Beginning Organic Gardening Tips and Techniques

Thank you to those of you who attended the Beginning Organic Gardening workshop this past Saturday. Wow, those two hour simply flew by, but we were still able to cover the basic techniques of organic gardening. If you could not make it to the workshop, or simply want to see my notes, below is a brief outline of the most important concepts that we covered.

Soil: Feed your soil and let your soil feed your plants. One teaspoon of good soil contains some 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi and 1 million protocists. Increase that amount to one square meter of soil and the numbers of bacteria and fungi become even more unfathomable: just how many ants, spiders, beetles, earthworms, centipedes, millipedes, mites, slugs, snails, springtails and nematodes can a healthy soil support? A lot. The point is that healthy soil is teeming with life and organic gardening techniques support and nourish this life. To discover how fertile your soil is, take a shovel and dig right in. Do you see any signs of life? If there are obviously earthworms and centipedes, you are on the right track; if there are none, don’t worry, your soil will soon be full of life!

Feed your soil and let your soil feed your plants!

Feed your soil and let your soil feed your plants!

Take home point: healthy soil hosts a number of living organisms, all of which help break down and convert the organic matter in your soil to nutrients ready to be used by your plants. While checking for sign of life in your garden, grab a handful of soil. If your handful of soil easily forms into a ball, your soil is primarily composed of clay (typical of Utah soil.) If, on the other hand, your soil crumbles nicely, you have a nice loamy soil (every vegetable’s dream soil.) If your soil has too much clay, add organic matter. If your soil has too much sand, add organic matter. If your soil is a perfect loam, add organic matter!

Compost: Compost wants to happen. What happened to the lettuce you left for too long in the refrigerator? It is now slimy and inedible. What happened to that leaf pile you left in your backyard over the winter? The leaves have begun to break apart and decompose. Often referred to as humus (hue-mus,) compost is produced by the decomposition of plant materials such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps and fallen leaves by millions of micro-organisms. When layered in a compost bin or heap, the combination of plant materials, soil, water and heat speed up the decomposition process and provide you with gardener’s gold!

You can create your compost bin by following any of the examples below:

WCG compost bins made out of pallets

WCG compost bins made out of pallets

Compost bin made out of galvanized wire

Compost bin made out of galvanized wire

Open mound compost pile

Open mound compost pile

Once you have your desired structure, alternate layers of carbon (browns such as fallen leaves, straw and spent perennials,) nitrogen (weeds, grass clippings and kitchen scraps) and soil. Your compost pile should ideally be 3’wide x 3’long x 3’tall. Keep your compost bin well watered and ideally in a place that gets primarily sun and a bit of shade. Don’t forget to turn your compost bin a couple of times a month; this will add oxygen and speed up the decomposition process. A well maintained compost bin will not stink and will give you finished compost in 2-4 months time. When your compost appears rich, dark and crumbly, shovel the finished compost directly on your garden bed and, using a digging fork, incorporate compost into the top 6” of soil.

Materials to add to your compost bin:
Weeds that do not have seed heads
Fallen leaves
Kitchen scraps
Grass clippings
Cut down perennials and annuals such as ornamental grasses and sunflowers
Non-carnivorous animal waste (chicken, cow, horse, pig, goat, llama etc.)

Avoid these materials:
Oils
Meats
Dairy products
Citrus
Carnivorous animal waste (no dog, cat or people poop, please!)

Mulch: Mulch is a layer of organic matter placed around your vegetables. You can use leaves, straw, hay or wood chips as mulch. Mulch is a wonderful organic gardening technique because it serves several purposes: mulch adds another source of organic matter to you soil that will eventually break down and become part of your soil; mulch keeps soil temperatures at a reasonable temperature and conserves moisture in your soil; mulch provides an extra layer of habitat for garden insects such as spiders, sow bugs and centipedes; mulch will inhibit weed growth because weed seedlings will not get the sunlight that they need to thrive. When weeds do grow out of your mulch layer, simply pull them up and add them to the top of your mulch layer or compost bin. Mulch, it’s a good thing!

Planning your Garden: The most important thing to consider when planning your garden is simply this: what do you want to eat? Utah’s gardening season, without the use of season extenders such as hoop houses, cold frames and row covers, starts in March and ends in November. Crops are typically categorized as either cold season or warm season crops. Cold season crops can be planted, in general, from March to May and again from August to October. Warm season crops are out planted after the last frost date of the season, typically around Mother’s Day.

Cold Season Crops Include the Following:
Arugula, beet, broccoli, brussel sprout, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, chard, kale, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, parsnip, pea, potato, radish and spinach.

Warm Season Crops Include the Following:
Bean, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melon, pepper, tomato, pumpkin, summer and winter squash and watermelon.

Draw your garden space on a sheet of paper and somewhere on that piece of paper list all of the vegetables that you would like to eat; designate whether each crop is a cold or warm season crop and how much of each crop you would like to grow. Begin filling in your garden space with the following considerations in mind:

Companion Planting: Many plants benefit in some way or another from being planted near one another. Benefits may include space utilization, shade protection, support structure, pest protection, beneficial insect attraction and flavor and nutrition improvement. For more information on companion planting check out Louise Riot’s book Carrots Love Tomatoes. Classic companion planting examples include:

Tomatoes, basil and marigolds. Basil improves the flavor of tomatoes and protects it from potential pest problems. In return, tomatoes provide shade for basil and will prevent it from bolting. Marigolds are a great companion plant in general and protect plant roots from “bad” nematodes and other harmful insects.

Corn, beans and squash. Corn provides vertical support for climbing beans. Beans, in return, add nitrogen to the soil that will be utilized by corn. Squash provides a “living mulch” around your corn and beans, shading out weeds and regulating soil temperatures.

Radish and lettuce. Radish and lettuce roots utilize different nutrient stratas of your soil. Lettuce also helps to keep radishes fresh and crisp once warmer weather hits.

Nasturtiums and marigolds are great companions for any vegetable garden. Plant both nasturtiums and marigolds in and around vegetables to deter pests. Both nasturtium and marigold flowers are also edible!

Spinach and Eggplant or Peppers. Plant your spinach in the spring and leave enough room to intercrop your eggplant or peppers in May. Your eggplant or peppers will provide shade for spinach and help keep it tender and productive into the summer months.

For more information on these topics plus many more, please visit our website by clicking on the following link:

http://wasatchgardens.org/gardenresources.html

Happy Spring and Happy Gardening!
Brit Merrill, Community Garden and Volunteer Coordinator

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