Maybe you've been wondering whether it's time for the switch to an organic garden. Will your plants be stunted? Will production go down? Will it be more work? What do you do?
Heave a big sigh of relief. Everything you need to make a smooth transition from using chemical fertilizers is available. But the best news of all is that you can expect excellent quality from home-grown organic food.
• Organic plants are less susceptible to insect pests than chemically treated ones. The easy access to high-nitrogen fertilizers allows plants to grow quickly, but they also become soft and succulent, says Ajit Singh, manager of Phoenix Organics in Phoenix. Bugs love them for an easy, juicy meal.
• It is more difficult to control pests in the garden when you use only organic methods, so to some degree you have to learn to live with them. (See our article in this issue about attracting beneficial insects to control pests.)
• Get a good book on composting and start your own pile. Add grass and leaf clippings, potato peels, coffee grounds and "anything that was once alive" (including this newspaper), says Pam Rouhier, nursery sales associate at Medford's Grange Co-op. "Everything but meat and bones." These will attract rats and smell awful. "It won't be nice."
The difference comes down to how you treat the soil.
"People treat soil like it's a dead thing, when they should be treating it like the living body it is," says Ajit Singh, agronomist and manager of Phoenix Organics in Phoenix.
Chemical fertilizers provide the plant with all the nutrients necessary for growth, says Singh. Organic methods provide nutrients, too, but they also feed the microbial life in the soil that make nutrients available for plants.
"Soil which has been treated chemically has a much lower microbial population, and you need the biological activity to feed the plants," says Singh.
To get there, Pam Rouhier, nursery sales associate at the Medford Grange Co-op, recommends adding "as much organic compost as you can afford."
Dig in one part compost to two parts soil. If you have black, sticky clay, you can add more. Bales of compost are generally available in 2- and 3-cubic-foot sizes. Rouhier recommends adding mycorrhizal fungi, a critical link between soil life, nutrients and plants. It can be added separately or in a fertilizer or compost brand that contains spores.
"You usually only have to plant them once," she says. As a living organism, they will continue to reproduce in healthy conditions; however they can be destroyed by chemicals or hot (high-nitrogen) fertilizers.
These actions will improve soil tilth, a word that incorporates the content, texture and structure of the soil. Chemically treated soil has poorer tilth because soil life is missing. Another amendment, manure, improves tilth by attracting worms "which will work the soil, adding air spaces, worm castings and drawing organic matter into the soil," says Rouhier.
Compost provides a source of energy and food for biological agents, says Singh. You might not notice an improvement the first year because it can take more than a year for the fungi, bacteria and other soil organisms to build up populations, he says.
Don't be concerned about the lower nitrogen-phosphorus-potash (N-P-K) content of organic fertilizers, or compensate by adding more than directed.
"Organic fertilizer enhances the soil activity, so that even with lower numbers (NPK content) there will be so much more available to the plants," Singh says.
Make sure to test soil pH, says Rouhier, because the wrong pH means plants will not be able to access the nutrients. Chemically treated soil can be acidic, and an application of lime is called for if the pH is below 5.5. The best time to do this is in the fall because the chemical change takes time, but there's no time like the present if you are just beginning the change this year.
The soil pH should be between 5.5 and 7.0 for most garden plants, and you don't want to overdo it, warns Rouhier. "Follow the directions on the package," she says.
The payoff is that "in the long run, you can make your garden better than it ever was," says Rouhier.
"Ultimately the real taste and flavors of the plant will come through," Singh says. "You can tell the difference. If you want the quality of the produce, then go organic."
"The plant will be happy. Mother Earth will be happy," he says. "There's no end to the happiness."