Organic Gardening 101

By: Tema Flanagan Environmental responsibility, Gardening guide

Growing a garden is a truly gratifying experience. After all, what could be better than watching seasonal flowers bloom outside your window or walking out your back door to harvest fresh herbs and vegetables for dinner? But gardening isn’t just fun—it’s good for you, too. The health benefits of gardening are well-known, and the benefits are only amplified when you choose to grow an organic garden.

Not only is it good for you, it’s better for the environment. Organic gardening means avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are harmful to the environment and the people who come in contact with them. But it’s not just about replacing those chemical products with more natural alternatives. Organic gardening is all about nurturing and harnessing healthy soil to create gardens with fewer pest and disease problems to begin with.

Whether you’re a gardening newbie or an experienced green thumb, starting an organic garden may mean shifting your perspective a little bit when it comes to how you approach the art of growing fruits, vegetables, and flowers. But with a little bit of information and preparation, you’ll be ready to go in no time. Here are some of our recommendations on how to get started.

Organic gardening 101: how to grow your garden

Get to know your local climate

The first step of organic gardening 101 is to get to know your local climate, as this will impact which plants you can expect to grow with success, as well as when to plant them.

  • Find your local plant hardiness zone—Look up your region’s USDA plant hardiness zone. Plant hardiness zones are a reflection of how cold each part of the country gets during the winter (as measured by the lowest temperature, on average, each year). The map is divided into 10 degree zones, and each zone is assigned a number. Knowing your number will help you select plants, especially perennials, that will do well in your area and help you avoid unnecessary gardening fails.
  • Research your local frost-free date—Your local frost-free date refers to the last day of the year, on average, that you can expect to receive a frost in your area. You can find this date by calling your local extension office. The frost-free date is very important in terms of planning your garden, as you don’t want to directly seed certain plants or set out tender transplants until the threat of frost has passed. Keep in mind that the average frost-free date will, by definition, be earlier than your area’s historic last frost date. While the average date is a good rule of thumb, the actual last frost date is probably your safest bet when it comes to setting out summer transplants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant.
  • Ask experienced local gardeners—Experienced local gardeners are another great resource when it comes to learning about your local climate and which plants (and varieties) grow best in your area. If you don’t already have friends who garden, see if you can find a local chapter of Master Gardeners and get involved. Remember that not all local gardeners will practice organic methods, so you may need to adapt their advice and methods to suit your garden.

Select an organic garden site

Selecting a garden site is one of the most exciting parts of starting an organic garden. What could be more inspiring than picking a spot in your yard and imagining a tidy, flourishing garden? Here are some key factors to consider when it comes to garden site selection.

  • Size—If your property is small, chances are good that any garden site you select will be quickly accessible from your house. If you have a larger property, you’ll want to consider how easy it is to see and get to your garden. Ideally, your organic garden spot should be visible from your home or in an area that you pass each day. The more you see your garden in your daily comings and goings, the more likely you are to notice when it’s time to water, weed, or harvest. It’s also best if your garden spot is in a convenient location relative to your tool shed or garage—and, of course, a reliable watering source.
  • Sun—Unless you specifically want to grow a shade garden, make sure your selected garden site gets at least six hours of full sun every day.
  • Soil—While you may not have much choice in the matter, it’s a great idea to do at least a cursory check of the soil in your intended garden site before finalizing a location. If you’re deciding between two locations on your property that are otherwise comparable, check and see if one location seems to have deeper, better-looking soil.  
  • Water—As for nearly all living things, water is crucial. Make sure your intended garden site has easy access to water, either via a spigot or a nearby source of surface water, like a pond or a stream. You’ll also want to consider the drainage and moisture levels of your chosen location. If your garden spot is low-lying and tends to collect puddles or drain slowly after a heavy rain, it may be too wet for the most common garden plants to thrive.
  • Wind—If possible, avoid selecting a garden site that tends to be windy. If that isn’t possible, plan to grow or erect a windbreak.

Get to know your soil

“Start with your soil.” That’s the advice of Ellen Polishuk, farm consultant and author of the forthcoming book, Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer. As Ellen implies, your soil’s health will play a huge role in the success of your organic garden, so the first thing you’ll want to do is get a sense of how it currently fares. Organic gardening 101 tip—even if your soil isn’t in tip-top shape, using organic gardening methods should help improve it over time. We recommend the following ways to determine whether or not your garden’s soil is ready for planting.

  • Check to see if you have enough soil—If you have a yard with grass, it may surprise you to learn that you might not have enough topsoil to start a garden without bringing in outside material. “People’s yards tend to have the worst soil,” says Ellen. “Especially if your house was built in the last 50 years, this may be a problem. Builders often add just enough top soil to at the end of construction to grow grass, and it tends to be compacted, too.” Her advice? “Go outside and check if you can actually pierce the soil in your yard with a shovel,” she says. If you don’t have at least 6–8 inches of penetrable soil, you should plan to add material to build up the soil before starting your organic garden. Ellen recommends a blend of 60% compost (not manure), 30% topsoil, and 10% peat moss is recommended. Raised beds are also an excellent option. In suburban areas, Ellen explains, they make lawn maintenance around the edge of the garden easier, too.
  • Determine soil type—There are several types of soil, including clay, loam, and sandy soil. If you’re not sure which type you have, do the squeeze test. Loamy soils, which are the perfect balance of clay, sand, and silt, are ideal for most garden plants. But if you find you have clay or sandy soil, you can work to improve it over time by adding organic soil amendments, such as compost.
  • Get a soil test—The next step is to get a soil test using soil from your intended garden site. A basic soil test should be relatively cheap and will tell you your soil’s pH level as well as other information regarding the levels of important nutrients, like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.
  • Soil improvement—Once you receive your soil test results, consult your local extension agent (or the facility that did the soil test) to determine how best to organically amend your soil prior to planting. Just be sure to mention that you only want to use organic amendments, like compost, bone meal, and manure, rather than synthetic fertilizers.

Create an organic garden plan

Now that you’ve picked a location and started familiarizing yourself with your garden’s soil, it’s time for the really fun part—creating a plan for your organic garden.

  1. To start, list the plants you hope to include in your garden, from basil and tomatoes to sunflowers and zinnias. You might consider creating separate lists for annuals and perennials, since you will likely want to plant them in separate locations in your garden.
  2. Next, draw a map of your garden site. Using graph paper will help you draw the site to scale. Consider how you will arrange beds in your garden, whether you plan to use a grid layout, raised beds, or something more free-flowing.
  3. Mark on the map where you will plant each of your planned crops, including how much space they will take up. We recommend consulting an organic seed catalog to determine how much space each plant requires.
  4. Finally, create a planting schedule. Using the seed catalog, make note of which plants should be started from seed or transplanted. For annual plants in a spring and summer garden, these dates will typically relate to your local frost-free date. Be sure to order seed or buy transplants in advance of your scheduled planting dates. To ensure the integrity of your organic garden, opt for organic seed and transplants whenever possible, and always steer clear of GMO seeds and plants.

Prepare the ground

At least several weeks before you intend to begin planting your organic garden, you’ll need to prepare the ground. If yours is a brand new garden spot, this will likely mean measuring out your beds and breaking ground for the first time or building and filling raised beds.

Be sure to work in any organic soil amendments you plan to use—it’s always a good idea to add in some organic compost, too. Soil amendments should be worked into the top 8–10 inches of soil. If you’re preparing the ground in the late summer or early fall for the following spring, cover the beds with straw or a plastic tarp until planting time.

Planting time

Using your garden plan, start setting out seeds and transplants according to the schedule you created. Pay special attention to the instructions on seed packets or the informational tags that come with transplants to ensure that everything is planted according to proper spacing, planting depth, water, and sun requirements.

Watering

While some plants are more tolerant to drought than others, all plants require consistent watering to thrive. Here are a few tips to help you successfully water your organic garden.

  • Different plants have different water requirements. However, in general, you should aim to water regularly, especially during the hot, dry season. Go for less frequent, deeper watering sessions, allowing the soil to slightly dry out between waterings to encourage roots to grow deeper. A good rule of thumb is to try giving your garden plants the equivalent of 1–2 inches of water per week, whether that comes in the form of rainfall or intentional watering.
  • Avoid overhead watering if possible—wet foliage can lead to disease.
  • Water in the early morning, rather than the hottest part of the day. Late afternoon is the second-best option.
  • If possible, consider installing drip irrigation. This requires a little up-front cost and effort, but if you are serious about pursuing organic gardening, it’s well worth the investment. Drip systems make watering much less labor-intensive while supplying water at the roots, thus reducing disease.

Weed management

Organic gardening means not turning to chemical herbicides to control the inevitable weeds that will find their way into your garden. Instead, you’ll need to rely on other methods to keep weeds at bay. Here are the two main tactics used by organic gardeners.

  • Mulch—A great way to keep weeds from coming up in the first place. Whether you choose to use straw or plastic mulch, mulching is an especially good weed prevention strategy for perennial plants, fruits, or ornamental trees and longer-term annuals, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, that will be there for a majority of the growing season
  • Mechanical weeding—This is another big weapon at your disposal when it comes to fighting weeds in your organic garden. The right tools—from gloves to hand and wheel hoes to flame weeders—plus a little elbow grease are all that you need. Weed early and often. It’s much easier to deal with baby weeds than their full-grown counterparts.

Pest and disease management

Nuisance insects and plant diseases are an inevitable—if unfortunate—part of gardening. Thankfully, there are quite a few options when it comes to organic pest management and disease control.  

  • Manual removal of pests—This option is best suited to pest problems that haven’t yet gotten out of hand. Make a game of pinching off Japanese beetles from zinnias and okra and tomato hornworms from tomato plants.
  • Manual removal of diseased plants—If you start to encounter disease problems in one of your crops, a helpful first step can be to simply remove diseased plants or parts of the plant, making sure to dispose of them away from your garden site and compost pile to prevent the disease from sticking around in the soil until next year.
  • DIY remedies—Choose from any number of DIY pesticide recipes or deal with problem bugs and diseases in an environmentally-friendly manner.
  • Organic pesticides and disease control products—There are many commercially available pesticides and disease-fighting concoctions that are actually considered organic, meaning that they received the Organic Materials Review Institute approval. Ask your local garden center or look online to see what’s available.
  • Create barriers for larger critters—Depending on where you live, you may have to deal with large garden pests in the form of deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and even squirrels. From fencing to scarecrows, there are multiple options for deterring unwanted garden intruders.
  • Integrative pest management—This is a more holistic way of addressing pest and disease issues that takes a more preventative approach. Under this system, gardeners start by doing everything they can—from crop rotation to watering techniques and beyond—to make their garden spaces less welcoming to common pests and diseases.

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