The basic tenant behind organic gardening is really quite simple; feed the soil and the plants will thrive. In order to do this an effective organic flower gardener will need to obey 5 rules to obtain the healthy ecosystem goal:
*Enrich the soil with organic matter
*Choose plants according to growing conditions
*Use water and mulch optimally
*Use organic fertilizers
*Remain diligent over weeds, pests, and diseases, using organic remedies only as a last resort
When taken one at a time it’s really not as hard as it looks.
First things first; if you are new to organic gardening, the site of your flower bed is very important. Aside from the esthetic issues you’ll want to choose a site where no chemicals have been previously used. If you’ve used synthetic fertilizer or pesticides in the past for an existing garden bed, you might consider another site or using raised garden beds instead. In the event neither is a good option for you, it is still possible to employ organic gardening techniques in the existing bed, but it will be years before the chemicals leach out of the soil making it truly organic. Either way, it’s a good start towards a more healthy earth.
For many gardeners’ preparing garden soil is the least favorite job. It may be something less than glamorous, but for me playing in the dirt is where it’s at. If you’re new to organic gardening, or if the soil has been neglected through the winter months, roll up your sleeves ’cause this is going to take a while.
Before you even go sticking that shiny new spade into the ground there are two things you want to do first. Check the texture of the soil and its PH. Soil texture is easy, grab a handful and squeeze. If it sticks together like dough it has too much clay. Harsh or gritty soil which holds no shape is high in sand. Smooth or powdery, shapeless soil is high in silt. Any of these conditions will interfere with nutrient absorption. If you don’t have mature compost handy, while you’re out grabbing a good PH test kit, you’ll be grabbing a few other things. For high clay you’ll want some contractors’ sand, for high sand or silt you’ll want clay. In all cases you’ll want mature compost
In a utopian gardening world all PH levels would be taken at the end of the growing season prior to winter to give nutrient additives sufficient time to work. In the real world of organic gardening sometimes you have to yield to Mother Nature and work with what you have. Should your PH level lean to either side of the neutral line there is good news. Most common varieties of annuals, bulbs and perennials will thrive in a range of PH levels from 6.0-7.2. Additionally PH levels can be coaxed into balance slowly with the use of compost, or worm composting. Remember you’re establishing an ecosystem so avoid making any extreme changes.
If you haven’t already started now is a good time to get moving on a compost pile. In the meantime you can purchase mature compost usually in 40 lb bags, or as liquid teas. When buying bagged you’ll want to look for loose granular compost free from chunks of wood or bark. Quality compost will be very dark brown to black, with an earthy aroma. If this is your first flower bed bagged compost will serve as both fertilizer and mulch, making it the better economic choice. Do some homework before you make any purchase to be sure you are buying from a reputable dealer, knowledgeable with regard to the contents of the bag.
There is no end to the number of “best methods” floating around out there for how to prepare an organic flower bed. The truth is the best method is whatever works for you. There is work to be done and how you choose to do it matters less. You need to get out there and get rid of the grass either by digging out the sod or through solarization (which takes months). You can replant the sod in bare spots around the yard or remove the topsoil and get the compost pile started with it. Once you’ve removed the grass you’re going to turn over a good six to eight inches of dirt, either through old fashioned elbow grease or with the aid of a rototiller. Get rid of the rocks while you’re at it.
You’re almost there but not quite. Now you’re going to haul the 40 lb bag of compost over to the site and spread a good 2-4 inch layer over the lose soil and mix it in. Like ideas on the best method approach, there are many ideas on what to do next. Some folks will tell you to make further amendments to the soil by adding additional fertilizer, humus, sulfur or lime. If you want to spend the additional funds go right ahead, or you could take those funds and go get a massage after all your hard work. Here’s the deal, mature compost has all the nutrients your soil needs, it just needs time. Let it sit out there for 6 weeks before planting and you won’t need additional fertilizer. As far as the humus goes, once the composts nutritional value has been leached out of it, it becomes humus. You’ll also see the PH of your soil come more into line over time. Your mother was right when she told you patience was a virtue. While you’re waiting turn the soil a few more times over the next few weeks and water the bed once or twice a week.
Regardless of whether you choose to plant from seed or to purchase plants from a nursery, you want them to be native and capable of thriving in the environment in its present state. Choose only the healthiest plants to get your garden off to the best start. Plants of questionable health could be an invitation for disease and pest problems. When purchasing plants its important not to get ahead of yourself. Plants should be put into the ground on the same day you buy them. Once the garden has been successfully planted you can use the compost as mulch to insulate the plants and help control moisture.
Having chosen healthy native plants was your first line of defense against disease and pests. Keeping up with the weeds is going to play an important role in this area also. Frequent weeding will close the door on many pests while providing a good opportunity to monitor plants for any signs of damage. There are some bugs you might want to invite from the very beginning. Lady bugs and ground beetles love those 100 calorie pest snacks. If you do find you have a problem you can’t make peace with always choose the least drastic measure of pest control, there are many organic pesticides available but even they come with some consequence.
All that’s left is to water and fertilize. Adding some compost every 1-2 weeks should be sufficient for fertilization. Always check the soil before watering to be sure it is truly warranted. Instead of soaking the whole bed, aim for individual plants. Now go enjoy all your hard work.