Organic vegetables and flowers
Photo: Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association
Organic gardening is taking off around the nation, but there's nothing new about gardening without synthetic chemicals. In fact, it was the only way people grew food until a few generations ago.

Barbara W. Ellis, a horticulturist and author of The Veggie Gardener's Answer Book, says the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in gardening only became popular in the '40s.

"All of our great-grandparents were organic gardeners. Nonorganic gardening only started after the World Wars, when all the chemicals became available," she says. "We went through a period in the country where we thought we could kill every insect, and then people realized maybe that isn't a good idea."

Questions about the harmful effects of synthetic garden, lawn and agricultural chemicals on food, water, insects, animals and humans has taken center stage. Now, more people are buying organic food, and some want to try growing it themselves too. Barbara says you shouldn't be afraid to try. "It is one thing people can do that they have control over, that they can make the environment a little better," she says.
There are official standards set by National Organic Program that home gardeners can follow, but Suzanne DeJohn, a horticulturist and co-author of Organic Gardening for Dummies, says those are detailed in a 500-page document.

"The standards can be a little overwhelming and can be confusing for home gardeners. I think it's more important to follow the general principles of organic gardening," she says.

Here are Suzanne and Barbara's easy-to-follow, organic gardening principles:
  • Build good soil. Your soil should be built up with organic matter such as rotten manure, chopped leaves, compost and organic mulch.
  • Buy certified organic or healthy, untreated seeds and transplants. All certified organic garden seeds are labeled with a stamp that reads "USDA Organic." These seeds can be found in garden centers nationwide. You can buy organic transplants from a certified organic nursery. If there is no such nursery in your area, buy untreated transplants from a local nursery with a good reputation and make sure the plants have been well watered and taken care of.
  • Plant a border of flowers. Planting daisies, zinnias and marigolds around your vegetable garden will help attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to your plants.
  • Plant a diverse mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. Try growing a diverse garden; you'll encourage a variety of animals and insects, so you can use nature's system of checks and balances to help manage pests.
  • Use floating row covers. These covers, made of a light-weight woven material, can be fitted over your rows of plants to keep pests out. You can keep row covers over crops like lettuce all season long. For other plants, such as zucchini, squash and melon, the row cover should come off when the plants start to get large.
  • Keep your garden mulched. Using organic mulch on your garden keeps weeds down and soil moist.
  • Learn to recognize pest problems. Ninety percent of insects in your garden are either benign or beneficial, Barbara says. You need to be able to identify the damaging ones, such as spider mites, aphids, Japanese beetles, green caterpillars, slugs and flea beetles.
  • Fight diseases with vigilance. Diseases can often be avoided if caught early. If you notice some leaves of a plant that look diseased, you should prune the leaf and remove it from the garden. Only prune diseased leaves when the plants are dry. When plants are wet, you can spread disease spores to the rest of the garden. If pruning leaves does not solve the problem, you should probably remove the diseased plant from your garden.
  • Don't neglect it. Walk though your garden every day or every other day and inspect your plants to see if they need to be watered or are being harmed by pests or diseases.
  • Say no to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. If you use these chemical-laden products on your garden, it is no longer organic.
One of the reasons many people use synthetic chemicals in their gardens is to control pests that may ravage their produce. Barbara says there are easy ways to control pests organically, such as blasting damaging insects from plants with water from a hose or picking pests off your plants and drowning them in soapy water. There are organic soap and soap-and-oil sprays you can make to kill insects, but Barbara says those should always be your last resort. "In my own garden, I let the pests and the beneficial insects have a war, and if I lose a plant, I lose a plant," she says.

Deer and rabbits can also cause problems for gardeners because hungry animals may think your garden is their personal buffet! Building a fence around your garden before you plant may be the best way to deter wildlife from eating what you grow.

"You really need to fence before you plant, because once they know there is food there, they are going to move heaven and earth to get in there," Barbara says. Many gardeners also swear by special home remedies to keep animals away, such as hanging bags of fragrant soap or human hair from a beauty shop around the garden, Barbara says.
Many conventional gardeners may argue that the traces of pesticides left on the food they grow are minimal, but Barbara says she follows a different train of thought. "If you can grow a fruit that doesn't have any parts-per-million of any toxic pesticide, wouldn't you rather have that?" she asks.

Suzanne agrees and says organically grown food may be more nutritious too. "Many organic gardeners feel that organically grown foods are higher in nutrients, at least in part, because organic soil amendments contain minor nutrients and trace minerals that many synthetic fertilizers don't," she says.

No matter your reasons for wanting to grow an organic garden, Barbara says you should give yourself credit for taking the first step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. "If you have an organic garden the first year, then maybe reduce the amount of spraying you do on your lawn too," she says. "It is the right direction to go."

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