Thursday March 10, 2016
There’s a warmth in the air that’s starting to feel like spring, which means it’s time to start dreaming of seeds, starters, and soil! Whether you’ve gardened before but you want to incorporate some organic techniques into your garden, or if you’re a new gardener who wants to start off right, these tips will help you dream big and follow through!
My wife and I moved to Kauai in 1982, from our organic farm in California. We’ve been organic farmers for over 40 years, and we’ve tried lots of different techniques for keeping our soil, plants, and the land as a whole healthy and productive. We’re happy to share what we’ve learned with you!
Plan Your Beds
Whether you’re digging up your whole backyard to create an epic garden or just starting out with a few pots on your back porch, planning is crucial. You’ll need to consider:
- What kinds of plants you’d like to grow (vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, groundcover, etc.) and how well those plants can grow in your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone — also consider organic & heirloom seeds over conventional
- Total yield you want for each plant (this website can help you roughly estimate)
- Timing for starting plants so they can grow in their preferred conditions (will depend on your Zone)
- Whether you’d like to start from seeds or buy starter plants that already have a bit more of a foothold
- Ability to diversify & interplant (plant multiple crops per bed without overcrowding — learn more here)
- Planting in succession (planting another crop over the same place as another that is done for the season)
- Ability and desire to extend your growing season by growing indoors, protecting plants with a greenhouse or other kind of cover, etc.
This is a great time to browse seed catalogues (online and print), stop by a local nursery to get an expert’s insight, or talk to friends who garden to see if you can share seeds or starters!
You can’t necessarily depend on the soil you get from a nursery or the soil in your backyard being rich enough to support the nutritious, beautiful, hardy plants you’ve been dreaming of. Poorly fertilized plants may grow fewer, smaller fruits, they may be more prone to disease and pests, and they may actually end up being less nutritious!
Luckily, taking your soil fertility into your own hands using all-organic methods is much easier than you might think, and it’s also really fun!
Level 1: Organic Mulching
The easiest way to enrich soil fertility is to imitate the natural process of leaves, wood, and other plant matter building up on the ground, where it covers the soil and essentially composts in place. This process is called mulching, and you can start today by sprinkling some yard waste around the bases of your plants. It will balance out your soil temperature, provide habitat for beneficial microbes & animals, keep in moisture, and, of course, return nutrients to the earth.
Level 2: Organic Compost
It’s time to stop being intimidated by organic composting! Start by building or buying a bin and adding food scraps, yard waste, newsprint, woodchips, and so on. Then let the bacteria do what they do best — break it down!
There are tons of resources online to help you with the specific logistics of what you should add to your compost, how much to add, how often to turn your compost, and how long to let it cook. On our farm, we’ve found it’s best to turn and water our compost every other day so those bacteria have lots of air and water to do their work.
Level 3: Vermicomposting
Ready for the next level of soil fertility? Time to bring in some living things: worms! Don’t worry though — worms are super low-maintenance. They really only need darkness, dampness, and readily-available dinner in order to be happy.
We love using worms because they’re a natural part of the cycle of decomposition in nature, and organic agriculture is all about finding ways to imitate nature to achieve the results we want. You can read more about that philosophy in this blog post.
Believe it or not, you can buy everything you need to get started online — even worms! But it’s often a better idea to look for local worms at a farmers market — they tend to be better suited to the unique challenges of your area.
Level 4: No Till
Many conventional farmers prepare their beds each season by tilling them, which means digging up the soil and turning it over so it’s easier to work with.
Unfortunately, this can do major damage to your soil in the long run:
- Dries out the soil & releases stored carbon and oxygen
- Gives buried weed seeds a chance to germinate
- Damages microorganisms, worms, & other living things in the soil
We practice a no-till system on our farm. This sometimes means more work, but tilling the soil is a shortcut that farmers use to cope with dry, hard, infertile soil. If your soil has been well cared for, you shouldn’t ever need to till it.
In order to preserve water and avoid watering weeds, you might want to consider delivering water directly to your plants by installing a drip system to water them.
These are much more efficient than sprinklers, which allow a lot of water to simply evaporate or be wasted on weeds. Another way to save water is to try mulching, as explained above. Mulching prevents water from evaporating off the soil, which can often reduce the amount you need to water.
Finally, you’ll need to consider how you’ll protect your plants against pests, including weeds, microbes, mammals, and birds that want to either smother, damage, or eat your crops! Many organic farmers use an approach called Integrated Pest Management to prevent and suppress pets rather than eradicate them, using more natural methods.
We consider this to be much more in line with how nature deals with pests: using competition, deterrents, predators, and other techniques to keep populations in balance. Fully explaining the scope of Integrated Pest Management is beyond this post, but you can look for more information coming up in April, when we cover our organic farming practices in some more detail! You can find lots of information online in the meantime!
We hope these techniques have been helpful to you, and we wish you the best of luck in growing your own organic garden!
Let us know about your plans for organic gardening this season! Share your ideas in the comments.