Organic Gardening 101 For Beginners: How To Start an Organic Garden
Are you thinking of starting a garden, but doing it the old fashioned way with no pesticides? Organic Gardening can be an extremely fun experience, but there are some specific steps you'll want to take before getting started. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through what you can expect.
Tiptoeing out to my organic garden on a cool summer evening, I cut an emerald zucchini from the squash patch, pull handfuls of crisp sugar snap peas from their vines, snip some rosemary and thyme from the herb gardens, and pull some kale for a delicious homegrown Italian meal.
In a world of uncertainty, climate change, and food insecurity, gardening remains perennially relevant. There is something incredibly special about growing humble seeds into fruitful meals straight from the Earth. It is a reconnection to our primal roots.
Whether you want to be more self-sufficient, connect closer to nature, or simply enjoy higher-quality food, starting an organic garden may be the most rewarding hobby you’ve ever undertaken. If you have a “green thumb” or a “black thumb”, it doesn’t matter. Nature is notoriously forgiving and gardens are a place to experiment and have fun.
- 1 Garden Basics
- 2 What is Organic Gardening?
- 3 Designing Your Garden
- 4 Planning Your Garden
- 5 Vegetable Planting Difficulty Levels
- 6 Crop Planning
- 7 Choose Seeds or Starts
- 8 Types of Seeds
- 9 Planting Your Organic Garden
- 10 Garden Maintenance
A lot of people these days overcomplicate organic gardening. We’ve forgotten that our ancestors figured out how to grow food with little more than their eyes to observe nature and their hands to feel the Earth. There is plenty of time to learn, grow, and perfect your gardening skills.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to plant the perfect organic garden by using just a few tips. This guide, however, aims to give you all the information you need to successfully start your very own organic garden, even if you’ve never picked up a garden shovel before. Let’s get into the basics.
What is Organic Gardening?
You probably want to start a garden to live healthier and more naturally, therefore using toxic chemicals is off the table. Organic gardening is all about growing plants in tune with Nature. Nature does not use harmful man-made chemicals to kill pests or weeds, nor does she disturb the soil or plant monocultures the way industrial farms do.
Organic gardening takes an ecological approach to cultivating food. Most importantly, eating organically ensures that you are feeding your family the most wholesome food possible and maintaining a healthy environment in your yard and garden for years to come.
Organic Gardening Rules
The term “organic” is technically regulated by the USDA and refers to a whole set of growing practices, including:
- No synthetic fertilizers
- Zero synthetic pesticides, fungicides or herbicides
- No GMOs
- Nurturing soil biology
- Growing diverse crops
- Using compost or other types of organic matter
- Purchasing only organic, untreated seeds
- Planting pollinator habitat
Since you aren’t a production farm, you don’t have to worry about all the nuances of organic certification, but you can still benefit from looking for labels like Certified Organic seeds or OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute) approved soils, fertilizers, and amendments.
Most Important Tools
There are a number of different tools that are important for every organic gardener to have. Each of these tools serves a different purpose, and won’t go to waste as you start building your first organic garden.
- Planting Knife (Hori Hori)
- Measuring Tape
- Hose or watering can
Designing Your Garden
Starting an organic garden can be super exciting, but it’s important not to dig in without a plan! An organic garden is an investment for many years to come, so you want to make sure your hard work is not in vain. It’s also helpful to understand the fundamentals of organic gardening so you can truly enjoy yourself and the fruits of your labor. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.
First things first, take a look at your climate. What are the coldest and hottest temperatures? This will determine how “hardy” certain plants are in your region.
Plant hardiness simply refers to how cold-tolerant a crop is. For example, garlic can survive deep freezes, broccoli tolerates mild frosts, and tomatoes typically die at the first freeze (unless they are protected). You can easily get “lost in the weeds” with climate details. It’s best to start simple by determining your growing zone and using it to plan your garden.
Use the USDA Hardiness Zone map, simply enter your zip code and use the colored key to determine your zone. If you are on the edge of a growing zone (e.g. between 5a and 5b), use the colder one just to be safe (5a). When you start shopping for plants and seeds, most labels will include a hardiness zone.
A microclimate is a small, super localized area that has unique weather patterns from the general surrounding climate. The concrete jungle of downtown Manhattan is going to be significantly hotter and drier than the tree-filled grassy areas of Central Park. Similarly, different areas of your yard will have different temperatures, levels of sunlight, soil types, and drainage.
Where to Put Your Garden
To determine the best place to put your garden, start by observing the microclimates of your yard. Ask yourself:
- Where is there full sunlight during the day?
- Do trees cast shade over certain areas during different parts of the day/year?
- Are there slopes that funnel water downward?
- Are there areas that grass seems to be thriving versus areas where not much is growing?
- What is the most practical and accessible location for your garden?
- Is there a nearby forest or wild area where animals may be waiting to snack on your lettuce?
- What are the temperature fluctuations in this area of your yard?
- What is the closest spot to a water source (spigot or hose)?
Ideally, your garden should be in the flattest area possible, with good drainage (no pooling of rainwater), maximum sunlight (or only slight shade), and close to the house or tool shed for easy access.
Choosing Your Garden Beds
A bed is simply where vegetables, herbs, or perennial plants are grown. It is helpful to divide garden beds from other areas of the yard to keep grass from encroaching in. Clearly marked beds also help keep kids and pets out of the garden.
In terms of shape, curvy artsy garden beds are super fun, but they can be harder to maintain and irrigate. This is the reason farmers grow in straight lines. However, if you prefer a more wild or native garden, by all means, build some crazy beds!
Raised beds are typically the best option for small-scale urban and suburban gardeners. They don’t require super complicated construction skills and they work great on top of existing lawns or poor soils because you are building upward. It is also easier to maintain grass or wood chip landscaping around raised beds. Also, if you have a gopher or rodent issue, it is easy to install hardware cloth at the bottom of a raised bed to keep them from digging underneath your vegetables.
Raised beds are large planting boxes that can be made to fit your style and budget. The most common materials are untreated lumber (double-check it is not pressure-treated or painted), large logs, or even galvanized cattle troughs. For elderly people or those with back pain, you can design raised beds that are 2-3 feet tall for less bending over, but keep in mind this will require a lot more soil or compost to fill the boxes themselves.
In-ground beds are more like a production farm or market garden. These are best if you have more space, a tighter budget, and/or moderately healthy soil that has not been treated with herbicides. The best way to begin in-ground beds is with the tarping method described below.
Next, use a tape measure, string, and stakes to mark out your beds (we typically standardize our beds 30” wide and 10-50 feet long). Be sure to leave a pathway between each bed that gives you enough room to stand, kneel, haul a wheelbarrow, and set a harvest tote.
When your beds are marked, we recommend adding a layer of compost on top of each bed to raise them up above the ground. You can also use the lasagna method below. If your soil is already of good quality, you can simply broadfork, rake, and then prepare for planting!
Perennial Landscaping Beds
You may be familiar with standard landscaping beds that surround your home. This style of garden bed is perfect for perennials, which are woody and herbaceous plants that stay alive year after year. The opposite of perennials is annuals, which have to be replanted every year from starts or seeds. Most vegetables are annuals. Fruit trees, ground berries, many herbs, and ornamental landscape plants are typically perennial.
To establish landscaping beds, begin by tarping or mulching existing vegetation. The mulch can be compost, topsoil, woodchips, or another weed-smothering material. Next, line your beds with bricks or rocks. You will need to measure out the recommended spacing between perennials and take into account how big they will be at full size. Double-digging the planting holes for perennials like certain berries or apple trees will help them take off and yield more quickly.
Methods for Breaking Ground
There are many different methods for successfully breaking ground in your garden. Some are more involved than others, and those that take a little more effort, generally can end up producing a better harvest, so keep that in mind. Let’s look at some of the most common methods for breaking ground.
The Lazy Way: Tarping
It may come as a surprise to you, but simple tarps are a gardener’s best friend. You can use tarps (weighed down with rocks or sandbags) to establish new garden areas with minimal effort. Simply measure and place the tarp over the existing lawn or ground. It will smother weeds and grass in 2-3 weeks, depending on the climate and plants. It can be left longer for better results.
Check under your tarp to see that the grass has fully died back. Then, you can begin building your raised wooden beds or layering organic matter as lasagna-style in-ground beds described below. I recommend mulching your pathways with wood chips, leaves, or straw to keep the grass from growing back.
The Quick Way: Mow + Mulch
If you’re looking to have a garden by the end of the day, your best bet is to use a lawnmower to mow existing vegetation as low as possible. Next, choose a material to smother the grass. This could be cardboard (no tape), newspaper, leaves, or straw (not hay). This can also be done at the bottom of your planting boxes if you are building raised beds.
Lastly, cover with a thick layer of 3-6” of compost or topsoil (be sure it hasn’t been treated with any chemicals). It’s like an instant garden! After some sweat and wheelbarrow hauling, you’ll be ready to plant.
For the Best Soil: Lasagna Style
Hugelkultur or “lasagna gardening” has been used for centuries in Germany to build thriving soil from the ground up. If you are starting a garden on really compacted clay, a weedy vacant lot, or a lawn, lasagna-style gardening will help you get started right away and build lush soil for years to come.
The layering of organic matter is what puts the “lasagna” in lasagna gardening.
Organic matter is simply dead or decomposing plant or animal matter, including:
- Aged Manure
- Grass clippings
- Twigs and sticks
You use these materials to build a lasagna bed of thriving soil that will break down over time. Things that will take the longest to break down (twigs, sticks, woody material) go at the very bottom, and then upper layers move toward materials that break down more quickly (straw, leaves, grass clippings, aged manure). The top should be 3-5 inches of high-quality compost or topsoil.
Not Recommended: Rototilling
One more note regarding the establishment of garden beds: it is best to avoid rototilling. A rototiller or tiller is a machine that grinds up soil using metal tines. This may seem like a great way to establish a garden at first, but it destroys soil structure very quickly and ultimately results in more concrete-like compaction (especially in clay soil).
Compaction creates anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions that favor disease-causing organisms in plants and make it harder for plant roots to reach downward. Rototillers also destroy important soil biology that helps keep gardens healthy and thriving.
Lastly, tilling will make weed issues much worse by spreading around perennial weeds and annual weed seeds. It’s best to use the above low-till or no-till techniques to get your garden started off on the right foot.
Planning Your Garden
Building a garden is a time full of excitement and auspiciousness. But before you start throwing seeds and transplants into your new beds, it helps to plan out what you want to grow and the needs of each type of plant.
What Vegetables Do You Like to Eat?
The biggest mistake beginner gardeners make is growing a bunch of plants that they don’t actually enjoy eating. Experimentation is important, but you also want to enjoy the fruits of your labor!
If you don’t like radishes, simply don’t grow them. Or at least try a special variety like crisp Purple Daikons or colorful Rainbow Radishes, rather than the boring old red radish at the grocery store.
Speaking of grocery stores, remember that vegetables from your garden will likely have far more flavor than their supermarket equivalents. That being said, some vegetables (like potatoes) are very cheap to buy, so you should only grow them if you have a very special variety you want to try (like Huckleberry Golds- yum!)
An open mind is important for any gardener, but be sure you grow food that will actually make it to the dinner table! Make a list of the top 10 vegetables you want to prioritize in your garden.
Vegetable Planting Difficulty Levels
There are many different vegetables you may choose to grow. Some are going to be more difficult than others. This means you’ll want to make sure to have proper expectations or some additional guidance in case you run into problems and need to troubleshoot. Let’s take a look at several common crops and their difficulty levels.
Vegetable Planting Difficulty Levels
Easy to Grow
Vine & Bush Berries
You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a map, right? Well, don’t start a garden without a plan. This is your roadmap for the entire season so you can maximize your space and grow an abundance of healthy food!
Begin by looking at your priority vegetable list that you made earlier. Label each crop as “Cool Season” or “Warm Season” based on the following chart:
Cool Season Crops
Warm Season Crops
- Sweet Potatoes
You can figure out the best planting dates for your garden based on historical weather data. Go back to your USDA growing zone number and use it to look up the estimated first and last frost dates for your region on The Old Farmer’s Almanac website.
The last frost date is the estimated “safe zone” for planting frost-tender plants in the spring. The first frost date is the estimated first freeze in the fall or winter. Warm-season crops need to be planted within this window. Row fabric or row cover (like Agribon or Remay) can slightly extend these dates by providing an extra blanket of protection that the sun can still penetrate.
A very common mistake with beginner gardeners is spacing things too close. Just like people, plants get pretty stressed out when they are crowded together. Cramming things in can actually result in lower yields. Give everyone their personal space while still getting the most out of your garden area.
Think of your garden like a grid (some people like to use string across the beds to mark out the grid). You must take into account the spacing between each plant, as well as the spacing between each row.
Hit the plus sign below, and take a look at the common spacing that you’ll want to plan for when you start planting.
Common Plant Spacing
|Crop||Plant Spacing||Row Spacing|
Choose Seeds or Starts
Seed starting is the ultimate connection to the source of nature’s food. However, plant starts are more simple and accessible to beginner gardeners. When starting your first garden, you may want to purchase baby plants from a nursery, greenhouse, or nearby organic farm. This will save you the trouble of setting up seed-starting lights, trays, and/or a mini nursery.
Pros of Buying Plant Starts
- Robust healthy plants ready to put in the ground
- No seed starting setup needed
- Best for cold climates because plants have a head-start in a professional greenhouse
- “Instant” garden results
- Easiest for beginners and kids
Cons of Buying Plant Starts
- More expensive than starting from seed
- Limited varieties available at nurseries
- Could be root-bound or overgrowing their pots (avoid buying starts at the end of the spring)
- Need to source organic plants (Home Depot and Lowes transplants tend to be treated with chemicals)
Direct Seeding vs. Transplanting
Direct seeding means sowing seeds directly into the garden, rather than starting them in trays first. This is more straightforward than indoor seed starting and doesn’t require any seed-starting setup.
However, you need an irrigation system or you will be hand-watering with a hose every day. Seeds must stay continuously moist until they germinate. They may also need to be protected from rodents or bad weather. Direct-seeded crops often need to be thinned to the proper spacing.
Transplanting is the act of planting baby plant starts (from pots or trays) into the garden. These plants have a head-start and are already established. They are especially great for cold regions with short growing seasons because you can get your garden going more quickly in the spring. You also can transplant starts at the exact spacing they need, so no thinning is necessary.
What Vegetables Prefer Direct Seeding?
These crops either won’t survive transplanting or they just really don’t like the root disturbance. It is best to directly sow them in the garden and water thoroughly until germination.
- Beets (can be transplanted, but do best direct sown)
- Corn (can be transplanted in cold climates, but do best direct sown)
- Sugar Snap Peas
- Cucurbits (cantaloupe, melons, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc. can be transplanted, but they often do best when direct-sown)
Types of Seeds
The world of seeds can be a bit confusing, so it is important to understand the differences between each. When shopping for seeds, it is best to get seed catalogs in the winter so you can peruse the varieties and make use of all the educational information offered by the different seed companies.
Our favorite seed companies include:
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Fedco Seeds
- High Mowing Seeds
- Territorial Seed
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Certified organic seeds were grown with methods regulated by the USDA National Organic Program. They haven’t been treated with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. They also are guaranteed not to be GMO, as genetically modified seeds are strictly prohibited in organics. You will find the green or black USDA Certified Organic seal on these types of seed packets.
It is important to note that many varieties are not available organically (for a variety of reasons). Even on certified organic farms, some seeds must be sourced conventional due to lack of availability. As long as seeds have not been treated with fungicides or fertilizers, they are still safe to use in organic production. Search for “untreated” or “NOP-compliant pellet.”
If a seed is open pollinated (OP), that means it can freely cross-breed with its neighbors. If it is pollinated by other plants of the same variety, it will produce offspring that is true-to-type. OP seeds are not hybridized, so they are the best option for anyone interested in saving seeds. OP seeds also require wind, pollinators, or humans to pollinate their flowers so that they can yield fruit.
The only caveat here is, if you grow multiple types of OP squash, for example, a bee may easily cross-pollinate them and produce unique seeds that are not necessarily true to the original variety.
Heirlooms are old lineages of plant varieties, typically defined as being passed down through generations for at least 50 years. Similar to a family heirloom, these types of vegetables are like antiques. Their genetics have been preserved from the past. Heirloom tomatoes like ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ are among the most popular heirloom seeds. All heirlooms are open-pollinated or self-pollinated, so they are also ideal for seed-savers.
Hybridized seeds are made by crossing two different varieties of the same plant. For example, a plant breeder may want the vigor and flavor of one type of cucumber crossed with the disease resistance of another type of cucumber. Over years of cross-pollinating and selecting for the desired offspring, F1 hybrid seeds are finally created and their lines are maintained by seed companies. There are many Certified Organic F1 hybrid seed varieties available.
Though it’s not a perfect analogy, hybrid seeds can be compared to breeding specialty dog breeds like Goldendoodles. A dog breeder selects the best Golden Retriever female and the best Poodle male, crosses them together, and creates puppies that have unique traits. The puppies of those original parents will not always produce the same genes as the initial cross. To maintain the lineage, only certain dogs will be bred again.
Like Goldendoodle puppies, hybrid seeds do not save true-to-type, so they are not good options for gardeners who want to save seeds. The offspring will be widely varied and carry many different traits from the original parents.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) seeds are often very controversial in the agricultural world. They are prohibited in organic production yet widely used in conventional chemical agriculture. GMO seeds have genes that are manipulated in a laboratory setting to produce certain traits. For example, resistance to the spraying of RoundUp, or inserting of a bacterial toxin called Bt that kills caterpillars.
Thankfully, GMOs are only common in commodity agriculture such as soy, wheat, alfalfa, corn, and potatoes. Gardeners don’t usually have to worry about GMO seeds and would certainly not benefit from using them. All Certified Organic seed is non-GMO.
Planting Your Organic Garden
Once you have built your garden beds, planned your planting dates, and have sourced your seeds or plant starts, it’s finally time to dig in! Planting is the most exciting part of gardening (besides harvesting of course), so you will want to choose a joyful sunny day and prepare your tools ahead of time.
Useful Planting Tools
- Hori Hori (planting knife)
- Measuring tape
- A small cup or bowl to hold seeds
- A hand seeder for very small seeds
- Hose or watering can
How to Start Seeds
In the early spring, many gardeners like to get a head start to the season with seed starting lights. The main goal is to have seedlings that are ready to plant as soon as the weather is favorable. Some of the easiest seeds to start indoors include tomatoes, basil, marigolds, nasturtium, cosmos, lettuce, kale, broccoli, chard, and bok choy.
To time things correctly, check your seed packets and look for phrases like “start seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost.” Count back on your calendar and be sure to plant within that window.
The simplest setup includes:
- Seed starting trays
- Bottom trays (to catch the water)
- High quality potting mix
- A large south-facing window.
- Supplemental Lighting: If you don’t have enough natural light, your seeds will get “leggy” as they reach for the window. This is when you can bring in supplemental lighting, such as fluorescent strip grow lights that hang above your seed starting area.
To start seeding:
- Fill your trays with potting mix (don’t compact it down too much, a simple pat will do)
- Make small indents in each tray cell, like a little hole for your seed to rest
- Plant your seeds at a depth that is about twice the size of the seed
- Cover them with a light layer of soil
- Keep moist, but not soggy
- Hardening-Off: When the seedling has grown to 2-5” tall and the roots have filled out the cell, prepare to transplant by slowly transitioning them outdoors. For example, you could cover them with row cover on the porch for a few nights before planting. This process lets the fragile baby plants adjust to outdoor nighttime temperatures before they graduate to the garden.
How to Direct Sow
As we discussed above, certain crops are best sown directly into the garden.
- Prepare your beds with a thin 1-2” layer of compost or topsoil at the top.
- Rake it nice and smooth.
- Use the handle of the rake to draw a shallow line in the soil.
- Carefully pour your seed packet into a shallow bowl or cup.
- Drop your seeds at the recommended spacing (or a little denser- you can always thin later).
- Cover with a light layer of soil, ensuring that seeds won’t peak above the soil level when watered in. But also be sure they aren’t too deep or they will have trouble reaching up for the light.
- Water thoroughly and keep moist, but not soggy, until germination.
- Use small scissors or needle-tip pruners to thin to the desired spacing.
How to Transplant
Transplanting is the easiest and most kid-friendly way to plant your garden. Your seedlings should be healthy, green, and already hardened-off (adjusted to outdoor temperatures).
- Prepare the garden beds by weeding and raking clean.
- Gently loosen seedling starts from their cells by squeezing the bottom of the tray until it releases the root ball (careful not to disturb the roots).
- Use a Hori Hori planting knife to create a hole about as deep as the root ball. Most plants should be transplanted to the same soil level as they were in their cell packs. The main exception is tomatoes, which can be planted deep and will root all along the stem.
- Use your tape measure to properly space the rest of the plants (they will look far apart, but don’t worry- they’ll fill in the space as they grow!).
- Thoroughly “water in” the new transplants to help them connect with their new soil.
- Optional, protect with row cover (anchored with bricks, sandbags, or landscape staples) until your plants are established.
Tending to the garden is an invigorating and inspiring task if you stay on top of garden maintenance. However, if you let things get too out of control you may start to dread going out to check on your crops. Gardening shouldn’t be a chore, but it does require some attentiveness and problem-solving.
The secret to a happy garden (and a happy gardener) is simply setting aside just 10-15 minutes every day or so to check on the garden, pull some weeds, check irrigation, check for pests, and harvest ripe veggies. On extra hot summer days, you may opt to check on your garden a little more frequently. And on perfect 70 degree sunny mornings, you may find yourself serenely sitting with the plants just enjoying the fruits of your labor.
Watering and Irrigation
Small gardens don’t require complex irrigation systems, but you do need regular water access. Keep a hose and spray nozzle handy at all times, especially when germinating seeds. You can also set up drip irrigation or soaker hoses on timers to save water and effort. Overhead irrigation (ie. sprinklers) is typically not recommended because it covers a large area and promotes more weeds.
Controlling Pests Organically
Unfortunately, we are never the only ones who want to eat crisp lettuce or sweet carrots from the garden. There will inevitably be pests. Part of gardening is rolling with the punches and working with nature rather than against it. There’s no use in dousing your garden in pesticides to get rid of all the pests and potentially harm your family or the local ecosystem in the process. Thankfully, there are countless strategies for organic pest control in the garden.
Intro to Biocontrol
Biological control, or biocontrol, is the act of controlling pests using natural enemies and predators. A few popular biocontrol agents include ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and spiders. These predatory insects feast on pests and eagerly multiply when lots of pests become available.
Similar to a cat controlling mice in the yard (another form of biocontrol), predator insects keep pests to a manageable level. You don’t want to kill all the insects with broad-spectrum pesticides, because the pests will return more quickly than the predators.
The same holds true if you kill off all the mountain lions in an area; the rabbits will quickly overpopulate! Ecological balance is the core tenant of biocontrol in an organic garden. The goal is never to eliminate all the pests, otherwise, there is nothing for the predators to eat and they will migrate elsewhere.
Biological control can be active (classical biological control) or passive (conservation biocontrol). Active biocontrol means buying and releasing predator-like ladybugs to tackle an existing pest infestation. Passive conservation biocontrol is more preventative. It involves creating a habitat for beneficial insects so that they live in your garden and create ecological balance.
Planting Beneficial Insect Habitat
Certain plants magnetize the exact kind of insects we want in the garden: ladybugs, spiders, beetles, predatory mites, lacewings, hoverflies, praying mantis, and parasitic wasps (don’t worry, these wasps only target pests like caterpillars).
It is best to plant insect habitat as close to your garden beds as possible. Use them as nice landscaping touches around the garden, or simply “interplant” a flowering beneficial species at the front of every bed.
I scatter white alyssum and calendula around all of my plants for an extra touch of beauty and a “companion planting” approach. A great bonus is these plants also attract and feed local pollinators. Plus, who doesn’t love beautiful flowers?
Here are a few amazing plants for attracting (and keeping) beneficial predators in your garden:
- White alyssum
- Coriander (flowering cilantro)
- Queen Anee’s Lace
- Prairie sunflower
- Hairy vetch
- Lavender globe lily
Using Row Cover
Exclusion is another simple approach to organic pest control. Basically, you just keep the bugs off your plants with a translucent fabric called row cover. Row cover is best used on brassicas (“cole crops” like kale, radish, turnip, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) to keep flea beetles from infesting the leaves. Row cover also prevents cabbage moths from laying their caterpillar eggs.
You can also use row cover to provide extra warmth to newly planted seedlings or warm-weather crops like melons. In the spring, I use thicker row cover on most of my early transplants to give them a little extra protection.
There are multiple thicknesses of row cover that provide different levels of insulation, so be sure to get the lightest weight row cover for the hottest times of the year (which is often when insects like flea beetles are the most prevalent). You don’t want to nuke your plants underneath the fabric.
Insect Barrier Netting
Similar to row cover, ProtekNet is a special translucent netting material to keep bugs out, while allowing water and sunlight in. These are best for very hot climates (where row cover is too hot) and issues with super small bugs like thrips. Wire hoops are recommended for best results.
All Natural Pest Sprays
I suggest you craft your own safe and natural sprays to deal with pest issues. I never buy pest sprays, even organic-approved products. It’s just so much safer and cheaper to make your own! Here are a few DIY tricks for common pests.
Biodegradable Soap and Cayenne Pepper: Spicy pepper is a great way to kill mites and thrips, as well as repel whiteflies. Add a few drops of biodegradable soap and 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper to one quart of water and let them sit overnight. Apply with a spray bottle directly on the infested plant leaves.
Tomato Leaf Spray: Nightshades (the tomato, pepper, and potato family) are toxic to many insects like aphids and mites because of alkaloids in the leaves. Soak tomato leaves in water and put in a mister bottle to apply.
Insect Killing Soap: Biodegradable soap is sudsy and dissolves the outer layer of pests like mites, aphids, scales, and thrips. Simply mix a tablespoon with a gallon of water and spray directly on plants in the morning or evening (not in direct sunlight).
Horsetail Fungal Spray: Equisetum is an ancient plant commonly called horsetail. It grows in marshy areas and is phenomenally anti-fungal. Simply gather horsetail needles and infuse them in hot water like tea. Let the tea cool and then apply directly to plants with blight or other fungal diseases. This will also strengthen the leaf cells to prevent future issues.
Slug Beer Trap: Slugs, for whatever reason, are attracted to beer. If you are having a slug problem, fill a shallow plastic container with cheap beer, position it in down in the soil at ground level, and watch the slugs fall in and drown in their happy hour.
Weeds are the bane of any gardener’s existence! They compete with our plants for space, water, sunlight, and nutrients. Plus, they just look unsightly. If you prefer a weed-free garden, prevention is key. Get them while they’re young and small before they create any big problems.
Weed Control Strategies
- No-Till: When soil is tilled, it grinds up the roots of perennial weeds and spread sthe seeds of annual weeds. Rototilling creates more problems than it’s worth. Tilling also disturbs the soil ecology and promotes more fast-growing, bacterial-dominant weed species.
- Don’t Ever Let Weeds Go to Seed! Just don’t! Get them early.
- Tarping: Just like when establishing a garden, sometimes a tarp is the best way to knock out weeds mid-season and get a fresh start
- Hoeing: A great option for standing and weeding. Try a stirrup hoe or wire hoe for best results.
- Hand Weeding: Just pluck ‘em out and export from the garden!
The first and best way to prevent common plant diseases is by building healthy soil! The soil is like the external immune system and digestive system of a plant. If you used the lasagna gardening method or compost-heavy method above, you are probably already on your way to building a healthy soil ecosystem. Just like humans, unhealthy or weak plants are more likely to get sick. If you keep them happy and healthy in the first place, disease will be less of an issue.
However, airborne problems like powdery mildew or blight may still arise. Spots or spores on plant leaves are nothing to be alarmed about, but you should take note of how to prevent these issues.
Plant Disease Prevention Strategies
- Use proper spacing to ensure air flow between plants
- Maintain healthy soil biology with compost and no-till methods
- Prune and remove diseased-looking leaves
- Avoid overhead irrigation (sprinklers)
- Use horsetail herb tea spray described above to strengthen plant cell walls
- Avoid over-watering
- Plant resistant varieties *This is the most important preventative method. Certain seed varieties are bred for resistance to major diseases. Read about varieties in your seed catalogue and choose the most resistant ones!
Organic fertilizer is easy to come by in major garden stores today. There is no need for MiracleGro or other synthetics because these types of nitrogen actually harm the soil microbes and give your plants a “quick fix” rather than a slow steady supply of organic nutrients.
To find amendments and fertilizers, always look for the “OMRI approved for organic production” label. Always be sure to only apply the recommended amount (measure carefully). Fertilizer burn is still possible with organic fertilizers and can cause more harm than good to your garden.
- Liquid fish or fish hydrolysate
- Feather meal
- Fish meal
- Blood meal
- Composted manure
- Worm castings
- Rock dusts
- Pelleted chicken manure
End of Season Tips
At the end of the growing season, you can finally rest and relish in your diverse harvests. Hopefully, you preserved some pickled cucumbers, dried tomatoes, frozen pesto, and other tokens of summer’s abundance. To maximize your yields for the next season, it is important to prepare the beds for winter.
Remove Plant Material
Instead of letting plants sit and rot all winter, it is best to cut them at the base (leaving the roots intact) and compost the material. This helps prevent disease and keeps hungry winter animals away. Some crops, like kale, garlic, and cabbage, can be left in the garden all winter long for continuous harvests (depending on your climate).
Annual Compost Additions
At the end or beginning of every season, I add a small layer of compost to all of my garden beds to keep the soil happy and nurtured. It is important to source high-quality compost or learn to make your own. Worm compost (vermicast) or professionally composted manure are great options for replenishing nutrients and helping to build soil structure.
Putting Your Garden to Bed
To put your gardens “to sleep” at the end of the season, I highly recommend mulching the soil surface to protect it from winter rain or snow. The best mulch is fallen maple leaves. You can also use an unsprayed dried straw, a tarp, or a cover crop like peas and oats.