Organic gardening isn’t simply a method of growing fruit and vegetables; it’s an attitude, a way of life and the healthy way ahead. So throw away the chemicals, ditch the artificial fertilisers and embrace a new philosophy that’s better for you – and the environment! Vegetable growing is not difficult – people have been growing their own food for millennia so if your thinking of giving it a try then the answer should be a resounding ‘go for it’.
There’s nothing better than organic vegetables that have come straight from the plot to the pot. OK they might not look as perfect as the cling-wrapped, sanitised fare that lines the shelves of the supermarkets but you’ll soon overlook a few blemishes in the knowledge that you’re eating fruit and vegetables that are packed with goodness and flavour and untainted by chemicals. You don’t even need a lot of space, it’s surprising how much you can grow from a few containers or window boxes, visit the garden centre and you’ll find that there are salads, like lettuce, tomatoes and even carrots that fit the bill!
‘The answer lies in the soil’ is one of the basic tenets of organic gardening. One of the essentials is to feed the soil and help it to develop a good ‘structure’. If the roots are thriving, with access to plenty of moisture and food then leaf and stem growth will be healthy and vigorous too.
To create a healthy soil, you need one essential item – a compost heap, it’s the engine room of a garden! It’s where all of the garden and kitchen waste – carrot tops, lettuce leaves, and potato peelings – can be rotted down and recycled back into the soil. Perennial weeds like Docks and Dandelions with a root that re-sprouts even when the tops have been cut off, must be dried in the sun to make sure they’re dead, before being added to the heap – otherwise they’ll come back to haunt you! It’s also important to chop up or shred thicker material like the woody stems of Brussels sprouts or shrub prunings to make decomposition easier. It’s worth investing in a compost bin made of plastic or wood that’s big enough for the size of your garden and the amount of vegetable waste that is produced. However, the simplest method is to make a frame, at least 1cubic metre, from four wooden stakes driven into the ground with chicken wire stretched between them and a ‘lid’ of old carpet or plastic. Make your heap as large as possible and it will be more efficient; generating enough heat to kill weed seeds and destroy unwanted fungi.
In autumn, gather as many fallen leaves as you can and rot them down to rich organic matter in a wire frame or bin, it makes a wonderful soil conditioner! Equally effective but on a smaller scale, is a bin liner, filled with leaves and loosely tied at the top. If you’re collecting them from a roadside footpath, do so as soon as they fall, before they are tainted by traffic fumes. Start collecting in early autumn and they will rot down, ready for use the following spring. Compost heaps are essential to the organic gardener – but be warned, they can become an obsession!
All the wonderful compost that’s created can be returned to the vegetable beds either by forking it in or by using ‘raised beds’ and the very attractive ‘no dig’ technique. The rectangular beds are raised about 10cm higher than the surrounding soil and are wide enough for you to reach into the centre for weeding and harvesting. Each bed is a maximum of 3m long, so that you aren’t tempted to take a short cut across the ends. A rectangle is also an easy shape to manage particularly if you need to cover it with netting to protect brassicas from pigeons. After initial digging, the soil structure is allowed to develop naturally. Don’t disturb it or walk on it, simply lay compost onto the surface and the worms will do the rest!
It’s essential when organic gardening that you learn to love your plants! They need nurture, care and attention to produce the best crops, so give them what they need! Along with a healthy soil, they need enough food, water and light to flourish. Don’t let them dry out or get waterlogged as plants find this very stressful and feed them with ‘natural’ products like fish, blood and bone for the essentials of growth. There are also a few other ‘organic’ favourites like ‘Comfrey’, a good balanced feed and ‘seaweed’ that toughens growth and helps plants to resist pests and diseases.
But, however much you try, pests and diseases are determined to take their share of the goodies. In the past you may have blitzed them with chemicals, but with the ‘holistic’ approach your armoury now includes a range of physical barriers, natural chemicals and nature’s predators. Aphids are controlled with a combination of insecticidal soap and predators, ‘Bordeaux’ mixture protects peaches from ‘leaf curl’ and sulphur defends plants from powdery mildew. Physical barriers include spun polypropylene webbing or ‘horticultural fleece’ that is laid over the crops stopping pests like cabbage white butterflies and flea beetles that nibble holes in ‘rocket’. Grease bands wrapped round the trunks of trees prevent flightless winter moths from crawling up the bark while slugs are caught in beer traps or collected? on nightly hunting expeditions! If you offer shelter as well as food, predators will be delighted to take up residence in your garden and will be on 24-hour standby to help you out. Build hibernation boxes for hedgehogs, invest in a lacewing ‘hotel’ so they can hibernate over winter (Lacewings and particularly their larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids) and provide nesting boxes for blue tits; they and their young eat aphids too!
Another pest-control technique used by ‘organic’ gardeners is to grow ‘companion’ plants in and among their crops. The flowers of ‘Poached Egg Plant’ and ‘Fennel’ attract beneficial insects like hover flies, ‘French Marigolds’ are planted among tomatoes to discourage whitefly and there’s even ‘sacrificial’ plants like nasturtiums which are a magnet to aphids and discourage them from damaging the crops. One of the essentials for success is to check your plants daily and act immediately. Pests and diseases are much easier to control before they gain a foothold and start to weaken the plant. Finally, by growing disease-resistant varieties, practising crop ‘rotation’ and growing your crop on a different part of the plot each year prevents the build-up of pests and diseases and gives the soil the chance to recover.
While other gardeners want to eradicate, organic gardeners are happy to help nature take control. And although you may have to endure high levels of pests and diseases for a while as you make the transformation to an environmentally friendly gardener, it’s remarkable how rapidly nature restores the balance between pest and predator.
There’s no doubt about it, ‘organic’ gardening is the way ahead, the rewards are plentiful, the food is tasty and it’s better for you, your family and the environment!