Organic Gardening For Healthy Plants, Soil And People
BY ANNE GIBSON
I grew up in my family’s backyard garden. On a quarter-acre block in suburban Sydney, most of our food came from our abundant vegetable garden, fruit trees and a productive flock of cheeky chickens. Mum preserved our fruits and vegetables, made jams and relishes, and nothing went to waste. I learned from an early age where our food came from. Our family only bought milk and seasonal fruit from local farmers to supplement what we didn’t produce ourselves.
Dad taught me how to use grass clippings as mulch, rake up chicken manure and sawdust from their coop, collect garden prunings and fireplace ash, and recycle our kitchen food scraps into a giant 3-bay compost system. This closed-loop cycle of turning ‘waste’ into healthy soil was the basis of how I learned to grow food from a young age.
I didn’t know at the time this would later be called ‘organic gardening.’ We were living sustainably, using onsite resources to recycle nutrients, working with nature by planting suitable crops for our climate and eating nutrient-rich foods that tasted amazing. Even the cabbage white butterflies that hovered in the garden didn’t last long with the chickens around. Pest management was easy too!
Why Everyone Should Garden Organically
Wendell Berry once said: “I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”
Growing a food garden not just without chemicals, but by adding value to the environment by improving soil quality and plant health, is a sustainable practice we can all participate in. The rewards are immensely satisfying.
A few of the benefits of organic gardening include: • Minimal risk of toxic chemical residues in your food, garden soil, environment, pets and wildlife. • Fresh nutrient-rich, flavoursome food with optimum nutrition to build a healthy immune system. • Connection to nature, fresh air, sunlight and exercise, improving physical and mental health. • Fewer weeds, pests and diseases because of healthier plants and living soil with increased biodiversity. • Save money by being more sustainable and self-reliant, reducing the need to buy food and garden supplies by recycling nutrients from the kitchen and garden.
Heide Hermary, the author of The Essence of Organic Gardening, encourages us to think of organic gardening as “not about just substituting toxic chemicals with less toxic ones, but about a whole different way of thinking and working. It is a conscious effort to cooperate with Nature in the creation of health and abundance for all.”
So what does it mean to ‘work with nature’? Is it possible to grow an edible garden without any chemicals or back-breaking hours of labour?
From personal experience, I believe if you apply principles when designing your edible garden, choosing plants and maintaining it, you won’t need expensive inputs or collapse with physical exhaustion! By imitating nature, we can create a healthy balance in our gardens, so they are productive, abundant and require less time, money and effort to maintain.
Key Organic Gardening Principles
I follow a few basic guidelines that I’ve found make a difference in creating a productive paradise – be it a balcony garden, backyard or larger space.
1. Feed the soil, rather than the plants. Soil high in organic matter with a continuous layer of mulch creates a nutrient-rich, moisture-holding environment for plants and soil microorganisms to thrive. Nature layers the soil surface with leaves, decaying plant material and dead critters. Continual recycling and composting create humus. This practice works perfectly in our pots and garden beds too. Recycle your kitchen waste back out into the garden to grow more food. Over time, you will develop a precious asset in your soil. 2. Select plants wisely. Choose varieties that thrive in your climate and locate them in microclimates that suit their needs – sun, shade, moist or dry soil, protected from the wind, cold or heat. Plant in season. Forcing unsuitable species into poor soil or unfavourable growing conditions for their needs is a recipe for disaster! Don’t try to grow summer crops in winter. Stressed plants attract pests and disease, so give them the best chance of survival and growing productively by matching them to the requirements they need. 3. Focus on biodiversity. A healthy organic garden is an ecosystem with a wide variety of plants, insects and soil life. They are all team players that work together for the common good. Avoid planting too much of one species as this encourages pests and diseases. A monoculture destroys nature’s balance. Mix up your edibles and crop rotate seasonally to help attract a diverse range of pollinators, beneficial insects, soil microbes and minimise disease. 4. Practice safe gardening. Avoid any artificial fertilisers or chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Choose certified organic and heirloom seeds and raise seedlings when possible unless you know your nursery doesn’t use chemicals. Intentionally choose non-toxic materials for your garden instead of chemically-treated timber, PVC, manures containing vet medications and other contaminated inputs. Research well and do your due diligence on the source of your materials! Heavy metals and chemical compounds can end up leaching into the soil, your food and eventually the water table. Read labels and look for certified organic logos on seeds and products to create a safe edible garden.
Organic gardeners are stewards of the earth. We care about our soil, the health of our plants – particularly edibles, and create an environment that encourages all creatures to live safely. Growing organic food at home is a sustainable way to tread lighter on our planet and enjoy the delicious healthy rewards this deep connection to a garden can bring.