By Nan Sterman
Organic gardening has come a long way! Every backyard organic gardener soon learns to avoid using chemicals and accept the imperfections of nature. Still, how wonderful to have the option of organic garden products made specifically for us. Here are some of my favorites.
Vegetables grow best in soils rich with organic matter. In our region, however, most gardens have very lean soils. I prefer to grow veggies in raised beds, which are a bit like giant containers. Fill them with organic planting mix, amend with organic compost, irrigate as much as needed, and mulch with straw to help keep beds evenly moist.
In our arid climate ornamental plants do best when planted directly into unamended soils. If your soil is heavy clay, however, it can be challenging to establish plants without amending. In that case mix organic amendments into the entire bed rather than just the planting holes. Your plants will thank you.
A sea gulf divides organic and nonorganic fertilizers. All fertilizers are formulated to supply plants with nutrients, primarily nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The N:P:K ratio you see on fertilizer labels (e.g., 5-10-10) represents those three nutrients.
Organic fertilizers typically derive from plants, animals, or minerals. Nonorganic (“synthetic”) fertilizers exist through chemical processes. Open a package of each, and you immediately see the difference. Generally synthetic fertilizers are pellets, salts, or tiny spheres, and often blue, green, or purple. Organic fertilizers look like . . . earth.
On the store shelves you find organic fertilizers such as blood meal (high in nitrogen), bone meal (high in phosphorus), chicken manure (high in nitrogen), kelp meal (high in potassium and micronutrients), and others. Mix these to create the perfect blend of nutrients for your garden.
If concocting organic fertilizer sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. You can find plenty of premixed organic fertilizers. They are easy to use and extremely effective.
As you dig amendments into your vegetable garden, dig in organic vegetable fertilizer too. Expect to side-dress the plants with fertilizer several times through the growing season. Always follow the package directions.
If you prefer liquid fertilizer, look for organic fish emulsion. This byproduct of the fish oil and fish meal industries is high in nitrogen and micronutrients. Mix the thick, brown liquid with water to use as a soil drench or foliar spray.
As your plants grow and thrive, you no doubt deal with insects and other critters. Part of organic gardening is welcoming the beneficials and predators that help keep the bad guys in check. For example, possums eat snails, but they don’t always eat enough of them. And they don’t eat slugs.
Those creatures prefer dark, moist areas. Turn off your garden hose and let the soil dry; the critters crawl off to moister pastures. For those that stick around, hiding in hard-to-reach areas, try one of the iron phosphate-based baits that are safe around pets and wildlife. (Although dogs can get upset stomachs from eating too much.) Sprinkle iron phosphate pellets around areas where you see evidence of snails. Remember, a little goes a long way!
One of the best parts of organic gardening is making compost. In our garden we have a worm bin for kitchen scraps. Leaves and small branches go into a big pile to cold compost. Cold composting, however, can take a year or longer. We encourage the process with a compost booster, essentially a mix of beneficial microbes that digest organic matter. We sprinkle the booster onto the compost, then wet the entire pile to activate the microbes.
With all organic products, look for an organic certification. The nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is the most widely recognized certifier. OMRI also publishes lists of products that meet USDA organic standards. If it is OMRI certified, you know it’s organic.