Planning and Preparing Your Organic Garden

Planning and Preparing Your Organic Garden

Organic Gardening for Beginners

Tools That You Will Need:
There are a few basic tools that everyone needs to have in order to keep a healthy garden. These include a pointed shovel, fork, garden rake, cultivator, garden hoe, trowel, and a pair of shears or garden snips. (The fork is not absolutely necessary and can be replaced with the shovel or the rake in most cases.) Good tools can be purchased at a local hardware store for around five to ten dollars apiece. Expect to spend anywhere from twenty five to thirty dollars for a complete set of necessary tools. Some optional tools include a wheelbarrow, push mower, flathead shovel or spade, flower pots, and a compost tumbler. For organic gardening, you will need a compost pile or composter. 

Caring for Your Garden Tools:
Unless they are cared for properly, tools will not last through even one season. Tool care is simple and easy to follow. First, and most importantly, NEVER leave tools outside after using them. Sun and moisture will cause the wood to warp, crack, and loosen. When the wood dries out too much and becomes loose, the head of the tool will not stay on and the tool becomes useless and will have to be thrown away. Keep all tools inside a shed or garage to protect them from the elements. Secondly, keep your tools clean and dry when you are not using them. Dirt and water will cause them to rust. If you have tools that require sharpening, buy a sharpener and keep it in storage where you keep your tools.

When to Begin:
Gardens are usually begun in spring, but some gardens can be begun in the fall. Begin planning your garden during the winter. Seeds should be started indoors around six weeks before the last spring frost. Find a warm place to start your seeds where they can get plenty of sunlight after germination. In our home, we have a small atrium attached to the house. A garden shed with windows that is protected from freezing will also work. If you do not have an area that is warm with plenty of light, you can grow them in a garage with a grow light which can be purchased at a local hardware store. Seed packets should state when you need to begin your seeds and how you should go about doing so.

Will You Need a Greenhouse?
Greenhouses are useful, but not necessary. Also called hothouses, these structures help keep plants warm out-of-doors before the planting season begins. Sunlight comes into the greenhouse through the walls and ceiling and remains inside the greenhouse as heat. You can build your own greenhouse with a few simple tools and supplies. Instructions for building a large passive greenhouse can be built here. For a simpler greenhouse, purchase some heavy chicken wire and plastic sheeting. Bend the wire over your plants in a a half-circle over your plants so that it creates a dome. You can then lay the plastic sheeting over your wire for protection. tie the plastic to the wire with string and bring it around and down to close off the ends. Secure the greenhouse to the ground with stakes. You can pull the stakes up and lift the cover for watering, or you can run a soaker hose through the covered garden and turn it off and on when watering is needed.

Choosing Your Crops:
The most important thing about choosing which crops you will grow is location. Obviously, if you live in Alaska, you won't be able to have a full harvest of watermelons. First, decide all of the plants you would like to grow and make a list. When choosing your seeds, make a note of the weather conditions each plant prefers. If it does not coincide with your region, you will have to cross it off of your list. Some plants have different varieties that grow in different types of weather, so check out each type before you choose. Some plants need lots of water and should not be grown in dry areas. Other plants require cool weather and should not be grown where the summers are too hot for them to grow. As you look up the climatic conditions for each variety, make a note to the side of each strain you can grow in your garden.

If this is your first garden, you should be careful not to grow any plants which require too much care and are not good for beginners. Asparagus is one such plant. Asparagus takes three years to mature and become established. This is an example of a plant that is best left to the experienced gardener. Some good plants for the first-time gardener include pumpkins, watermelon, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumber, potatoes, okra, beans, peas, corn, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, squash, turnips, beets, and radishes. There are also a variety of other plants that are suitable for a first-time garden. Herbs are almost always easy to grow and are very good for first-time gardeners.

Where to Plant?
Location is one of the most important factors in having a successful garden. You must choose a place that gets full sun at least 2/3 of the day and has good drainage. For anyone not familiar with gardening, good drainage means that it is on a hill or on flat level ground. Don't plant in a ditch or at the bottom of a hill or anywhere water drains or will collect. Too much water can drown a plant. If you are planting next to a house, you will need to plant away from the edge of the roof or install a rain gutter over the area where the roof slants down over the garden. Rainwater pouring off of a roof will damage plants and cause excessive runoff which will wash away your topsoil, exposing roots and killing your garden plants (and I can say this from personal experience).

Try to grow your garden as far from any trees as possible. Trees will compete with garden plants for water and can sometimes create too much shade, not to mention covering the garden in leaves in autumn. Plant the garden near the house so that it will be accessible to water and easy to take care of. Gardening should not mean taking a trip out across the pasture. Think about crucial elements when planting. Is it too near the composter? Insects that feed on compost would also love to feed on your garden plants. Is it near the garage? That might make it easier when toting tools and supplies back and forth.

Planning the Garden:
The beginning gardener should know how much room a garden takes up. While planning the size of the garden, you will need to assume that you can plant about 1 1/2 plants per square foot. Carrots and smaller root crops can be planted three per square foot. Spreading plants such as squash, watermelon, pumpkin, and cucumber need an extra square foot or two for growth. If you plan on growing climbing plants such as beans or peas, you will need a wall to grow them against. A trellis can be built if there is no wall. An eight by eight foot garden can grow anywhere from sixty to seventy plants which is quite a lot. While planting, be careful not to plant plants too far apart or too close together. Taller plants should be planted in the back where they will not block sunlight from the rest of the garden. Medium plants go in the middle and short plants in the front, etc.

Heirloom Seeds:
It is important to purchase heirloom quality seeds when buying seeds for your garden. Heirloom quality means that the seeds are not hybrids, have not been chemically treated, and have not been genetically engineered in any way. Heirloom seeds are seeds from plants that have been grown for hundreds of years and are chosen because they are healthy, grow best, and taste the best. Unlike manufactured seeds, heirloom seeds are not produced to make more fruits than the plant can sustain without chemical fertilizers, and have not been irradiated to make them sterile so you can't grow the seeds that will be produced by the plants you will be growing. Heirloom seeds produce healthy plants that provide lots of vitamins and minerals and are the best tasting. Always opt for heirloom quality seeds when purchasing or you may have to buy new seeds every season.

Info on Companion Planting:
Companion planting means planting different varieties of plants together in order to protect them from pests. There are different ways you can use companion planting. First, it is important to mix the crops together in the garden. Try not to plant more than four or five of one type together. Plants that are grown all together spread disease and pests easily. Many inflictions tend to favor a particular plant and will have a hard time spreading to the other plants if there are other types of vegetation between them. In nature, plants are mixed together, making it more difficult for insects to find the plants they prefer. Another type of companion planting uses plants to deter insects. Marigolds, garlic, and mints are perfect for keeping plants out of the garden. Plant these plants around the perimeter and throughout the garden. I plant lots of them around plants that are particularly prone to insects. Marigolds are the best and are very easy to grow. Wormwood keeps away pests well, but is very poisonous and should not be grown around children or household pets.

A third type of companion planting is done by planting together plants which complement each other. Complementing plants deter insects from each other and also add nutrients to the soil that the other needs. 

Below is a list of companion plants:

Cabbage - Plant mint and nastrium to keep away cabbage moth and improve soil.
Corn - Lamb's Quarters.
Fruit Trees - Plant Nastrium to keep away pests.
Radish - Plant Nastrium.
Raspberries - Plant Garlic to keep it in good health and keep away pests.
Roses - Plant Garlic to keep it in good health and keep away pests.
Tomato - Plant Basil, Mint, and Dill to keep away various pests.
The fourth type of companion planting is using plants as a trap. The bait plant is planted near other plants to lure insects. These plants can be pulled up and the insects destroyed. Lamb's Quarters and Nastrium are good plants to use as lure plants as they attracts aphids.

Digging Up Your Garden:
By now you should already have chosen where you want to plant your garden. To get the soil started, you will need a shovel. Mark off the boundaries of the garden with a garden hose or with stakes with string tied between them. Using the shovel, dig down as deep as it will go and then pull the shovel handle back to pull the soil up. Move the shovel over and dig another spot. Keep doing this until all of the soil in the garden has been dug up. It should be a bit clumpy. Don't worry about removing any grass.

Next, you will need the rake or the cultivator. I rake up the soil the best I can so that it is broken up into smaller pieces. If you have a tiller, this will work even better. I prefer to do all of the work by hand. Remove any rocks you find. Rocks will ruin the growth of your root crops such as carrots, onions, potatoes, leeks, and radishes. If you have lots of very large rocks, they can be used to line the edges of the garden. If you are having trouble tilling because the soil is too hard, use a shovel to break up the large pieces at first. Areas with clay soil, like where we live, tend to be harder to till. You may want to try digging two to three days after it rains as the soil will be softer. Do not dig up muddy soil. This prevents the soil from aerating and is bad for both plants and earthworms.

Preparing the Soil:
Garden soil must be rich in nutrients. You will need compost and manure when treating your garden. I buy about 4 bags of compost and two bags of cow manure for every 64 square feet (8x8 feet) of garden. Bags of compost and manure cost between one and two dollars each at the garden store. If you make your own compost, you will not need to buy compost. If you keep animals, chicken, goat, and horse manure can be used instead of cow manure. Chicken manure can burn plants, so only use about four cups of chicken manure for each 64 square feet. Do not use manure from meat-eating animals such as cats, dogs, and humans. If you have very sandy soil, you may need an extra bag or two of compost. Spread these out evenly over the soil and rake them in with your garden rake and your hoe. A tiller can also be used. Do not water the garden until you have planted your seedlings.

The garden will need some kind of edging to keep the outside plants from creeping over the borders. Edging will save you a lot of time in the long run, so it is best to get it put in early. You can make a fancy border out of logs, bricks or stone. If you need a cheap alternative, however, garden stores and hardware stores sell metal edging for about a dollar per twenty feet.