We have moved in an organic direction with the vegetable gardens for the past five years. We decided that if we are going to grow vegetables it makes sense to make the effort to produce great tasting, nutritious vegetables free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. It was a moving back to the land kind of idealism of growing and processing our own food that made the concept attractive.
We heard all the excuses about lower production, insects will prevail, and it is too hard to go organic. Our wish to have healthy great tasting food, however put us to work researching garden methods that would be productive, low maintenance, and incorporate organic production.
We decided to start with raised beds. The “upper garden” now has eight raised beds and we have started using Square Foot Gardening. Two years ago the “lower garden” was started. It is a 30’ by 75’ area and is developing as a Raised Row Garden. A section of the lower garden is for experimenting with other techniques. An earlier post describes our summer 2015 experiments including Straw Bale Gardening.
Here are some things we feel are important if you are going organic.
1. Learn about your soil
2. Learn about natural organic fertilizers
3. Learn how to protect your garden and keep it healthy
Today’s posting, Part I of our Learning Curve addresses soil.
1. The structure of Soil is the foundation of organic gardening. It is necessary to know as much as you can about the soil’s texture, pH levels, and the eco-system.
Texture relates to the components that make up the soil. The three main components are sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each in a soil sample will determine the texture of the soil. Soil structure can range from sandy and loose to clay and compacted. Soils high in sand content tend to drain quickly and not hold moisture needed for growth. Soils high in clay content do not drain well and hold too much moisture that can lead to root rot and kill your plants. A “feel” test can help determine your soil texture. Sandy soils will feel gritty and when moist will not clump together. Silt soils feel powdery when dry and will clump loosely when damp. Clay soils will clump tightly when squeezed and will mold together when damp.
Healthy soil also has organic matter supplied by decaying plant and animal waste. Healthy soil has that nice earthy aroma that gardeners thrive on. The organic matter is necessary for plant nutrition and feed for the living micro-organisms living in the soil. Everything from microscopic bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects make up the soils eco-system. The soil needs to be alive! Repeated use of commercial fertilizers over the years can “kill” the soil. The soils eco-system is the basis of organic gardening.
Time to recall your high school chemistry acids and bases. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with 7 as the mean. The pH of the soil is important as it will determine the plant’s ability to use nutrients in the soil. Most vegetables need a pH level around 6.5 in order to uptake the available nutrients in the soil. Home test kits are available at your garden center to test your soil pH. We test each bed and row every year and plant or adjust the pH accordingly. Adding lime to the soil will raise the pH level decreasing acidity. Adding sulphur to the soil will decrease the pH level decreasing the alkalinity. Be sure that the additive you use is approved safe for organic gardening. More on plants and the effects of pH on nutrient uptake and soil pH modification can be found here.
Soil structure is so important to the success of the organic garden that we constantly amend the soil. Successful organic gardening means making your own compost, lots of it and adding to the growing areas. It means planting cover crops as “green manure” and most importantly, testing and monitoring your growing beds. Always remember to keep records of your results.
The more you improve soil structure the healthier your garden will be. Healthy plants are disease free and less attractive to detrimental insects. The stronger your soil structure the lower the labour needed to enjoy your own nutritious, chemical free fruit and vegetables.
We are still learning and have a long way to go yet. Should you wish to dig deeper into soil structure, check out Phil Nauta at the The Smiling Gardener.
In the next post, we share our learning and experiences with natural fertilizers and tips to keeping a healthy garden.
Still waiting for the snow to go!
Tom and Di