In organic gardening, hitting pay dirt means shoring up the soil to its richest, loamiest potential before planting that first seed.
“Organic is all about getting and keeping the soil as strong as possible,” says Janisse Ray, author of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food and an owner of Red Earth Farm in Georgia. “Soil with a high nutrition content produces healthy – and healthful – plants, which ultimately form the basis for human health.”
Organic growers rely on cover crops, companion plants, and crop rotation to amend their soil for a generative foundation.
After ascertaining that your site enjoys at least five or six hours of sunlight a day, take soil samples and send them to your cooperative extension office or the nearest land-grant university to test for pH level, nutrient content and percentage of organic matter, along with a request for recommendations of organic soil amendments, as opposed to the kind of manufactured chemicals shunned by organic growers. Then fortify accordingly with minerals and compost.
“Cover crops” such as clovers, rye, vetch, lupin, legumes, Austrian winter peas, mustards, and tillage radish (long taproots extract deep-down nutrients) should be at work in the off season to prime your turf, and during the growing season to attract beneficial insects.
“Plant cover crops and alliums (onions and garlic) throughout the garden to help to replenish soil fertility,” says Daron Joffe, better known as “Farmer D.” Joffe is an Atlanta-based author of Citizen Farmer and a garden-entrepreneur who sells his bagged compost at Whole Foods and his raised garden beds through Williams-Sonoma. “Transplant seedlings in shady conditions, during early morning, evening or on a cloudy day, and then water well after transplanting and keep watering until their recovery from transplant shock -- about five to10 days.”
An Air of Simplicity
The “don’ts” are as important as the “dos,” growers say.
“You want the soil aerated, so don’t walk on your beds – that compresses the air out of it,” Joffe says. Over-tilling is another common beginner’s mistake.
“I try to keep it low-tech, mostly using a shovel to turn earth,” says Jack Gurley, of Calvert’s Gift Organic Herb and Vegetable Farm in Maryland. “I always advise new gardeners not to buy a big Rototiller or other expensive equipment initially. Start simple. Lettuce is a great crop for a beginner because it doesn’t require a super-fertile soil.”
A Time to Sow and Reap
Growing seasons vary by climate, so planting times vary from New England to milder California.
“The easiest way to categorize is by ‘cool season crops’ and ‘warm season crops,’” Joffe says. “Cool season crops are best planted in very early spring and late summer or early fall. These include leafy greens (arugula, spinach), brassicas (broccoli, kale, collards), root veggies and peas. Spring and fall are also a good time to plant perennial herbs and flowers. Warm season veggies (squash, cucumbers, beans, corn) are best planted in early and late spring and can be direct-seeded in the garden after the frost. Warm-season, slow-growing vegetables like tomatoes and peppers are best planted indoors in early spring for transplanting just after the last frost.”
Companion crops make useful allies in attracting or repelling insects and spiffing up their neighbors with nutrients and curb appeal.
“I plant lots of borage because the blossoms attract pollinators and work well in salads,” says Crescent Dragonwagon, author of Bean by Bean, and an organic gardener in Vermont. “I plant Anise Hyssop near cabbage because it deters those predators, and I’ve trimmed my entire garden in False Indigo because it pours nitrogen into the soil while looking like a living fence of beautiful French blue.”
Tomatoes provide shade for carrots, which, in turn, loosen and aerate the soil. “In February and March, I plant turnip greens next to my strawberry patch to lure the good bugs for the berries in April,” says John Snow, of Snow’s Bend Organic Farm in Alabama.
Finally, once you have tasted success, change it all up. “Good crop rotation is worth more than anything else you can do, because it helps a crop dodge the predators and pathogens that are settling in,” Snow says.
Most growers recommend at least three years for the cycle, but, ideally, aim for a five-year rotation. “That time period sounds daunting, but it’s not when you have a broad diversity of crops to work with, which should be your goal anyway,” Gurley says.