A rewarding, healthy hobby, gardening becomes organic when you apply only materials derived from living things and employ gardening methods that maximize plants’ natural growth patterns. Several general ideas for going organic include:

  • Employ compost and manure rather than chemical fertilizers.
  • Find safe, non-toxic ways to discourage pests.
  • Try soil building and companion planting to increase plant yield naturally.

As an organic gardener, you will not be working to “conquer” nature but taking your place within it.

Starting Your Organic Garden

Your circumstances will dictate the type of garden you plan.

  • For large plots: If you have a lot of space, you may choose to create a large, fenced garden with paths between rows of vegetable plants.
  • For smaller plots: If you have a small yard, raised beds can be squeezed wherever you have a few feet of space.
  • For small plots in unusual places, productive organic gardens can be grown in containers in an apartment courtyard.

In addition to growing healthy veggies free from chemical additives, you can apply organic growing methods to your lawn and ornamentals, creating a beautiful, safe environment for your family and pets while renewing and rebuilding your soil.

Improve Soil Organically

One of the deepest pleasures of gardening is getting down on the ground and working with your hands on the earth. Soil is, quite literally, the foundation of your organic garden, and the development of vital, balanced, and productive soil is your first step to a successful garden. What we call dirt in our gardens consists of several components:

  • Rock: In granular form, the result of grinding by the wind, water, and glacial action.
  • Water: Providing essential moisture and nutrients
  • Air: Providing looseness to the soil so that roots can breathe
  • Humus: A small but essential amount of the soft, dark, “earthy” substance that binds the mineral content of your soil together, giving it the rich, crumbly texture that will both allow proper circulation and provide nutrition for growing plants

Depending on the coarseness of the mineral fragments and the amount of humus, your soil may be sandy, clayey, or perfectly loamy. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides can damage the humus content and deplete the soil, but adding organic amendments can improve all soil. Two helpful things to know are:

  1. If you have patience, you can spend a couple of seasons improving your soil at very little cost by using your own composted food scraps and grass clippings and planting nutrient-rich cover crops.
  2. You can establish organic beds almost instantly by buying commercial organic fertilizers, composts, and mulches.

Four Steps to Healthy Soil

To grow well, plants need a balance of three major elements in the soil, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with several trace minerals. Though soil chemistry can be quite complex, the steps to soil health are fairly simple.

1. Observe:

Pick up a handful of soil from your garden area, and note its texture and type. Very fine rock fragments produce heavy clay soil that drains poorly. Coarse fragments result in sandy soil, which allows good water and air circulation but may be low in vital plant nutrients.

Looking closely at your soil will tell you how much work you must do to improve it. Also, note the animal life—many earthworms are a good sign of healthy soil.

2. Add organic material:

You can find several good soil amendments in your own home and yard:

  • Compost (see sidebar)
  • Chemical-free grass clippings
  • Leaves shredded by running your lawn mower over them

Nearby farmers may sell or even give away manure, but be careful to check out the chemical content of the animals’ feed before using manure in your organic garden. You can also buy a wide variety of organic composts at your local gardening store.

Be sure to compost fresh manure by letting it sit for several months before digging it into your beds. This will prevent the high nitrogen content of the fresh manure from “burning” plants. Composting also reduces the number of weed seeds that will find their way from manure into your garden.

3. Plant cover crops:

In the initial stages of your garden and between growing seasons, cover crops add nutrients to the soil while preventing erosion and crowding out weeds that might otherwise take over during fallow periods.

Before plants go to seed, cut them down with a lawnmower, weed eater, or hand blade and dig plants and roots into the soil.

4. Cover soil with mulch:

Mulch is an organic material spread on top of the soil around your plants. A layer of mulch–grass clippings, shredded leaves, and even sheets of newspaper–will help retain water in your bed, keep weed growth down, slow erosion, and keep your soil temperate and loose.

Keep mulch layers several inches thick (10 to 12 sheets of newspaper).

To Dig or Not to Dig

Composters who want to use the “traditional” method should place a thick layer of compost or manure on the garden surface and then turn it into the soil, either with a power tiller or by digging deep with a shovel.

But many modern garden experts have begun to view soil as a network of interconnected organisms disrupted by deep digging. They offer a simpler method for adding soil amendments:

  • Use newspapers: Spread layers of newspapers (no shiny inserts which might contain chemical dyes) right on top of grass or weeds
  • Cover them up: Shovel several inches of manure or compost and mulch over the newspapers
  • Let nature take its course: Without your having to lift a finger, the forces of decomposition can now do their work. If your amendments are well composted, you can plant immediately in your “instant” bed.


Cover crops like crimson clover, alfalfa, hairy vetch, and cowpeas are sometimes called “green manure” because they benefit garden soil. You can plant cover crops in the initial stages of your garden and between growing seasons. Their benefits include:

  • Nutrition for the soil: Cover crops add much-needed minerals and other nutrients to the soil, while legumes like clover and peas collect nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots, fertilizing the soil.
  • Cohesion for soil: Cover crops help prevent erosion
  • Weed control: Crowd out weeds that might otherwise take over during fallow periods.

Sow cover-crop seeds thickly in empty beds, rake in and tamp down lightly. Before plants go to seed, cut them down with a lawnmower, weed eater, or hand blade and dig plants and roots into the soil.


Mulch is an organic material spread on top of the soil around your plants. Keep mulch layers several inches thick for best results. Good mulching materials include grass clippings, shredded leaves, sheets of newspaper, and straw.

Benefits of Using Mulch:

  1. It helps retain water in the soil.
  2. It keeps weed growth down.
  3. It slows erosion.
  4. It keeps soil temperate and loose.
  5. It adds valuable humus to the soil.

Turning Garbage into Vegetables

Home composting allows you to turn food scraps, lawn, and garden waste into valuable garden mulch and amendment. The amount of compost you can produce depends on how much space you have for your bin and how much energy you wish to devote to maintaining it.

Benefits of using compost:

  • Adds nutrients: Compost contributes minerals and other organic fertilizers to the soil
  • Improves soil texture: It contributes to the balance of rock, water, air, and humus that make for cohesive but workable soil.
  • Increases soil’s ability to hold water: Compost controls surface runoff and provides a proper soil density for retaining water to nourish root systems.

Recipe for Rich Compost

Prepare compost in a bin built specifically for that purpose. A wide variety of commercial bins are available, and some local government agencies provide them for free or at a low cost. You can also easily construct your simple bin. Popular designs include a circular bin made from a long strip of wire fencing or a square bin made with wooden slats.

If you have enough space, a two or three-bin system will allow you to turn the compost more frequently, speeding up the breakdown process. As one bin fills, shovel it into the next bin, so the oldest material ends up on top, aerating the pile and stimulating decomposition.

  • Save kitchen scraps: Use a container with a tightly fitting lid. Do not put meat in your compost, though fish parts are fine. You can empty your kitchen container into a five-gallon bucket outside until you are ready to layer it into your compost bin. Again, make sure the lid is tight to keep animals out.
  • Layer the compost: Within the compost bin, layer food scraps with grass, shredded leaves, and other organic material.
  • Top it off: Cover each layer with a few shovelfuls of dirt. The smelly kitchen scraps will be covered immediately when you layer in this way.
  • Keep it moist: Dampen the compost with water from a nearby hose. The compost should be kept moist but not soaking.
  • Rapid turnover is good: Turn the compost by shoveling it into another bin so that the contents are mixed and aerated. This will speed the transformation of waste into black, crumbly compost.

Your Crops: Choosing, Planting, and Growing

Organic Seed Sources

Once your soil amendments work, you can begin reading seed catalogs and choosing your crops. Find a seed company that offers organic seed geared to your geographical location. Some good choices are:

Planting Guidelines

  • Take the lay of the land: Observe your garden space and note sunlight and drainage patterns. These will help you plan where to place your plants. Tomatoes love sun and heat; lettuce and other greens enjoy a cooler, shadier location.
  • Start simple: As a beginning gardener, you will probably find it easier to buy and replant certain plants, such as tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and peas are easy to start from seed right in your garden beds.
  • Transplant: Give later-season crops such as squash, cucumbers, and broccoli a head start by starting seeds in peat pots in a sunny spot indoors in early spring, then transplanting outside as the weather warms up.
  • Toughen them up: Before planting your seedlings in the garden, harden them off by setting them outside for a few hours each day to get them used to outside weather conditions. A small amount of fertilizer will also help plants weather the transplanting process.
  • Use creative leeway: Because you are constantly enriching your soil, you can place your seeds and plants closer together than your seed packet may direct. Use the recommended distance between plants as your guide. You can usually disregard the suggested distance between rows as long as your beds are narrow enough to access all of your plants from the edges.

Care through the season

  • In cool weather: While the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, give your plants a boost by mixing fish fertilizer, composted manure, or another high-nitrogen organic fertilizer into your soil.
  • In warm weather: Mid-season, fertilize again with a side dressing of compost placed on top of the soil. Be aware that nitrogen promotes lush leafy growth, so don’t use a high-nitrogen fertilizer on fruiting plants like tomatoes and squash, or you will send all of their energy into the leaves and limit your harvest.
  • In any weather: Keep mulching! A layer of mulch will keep weeds at bay and help your soil hold water.

A Helping Hand–Companion Planting

Because your garden is a part of the living organism of nature, all of its parts are interconnected. Farmers have long recognized that plants grown close together can affect each other in adverse and beneficial ways.

Principles of Companion Planting

You can aid your plants’ growth and deter pests by giving some attention to the placement of your crops.

  • Complementary growth patterns and characteristics: Since peas and beans (for example) rely on bacteria in the soil to help them take nitrogen from the air and fix it to their roots, and garlic and onions have antibiotic properties that destroy bacteria, keep your legumes far from anything in the onion family. However, garlic and onions can be extremely helpful in keeping aphids away from your lettuce and cabbages.
  • Shade-loving plants like spinach and lettuce can be planted at the base of tall crops such as peas, beans, and corn. A classic companion group often used by Native American farmers is corn, beans, and squash. Pole beans find the corn stalks to be an excellent trellis for growing; in return, their nitrogen-rich roots fertilize the corn. The broad-leafed squash plants work like mulch on the ground beneath them to keep weeds down and shade the soil.
  • The Chemistry of Attraction: Plant companions can also be used to repel unwanted insects and attract helpful ones. Marigolds and nasturtiums are especially useful in the garden, as they repel Mexican bean beetle, squash bug, tomato hornworm, and whitefly and discourage nematodes. This destructive worm lives in the soil. Lacy-flowered plants like dill and Queen Anne’s Lace can attract aphid-devouring ladybugs, lacewings, and wasps that kill several destructive caterpillars.

Friends and Foes–Disease, Pests, and Helpful Insects

Many gardeners fear that without chemical pesticides and herbicides, their gardens will be overrun, weakened, or destroyed by weeds, insects, and disease. Many of these problems can be avoided by planning and careful gardening practices.

More Ideas for Protecting Your Garden:

By focusing on enriching the soil, providing abundant organic nutrition, and trimming and staking plants attentively, organic gardeners can decrease their crops’ vulnerability to disease and insects.

  • Pick fighters: When buying seeds or plants, look for disease-resistant varieties.
  • Use companion-planting techniques: This will help to deter unfriendly insects and invite helpful ones. You can even buy pest-eating insects like ladybugs and praying mantises at garden-supply centers.
  • Explore non-toxic remedies for garden pests: Crushed eggshells or a powdered rock called diatomaceous earth can be spread around plants to keep slugs away. A half-cup of hot pepper sauce mixed in water with a tablespoon of soap and sprayed on plants can discourage larger animal invaders such as raccoons and rabbits. A heavy spray of soapy water will rid leaves and flowers of aphids.
  • Use a hands-on approach: Daily (and nightly) inspections can reveal slugs, tomato hornworms, and other pests. Pick them off by hand.
  • Keep animals out: For larger invaders, such as deer, you may find a sturdy fence to be your best deterrent. Or get creative and design your own “scare” trap. Some gardeners have set up motion sensors to turn on bright lights or radios to shoo away deer and raccoons.

Beauty without Chemicals—Organic Lawns and Ornamentals

The attractive lawns, shrubbery, and ornamental flowers that contribute so much to the enjoyment of your home can also be maintained using organic methods as long as you follow the basic principle of working with nature rather than fighting against it.

Tending an organic lawn may take a bit more time and energy than traditional methods, but it is worth the trouble, as lawn care chemicals are some of the most damaging to health and the environment.


  • Give them a chance: Give your plants a head start by choosing varieties that are well suited both to your climate and geography and to their place in your garden, i.e., sun versus shade, wet versus dry, etc. Always look for disease-resistant varieties.
  • Consider using beautiful native plants: They will give your garden a natural, woodsy look and require far less attention than showy non-natives.
  • Location, location, location: Choose your planting locations carefully, leaving room for plants to grow and spread and for you to move among them to care for them.
  • Keep them trimmed: Trim dead branches and “deadhead” spent blossoms to promote new growth and continual blooming. Always clean your pruning shears with alcohol or disinfectant to avoid spreading disease.
  • Keep them fed: Fertilize and mulch with compost.
  • Try a change of scenery: If a plant is unhappy, read up on its preferences and move it to a better location. If all else fails, don’t be ashamed to send it to the compost pile and try another species that might be a better fit.


  • Select wisely: Pick the type (or types) of seed that works best for your climate and conditions. Sometimes a mix of different types of grass is a good idea.
  • Feed them: Fertilize during periods of peak growth with balanced organic fertilizers. Apply a thin layer of finely powdered compost or aged manure, or spray a compost or manure “tea” over the lawn. Do not use high-nitrogen fertilizers, as they promote fast green growth and shallow rooting.
  • Let them grow: Do not mow too short. Keeping grass around three inches tall will encourage deep root growth, creating more hardy grass plants and cutting down on watering needs. Use clippings for mulch or leave them on the lawn to enrich the grass as they break down.
  • Keep them weeded: Pull weeds by hand or learn to live with them. Clover is quite beneficial to lawns because it fixes nitrogen in the soil.
  • Prevent weeds from developing: Use corn gluten meal (a by-product of processing corn) to prevent new weed germination. Do not use it on newly seeded lawns, as it will also prevent grass seed from sprouting.

Recipe for Manure or Compost “Tea”

You can make an excellent liquid fertilizer from your compost or manure. This “tea” is also good for using fresh manure that is too hot to put in your garden.

  1. Fill a five-gallon bucket halfway with manure or rich compost, then add water to the top.
  2. Cover with a lid or fine screen to keep mosquitoes out.
  3. Let sit for a week or two, then scoop out water, dilute until it is the color of iced tea, and pour or spray on the garden.
  4. Add more water to the bucket and let it continue to steep, or return the solids to the compost pile, or use them in your garden.

Season by Season: A Year in the Garden

Each year’s season should be a time for preparing and nurturing your garden.


  • Buy fresh manure to compost for spring.
  • Spread fresh manure or compost on dormant beds.
  • Start new beds with newspaper and layers of organic material.
  • While plants are inactive, transplant any shrubs you want to move.
  • Prune trees in January and February.
  • Study seed catalogs, place orders, and plan your garden.
  • In temperate climates, early crops like peas can be planted in February.
  • Apply corn gluten meal to the lawn in late February to catch those early weeds.

Early Spring

  • Clean up beds, dig manure, and cut and dig cover crops.
  • Plant hardy cool weather crops such as radishes, potatoes, turnips, lettuce, and other greens.
  • Start cabbage family, squash, cucumber, etc., seeds inside in peat pots.

Late Spring

  • Harden off and transplant your peat pot seedlings, saving warm weather crops like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers till last.
  • Sow beans directly in beds.
  • Mulch.


  • Deadhead flowering shrubs and weed beds.
  • Water slowly and deeply—drip hoses are good for this.
  • Replenish mulch to help hold water in your beds.
  • Towards the end of the season, plant fall crops of peas, greens, and cabbage family.


  • Early in the season, sow cover crops in any empty beds.
  • Plant garlic, shallots, and flower bulbs.
  • Rake, shred, and compost leaves.

Last update on 2024-06-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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