What would encourage you to make your garden organic? For Howard Garrett, it was his baby daughter.
“She was out on the porch with me, picking up things and putting them in her mouth,” he says. “I didn’t want to use anything toxic around my baby girl. I had no earthly idea of what organic gardening even was at that point.”
Garrett, 74, is a Dallas-based horticulturist, author and YouTuber known as the Dirt Doctor (or just “Dirt” to his golfing buddies). Since the episode with his daughter 35 years ago, he has made a career of convincing people that gardening organically is safer, easier and less expensive than using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
For example, when gardeners concentrate on keeping soil healthy and rich in organic material, it retains more water, Garrett says. “Just the watering alone, when you go the natural organic route like we recommend and teach people to do, you save somewhere between 40 and 50 percent on your water bill.”
If that’s not enough inspiration, consider Theresa Martz. By concentrating on soil and mulch, Martz, who describes herself as “close to 80,” spends only 10 minutes a day weeding her flowers and the 2,500-square-foot vegetable garden she’s maintained in northern Virginia for decades. Martz blogs about organic gardening at TendingMyGarden.com and is the author of Organic Gardening: Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening. She is puzzled why anyone wouldn’t garden organically.
“I don’t use all this chemical stuff,” she says, instead enriching her soil with leaves, pine, straw, plant residue and any other organic material. “It’s just so easy if you follow nature’s way.”
If you’re considering making the switch from conventional to organic, it can help to have patience, says Mark Highland, founder of Organic Mechanics Soil Co. of Modena, Pennsylvania, and an instructor at the Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden near Wilmington, Delaware.
Don’t expect a beautiful organic garden the first year — there will be a transition period, Highland says. “I think humans put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect,” he says. “No garden is ever perfect.”
But it also might be easier than you imagine to switch to organic gardening. “I bet a lot of [people] are more organic than they think,” says Highland, noting, however, that “it can seem overwhelming in a world of choices.”
To make it less overwhelming, consider this basic five-step approach.
1. Improve your soil
This might be the most important tenet of organic gardening. Get a soil test through your state extension service and figure out what you need to “build the life in the soil,” as Garrett says. He reinforces his soil with compost and organic fertilizers, minerals such as lava sand, and sugars such as ground cornmeal or dried molasses to stimulate the growth of healthy microbes. And, he says, if you’re creating raised beds, make sure to include some native soil to nurture the critical microbes that flourish in your particular climate.
2. Use nontoxic strategies
Building up the soil will allow you to back off from chemical fertilizers that wash out quickly, as well as pesticides and herbicides that kill microbes and threaten beneficial insects. Garrett says the worst are weed killers containing glyphosate, which a World Health Organization report has linked to cancer. He uses mixtures like garlic pepper tea to repel unwanted insects without harming beneficial ones. Martz goes after tomato hornworms with her garden snips and covers her cabbages to protect them from harlequin bugs and cabbage moths. Good soil is also a deterrent, she says. “There are insects in the world, and there's really not a whole lot you're going to do about that. However, the better your soil, the more you continue to add organic materials, and the more you use good practices of nature, you're just not going to have that many pests.”
If you don’t cover your soil, all the good organic material will oxidize, Martz says. She uses straw and other mulches in her vegetable garden that can then be turned over into the soil. Mulch lightly around seedlings, and then cover as they grow. Garrett recommends shredded tree trimmings because they stay in place and feed the soil without robbing it of nitrogen the way mulches made from ground-up lumber do.
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4. Water wisely
Garret warns against watering lightly every day. Instead, he says, water heavily and then probe 8 to 10 inches into the soil to determine when you need to water again. “The best probe in the world,” in his opinion, is an old golf club. Use the grip end. “You can tell by the feel, whether it's too dry or too wet, and needs to be watered yet or not,” he says.
5. Be curious and experiment
Take a course; read a blog; borrow a book from the library; watch a YouTube video; talk to other gardeners; join a group on social media. “You learn so much from talking to other gardeners,” says Highland. “I wouldn’t know anything if I weren’t constantly asking questions. The beauty of it is that it’s a garden. It’s constantly going to change. If you’re not killing plants, you’re not really gardening.”
And in the end, “You learn; you try something else. You figure it out.”
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.