Organic Gardening 101:Where Do You Start?

Organic gardening involves more than trading chemical inputs for organic inputs. Organic is a different way of thinking about your garden. Here are some starter tips.

organic gardening

Perhaps you’ve been contemplating a start down the organic garden path, but this thought keeps getting in the way: “I’ve always used chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and I’m afraid that my plants won’t grow without them.”

Wherever you are right now, before humans arrived, plants most likely grew on that very spot without the benefit of lab-produced chemicals. Chemical fertilizers were conceptualized and developed in the 19th century, but only put into wide use in the mid-twentieth century, which leaves… about a billion years that plants – every plant – grew without them. Big Agriculture has done such an excellent job of marketing their products that they’ve brainwashed consumers into believing that plants will downright choke to death without chemicals. I promise that won’t happen if you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Toss the garden chemicals

In your first season of organic gardening , you may experience some pest problems. This is because you’ve been dousing your garden with pesticides, killing the target insects as well as the beneficial insects, which has altered the “food web” of your garden: the “good” bugs, birds, and other creatures that used to eat those bad bugs have moved out to find food elsewhere. But don’t worry, they’ll eventually return and your garden will fall back into balance, making chemicals unnecessary.

2. Get your hands on lots of compost

Soil Food Web Compost is a staple in organic gardening. Whether you make it yourself from kitchen scraps, have a local horse stable deliver manure, or buy bags of compost at the nursery center, your health, your plants’ health, and your soil’s health will benefit. Compost feeds your plants (and the soil) the way nature intended them to be fed, and also supplies everything (and more) that chemical (synthetic) fertilizers supply. The difference is that bottled chemicals are water soluble and are quickly taken up by plants, while compost supplies nutrients to plants via organic decay (slowly, but surely). If your plants need a boost, add fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, or compost tea to their regimen. These are all high in the nutrients that chemical fertilizers impart, but they also have the extra power of bacteria, fungi and micronutrients.

3. Use mulches

Organic mulches, to be specific. That means the kind made from tree bark, wood, or shrub and tree wastes (what you’ll typically find at your local municipal compost pile). Mulches help your soil retain moisture and add to the biological activity and decay that feeds your plants.  They also regulate soil temperature to protect your plants’ roots from heatwaves and frost.

4. Raised Garden Beds

Row planting is so…twentieth century. The most efficient way to plant your organic garden is with raised beds. That doesn’t mean you have to build an elaborate contraption like a giant planter. Just design a bed 3 feet across by however many feet long and layer top soil and compost until you get it at least 8 inches high. Raising your beds this way helps with water drainage, warms the soil a bit earlier and yields more intensive crops in less space. Read my earlier post on how to build a raised garden bed.

5. Read all you can about organic gardening

Here’s a list of helpful books to get you started.

Don’t believe the chemical hype – organic gardening is at least as productive as using synthetic chemicals, but is safer, cleaner, and environmentally friendly.

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google

3 Responses to Organic Gardening 101:Where Do You Start?

  1. Lucy says:

    Here is my problem. I live on a small 100 x100 suburban lot, with a house and a two car garage. I want to utilize as much of the property as possible to plant. The dilemma is that my neighbors use chemicals on their grass, so I am always worried about my food being contaminated. Particularly, there is an area towards my back yard that gets lots of sun that would be perfect. I’ve avoided planting there because the land declines into my property from the back neighbor. When it rains the unabsorbed water puddles into my back yard. Is this a lost cause or do you have any suggestions.

    • Todd says:

      That certainly is a challenge, but definitely not a lost cause. The first issue to address is the pooling water – you must create a system whereby it will percolate down into the ground. Depending on how much water and how large an area, a french drain may help with this. At the very least aerate the area and improve it with lots of organic material to open up air holes in the soil. See my post about fixing drainage problems in a lawn.
      You can also create a two foot high earth berm to re-route the running water from your neighbors yard into an area less problematic for you. You can hide the berm with water loving plants like marsh grasses, which grow very tall and absorb tons of water(they love it). You can even plant on top of it which will give you beautiful flowers to look at.
      You can also create raised beds which are higher than standard beds. If the garden bed is raised about three feet off the ground, like the kind they build for handicapped individuals, the water flowing into your yard becomes a non-issue for contamination.
      Chemicals in the yard next door are not to be taken lightly – you’re right to be concerned. My neighbor sprayed an old, weed overgrown former garden bed with roundup this year and the herbicide drifted and browned out a young arborvitae of mine. Fortunately it created no permanent damage and the brown grew out.

  2. Robin says:

    Hi there, it’s so nice to finally find another organic Lehigh Valley Gardener! I will be spending some time looking around your site.