It’s Easy Being Green: Organic gardens require simple steps

Although “organic” seems like a contemporary buzzword for upscale restaurants and gourmet cooking shows, it’s showing up in local gardens. Why are gardeners leaning toward organic these days? Simply put, many gardeners, as well as consumers, are concerned about a cleaner environment and optimum health.

Commercial organic food production has increased in recent years, and many home gardeners are returning to natural remedies and products to use on food they grow themselves.

Years ago, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were introduced to enhance plant growth and keep pests from harming crops. But people grew concerned about what those chemicals can do to the body and environment. As a result, manufacturers of consumer garden products have launched brands, such as Garden Safe from Spectrum Brands, “to address the increasing consumer demand for safer alternatives to traditional gardening control products,” said Jim Guard, senior marketing director at Spectrum, whose U.S. home and garden unit is based in St. Louis.

One area farmer not only uses organic practices for his family garden, but he’s also taken it to the next level, growing vegetables organically as his business. Bob Lober, owner of St. Isidore Farms in Moscow Mills, Mo., quit corporate America nearly 10 years ago to work the land. “It’s like being back in the 1800s, where everyone in the family had chores to do,” said Lober.

Lober knows the advantages of growing naturally great-tasting produce. “To me, there is no other way,” said Lober. “Organic tastes better, stays fresher longer and is actually easier to maintain.”

Steps to take now

Inspired to cut back on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but you’ve already gotten started on your garden? It’s not too late to take these basic measures:

Mulch and compost. Mulching is a favorite term among organic gardeners. Anyone can create a compost pile from almost any material that was once alive. “We build compost piles with chicken wire in a circular area,” said Mara Redmon, program director for Gateway Greening, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that promotes community development through community gardens. Her organization educates gardeners on the use of natural methods.

Compostable material can be found in your own kitchen – vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and more. You should also add items from the yard to your compost pile, like grass clippings or shredded leaves, to create a soil cover that will help preserve moisture. Simply add water and turn the material periodically in order to create heat. “Gardeners can even use a bucket with drilled holes to compost,” Redmon added. “This all depends on how much space they have.”

Those with limited space can also try vermicomposting, using worms in enclosed bins to speed the decomposition process. Kits and instructions are available online and at local stores like Worm’s Way on North Warson Road in St. Louis County.

Weed control. It’s important to keep weeds at bay by pulling them before they’ve had a chance to spread and take root. Natural weed killers include spraying household vinegar during the day, spreading a layer of newspaper to act as a weed barrier or simply using a layer of shredded leaves. If convenience is a factor, consider using one of the naturally derived products on the market.

Pest control. Attract what are commonly known as beneficial bugs to your garden to act as pest controllers. Such beneficial insects include the ladybug and the ground beetle – both are welcome sights to any gardener. You can attract these beneficials by planting certain types of plants, like sunflowers and black-eyed Susans, in and around your garden area. A hard spray of water will often remove pests, as well.

Redmon said that planting marigolds around the perimeter assists in naturally deterring pests. Basically, anything that has a strong scent, like garlic, helps keep pests away. This can be done even after your garden has been planted.

When pests and diseases simply can’t be eliminated through purely natural methods, the use of such products as the Garden Safe brand – derived from ingredients like neem seed oil and pyrethrin, made from an extract of chrysanthemum flowers – will help.

Steps to take in the long term

Often gardeners have the impression that organic is more difficult but, according to Lober, if you enrich the soil, you don’t have to worry about pests – or using pesticides. This could take approximately three to five years. “I recommend that gardeners have their soil tested in the late summer in order to determine what nutrients the soil needs,” he said.

“The most important step in organic gardening is to take care of your soil,” Gateway Greening’s Redmon agreed. In the fall, gardeners should clean out their gardening beds and take note of what was planted and where. Adding compost materials and soil-enriching nutrients, like green manure (also known as cover crops), will provide much-needed nutrients to the soil. “The best time to add compost material is in the fall,” she added.

During the cold months, gardeners can read gardening books to learn more about organic practices. Redmon also recommended Organic Gardening magazine. Other great resources include local farmers, Gateway Greening or the Missouri Organic Gardening Association.

Next spring, put more thought into what you will plant and in what location. Or try companion planting, in which certain plants benefit others by being planted nearby. “With companion planting, you can choose different plants at different levels, so that they aren’t competing for soil nutrients,” said Redmon. “This can even mean planting onions next to carrots, as they also deter a lot of pests.”

Redmon added that growing organically brings satisfaction to any gardener. “I personally think it’s the best way to grow things,” she said. An organic garden enhances what you eat and will also make you think more about where it came from.