Your Green Garden
Living the organic life starts right in your own backyard
For many people, spring doesn’t start until they plant a garden. Some are drawn to the peace they experience with their hands in the soil, while others take pride in a beautifully landscaped yard overflowing with flowers. But for many gardeners it’s all about the vegetables: tender baby carrots, sun-ripened tomatoes, perfectly sweet melons.
Organic cultivation—growing vegetables, flowers and other plants without synthetic herbicides and pesticides—is an increasingly popular option among gardeners.
Going organic goes beyond concerns about personal or environmental health. “Pest control using pesticides tends to poke holes in your garden’s ecosystem by completely removing vast numbers of organisms and upsetting a critical natural balance those organisms create,” says master gardener Edward C. Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (Storey Publishing). “A balanced ecological approach not only works better but it’s also less work.”
If you have always wanted to try organic gardening but wasn’t sure where to start, turn the page for some basic suggestions.
More compost—Compost improves soil structure and water retention while feeding plants and beneficial microorganisms. Add carbon-based “browns,” such as fall leaves and spent vines, and nitrogen-based “greens,” such as lawn clippings and kitchen scraps (don’t add meat scraps or diseased plants).
Less lawn—Expanses of lawn can soak up resources, especially water. Any lawn you do maintain should be watered less often but more deeply, cut higher and fed from (and into) the compost pile.
Handy herbs—Fresh herbs are a healthy kitchen mainstay. Keep them near the house.
Attract birds—Many birds gobble down insects, especially when raising young. Feeders and birdhouses will keep the winged pest patrol happy year-round.
Smart watering—Overhead sprinklers are a waste of water. Soaker hoses or drip lines are a better bet.
Raised beds—Raised beds mean a greater depth of uncompacted soil, and uncompacted soil means more vigorous plants and better yields.
Wise spacing—Gardens don’t just spread outwards; they also grow upwards. Double up beds with tall plants in the back, short ones in the front.
Buddy up—Plants need their friends just like we do. Some natural pairings: eggplants and marigolds, beets and lettuces, carrots and cabbages.
Mulch deeply—A thick layer of grass clippings, straw or shredded bark can suppress weeds and moderate soil temperature.
Renew soil—Give your hardworking beds a break every few years with green manures, such as buckwheat or red clover, to be turned under before they set seed.
Easy-to-Grow Kitchen Herbs
Herbs are a great way to add flavor to food, especially if you’ve been told to cut back on salt consumption. Even if you’re something less than a master gardener, you should get good results with the following herbs:
Basil: A tomato lover’s best friend, basil only needs warm weather and full sun to produce in bunches all summer long. Pinch out the growing tips on young plants for increased yields; otherwise simply harvest before the flower buds open.
Chives: This mildly onion-y herb is grown from live plants, since seeds can take a year to produce a useable crop. This perennial plant should be divided every three years and harvested with scissors. Chives tend to spread, a habit you can break them of by snipping off the flowers as they appear. You can also keep chives under control (and, in cold climates, readily available) by growing them in pots on a sunny windowsill.
Dill: An herb that goes well with onions, potatoes and seafood (and, of course, pickles), dill does best when left alone to grow happily in a sunny, well-watered spot. In addition to its culinary uses, dill also draws beneficial insects to the garden.
Mint: Many members of the mint family—and it comes in varieties that include apple, chocolate and lemon, in addition to peppermint and spearmint—grow freely in the garden. In fact, that can be a problem: Mint can become ruthlessly invasive, spreading through underground runners capable of traveling quite a distance from the original plant. The best way to enjoy mint while keeping the rest of the garden intact is to plant it either in large tubs or hanging baskets, or to place it in a dedicated bed with a solid barrier at least a foot deep (actually, as deep as you can manage!).