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What does it mean to be an organic gardener?

“For many years, gardeners saw nature as something that had to be tamed if the garden was to perform at its best. But organic gardening depends upon working with nature — creating a balanced environment that sustains itself.”

— Monty Don, “The Complete Gardener,” 2009

For the past several weeks, I’ve been focusing on gardening and landscaping as a form of land stewardship. Reading David Attenborough’s “A Life on Our Planet” and Douglas Tallamy’s “Nature’s Best Hope” has helped me to develop a firm foundation of practices that will connect my garden and yard with the surrounding environment and contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

Now that spring is right around the corner, I want to concentrate on creating growing spaces that will support a rich diversity of plants, insects, birds and soil organisms.

I’ve been reading Monty Don’s book “The Complete Gardener” and watching his BBC program “Gardeners’ World” on Brit Box (accessible through Amazon Prime). His personal account of organic gardening at Longmeadow is the perfect complement to the two books I’ve previously written about because organic gardening is the daily actualization of land stewardship and sustainable living.

Don writes, “Organic gardening tries to create a healthy garden. Much of the ‘sickness’ of any garden is a result of forcing it to grow bigger, faster and more intensely than can be naturally sustained.” How many of these organic practices do you use in your garden?

Organic gardening eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. They are not good for our planet, nor are they good for our plants and soil in the longer term. Soil amendments are used instead, mostly in the form of composted organic material. Insect pests and diseases are reduced primarily by growing healthy, resilient plants, including plants that attract beneficial insects.

Organic gardening uses crop rotation in vegetable beds to reduce insect pests and diseases. I learned an easy way to do this is by thinking of our vegetable crops by the primary part we eat: roots (carrots, radishes, onions), leaves/stems (lettuce, cabbage, broccoli) and fruit (tomatoes, squash, legumes). Follow one kind of crop with another kind of crop in the same bed so pests don’t feel welcome to hang around.

Organic gardening avoids growing only one kind of plant in a bed. Instead, polyculture is practiced by growing several companion plants together. In a vegetable bed, companion plants are combined in blocks, interspersed within the rows or used as a border. For example, Don edges his carrot beds with chives and his tomato beds with basil. He plants fennel and allows it to reseed in the garden because it attracts hover flies and parasitic wasps that feed on insect pests.

Organic gardening avoids a lot of bare soil in the garden. Instead, cover crops of annual grasses and legumes (such as rye and peas) are sown in empty beds, or the beds are covered with mulch. Later on, the cut cover crop or the mulch is gently worked into the garden soil to add nutrients and microorganisms.

Organic gardening includes reusing garden waste. Leaves are shredded and used for mulch; clippings and other plant debris are composted. Animal manure that is generated on the property is also composted and used to replenish the soil every year. (Use cow, horse, goat, sheep, chicken or rabbit manure, but not dog, cat or human.)

Organic gardening takes a different perspective about weeds. Yes, weeds growing ferociously among our prized plants can be a big pain (in back and knees, specifically). Even Monty Don admits, “I miss using weedkiller in the same way that a vegetarian misses bacon.”

Yet, many herbicides contain glyphosates or other chemicals that kill pollinators, degrade the soil and pollute groundwater. There is simply no place for synthetic herbicides in an organic garden or in a land steward’s yard.

Conversely, healthy gardens and yards have some weeds as part of their self-sustaining biodiversity. Weed flowers provide food for pollinators and beneficial insects. Weeds can be composted and used as a soil amendment. Deep-rooted weeds are particularly good at accumulating minerals, which are recycled back into the soil as compost.

Balancing the number of weeds in our garden is similar to balancing the number of insects: the key is competition. Just as we need beneficial insects to keep a check on insect pests, we also need to cover bare earth with healthy plants we want in our garden in order to restrain the weeds. Organic gardening helps us to accomplish that balance.

I’ve discussed six horticultural practices that are an integral part of what it means to be an organic gardener. But Don reminds us that organic gardening is as much about our understanding of place as the things we do, or don’t do, in that place. Successful organic gardeners know:

Local weather patterns: the average high temperatures and low temperatures and average rainfall for the month, and wind directions during different seasons. Check the history of local weather patterns at www.wunderground.com.

USDA Hardiness Zone and local growing season: the Rogue Valley is within USDA Hardiness Zones 7a-8a (Medford is in Zone 8a). The average first frost date for Medford is Oct. 20 and average last frost date is Apr. 27, which provides a long growing season from 180-250 days. Check your hardiness zone at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/.

Site-specific microclimates: Elevation, slope, sun and wind exposure during the day and throughout the year create unique growing conditions around your property. Structures around a garden such as hedges, fences or buildings all contribute to creating a microclimate.

Soil characteristics: soil pH, percentage of clay, silt and sand, and soil drainage. Find out more about the soil on your land at https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/. A soil analysis provides more detailed information about your soil, such as macro and micronutrients and microbial activity. OSU provides information about soil sampling at https://cropandsoil.oregonstate.edu/shl.

Even without trying to tame nature, gardening is hard work. Monty Don assures us, “Gardening organically is not just a question of growing a few healthy vegetables, but a validation of the work and love that has gone into making the garden.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her videos and blogs at www.literarygardener.com.

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Garden to-do list this week

  • Continue seed sowing in containers: cabbage, Asian greens, lettuce, leeks, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes. I’m sowing them in coir pellets and soil blocks; doing an experiment to see which one works best for starting seeds.
  • Prepare garden beds by working in compost
  • Transplant daylilies; plant summer bulbs
  • Plant onions and soft-neck garlic