. Until squash plants start to flower, place row covers over them in summer to protect them from squash bugs. When you remove the row cover, look for clusters of red eggs on the underside of leaves, and squash them with your fingers. Row covers also serve as frost-protection blankets in spring and fall. You can pick mustard, kale, and other cold-tolerant crops long past frost if you grow them under a lightweight row cover.
The best organic practice of all is to spend time in your garden every day. Pull weeds by hand, water new plants while they become established, and harvest vegetables just as they ripen. Healthy plants tolerate stress better than plants that struggle. Keeping your garden healthy is the best strategy -- and if you’re out there, you won’t miss a moment of the beauty around you.
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