Patricia Boudier: Organic garden 101
Submitted to The Union
Growing up in “The Garden State” of New Jersey is how I developed my organic gardening roots, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Where I grew up was one of the most putrid smelling places I have ever known. The Passaic River ran through our town and the sediment at the mouth of the river near Newark Bay remains contaminated to this day by such pollutants as dioxin. Dioxin was generated principally by a chemical plant in Newark, as a waste product resulting from the production of Agent Orange, a defoliation chemical used during the Vietnam War.
The federal and state governments have since made remarkable strides to eliminate the pollution, but when I was a kid, all I thought about was finding a place to live that smelled nice. I was also becoming nervous about the chemicals I couldn’t smell.
I relocated a few times to places that smelled better, but I was an urbanite and my only real experience of gardening was on a small patio or with houseplants. Each time I would visit a garden center or nursery the smell of the synthetic, chemical pest controls or synthetic chemical fertilizers brought back the unpleasant fragrances of my youth.
Since 1996 I have been an organic gardener on a grand scale. We bought five acres in the countryside off McCourtney Road and bought Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, an organic gardening supply company that had been started in 1976 by one of the original California organic farmers. At our Grass Valley business we have a 20,000 square foot warehouse, a nice retail store and a garden center which specializes in edible plants, California native plants, and organic vegetable seedlings. At home, we have more than 50 fruit trees, a 2,000 square foot vegetable garden, chickens from time to time, a creek, a pond and a small greenhouse.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some information about how to grow wonderful plants without using harmful chemicals or synthetics.
The most common statement I’ve read and heard since I became interested in organic gardening is this one:
Organic gardeners don’t feed the plants,
they feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants.
My first question, and maybe yours too, was “What do I feed the soil?” Well, you have to know what things the soil likes: Good soil contains a lot of soil organisms and scientists are still unlocking the mysteries of what they call the soil food web.
An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae, and, in some cases, small mammals like moles. These organisms will convert what they eat into nutrients the plants will eat.
Soil organisms live in the soil during all or part of their lives. They range in size from microscopic cells that digest decaying organic material to small mammals that eat other soil organisms. They work together to make aerated, fertile soil that has good structure and drainage.
Not all soils are healthy. Soil organisms and nutrients can be depleted by erosion, flooding, too much tilling, and applying synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Even planting an organic garden will deplete the beneficial organisms in your soil because the plants will absorb many nutrients during their growth. So we have to nourish the soil throughout the year. If you’re curious about soil science there are many interesting and technical books. Some of my favorites are, “Teaming With Microbes” and “The Soul of the Soil.”
I’d like to focus this first article on the basics of caring for your soil and supporting the soil food web. First let’s talk about the most basic amendment or food for your soil…
Whether you make your own or buy it, you can work compost into your soil or apply it like a mulch around your plants. As a rule of thumb, apply at least an inch of compost over existing soil. This is the “Main Course” for feeding your soil, which feeds your plants. It’s also how you improve both clay soil and sandy soil — compost works wonders in the garden. If you would like to learn how to make your own, please check out my “How To” video titled “Composting 101” found online at http://www.groworganic.com/organic-gardening/videos/composting-101-making-compost-in-composting-bins-and-compost-piles.
Another form of compost is made by worms. Making compost with the help of redworms is called Vermiculture. What happens is you gather or buy Redworms, which are different from earthworms, and you provide a nice home for them in a box or bin and you feed them certain table scraps. You can keep a worm bin under your kitchen sink, in your laundry room, or in a sheltered spot outside. They’re voracious eaters and will eat and eat and eat, and then leave castings (which are essentially their poop) for you to spread in your garden. This redworm compost is great for the garden. We have a separate “How To” video for Vermicomposting if you’re interested in raising some pet worms that will work for you.
If you would like to learn how to make your own, please check out my “How To” video titled “Vermicomposting” found online at http://groworganic.com/organic-gardening/videos/vermicomposting
One more effective option for using your compost is to make a liquid tea from it. What Is Compost Tea? Here’s a definition of compost tea from Oregon State University: “Compost tea is a liquid extract of compost that contains plant growth compounds and beneficial microorganisms.”
Compost teas are now being produced and used in large-scale agriculture, viticulture, horticulture, nurseries, lawn care, and residential gardens. You can either spray the leaves of plants or drench the soil with this microbial brew.
We brew 100 gallons every other day at Peaceful Valley.
If you would like to learn how to make your own, check out my “How To” video titled titled “Compost Tea” found online at http://groworganic.com/organic-gardening/videos/compost-tea.
By now you are probably wondering
How do I know if my soil needs other nutrients beside the precious organic matter from the compost? What can I do to ensure a steady food supply for my soil? How can I get big Miracle Blooms and Magic Tomatoes with organic methods?
Coming next time: Organic Gardening 101 – Part 2, Organic Amendments (including soil tests and analyzing your current soil, organic fertilizers, comparisons between organic and synthetic fertilizers, green manure/cover cropping).
Patricia Boudier is co-owner with her husband, Eric, of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply. Her weekly educational/“How-To” videos can be found at http://www.groworganic.com.
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