Understanding Organic Gardening
Question: What is Organic Gardening?
Many of us are interested in organic gardening as a way to produce healthy fruits and vegetables in an environmentally responsible way.
Definitions of this type of gardening vary but are all based on the same principles. Organic gardening focuses on the health of the whole ecosystem by supporting plant health and vigor without use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides or artificial or synthetic fertilizers. Instead, it employs cultural, biological and mechanical practices to manage disease and insect pests. Organic gardening techniques are proactive with the goal of avoiding plant decline, disease and insect pests, rather than treating problems after they occur.
Start with the Soil
Healthy soil is the basis for a healthy organic garden. Plants are more disease and drought resistant and tolerate insects better in good quality soil. Get a soil test to determine the pH and nutrient levels and follow the recommendations on adjusting pH, applying fertilizer and adding organic amendments.
In contrast to chemical fertilizers used to directly making plants grow, organic gardening focuses on feeding the soil, so the soil can then feed the plants. Begin by adding organic material to improve the soil structure, increasing moisture retention and providing nutrients and habitat for beneficial soil microbes.
Compost and animal manures will add organic matter to the soil. Other options include yard waste (shredded leaves, crop residues, and straw) which should be dug into the soil in the fall, so it decomposes during the winter. Fresh manures should be used with caution because they contain high levels of nitrogen and salt and need to be well composted before use. Use of a cover crop, such as buckwheat, rye and oats, is another good way to add organic material to the soil. Crop rotation can also be used to disrupt insect life cycles, suppress disease, prevent erosion, fix nitrogen and add other nutrients to the soil.
Use of Additional Fertilizers
Even after organic matter have been added to the soil, fertilizers may be needed. The amount of fertilizer depends on the soil type, pH and other soil characteristics, previous crops, and the amount and type of nutrients required for plant growth. Use fertilizers derived from natural sources such as animal byproducts, seaweed, wood ash and natural deposits, such as rock phosphate and limestone. Read the label on purchased fertilizers to make sure they are labeled organic and apply according to the label instructions.
Plant diseases have many causes: fungi, bacteria, viruses or stresses due to environmental conditions or improper plant care. Organic disease management involves choosing disease resistant or disease tolerant plants, good site selection, proper planting techniques, managing the weeds, mulching, destroying infected plants, and after season clean-up.
Insect Pest Management
Control techniques include scouting for insect pests and removing them by hand, using row covers or trap crops, planting resistant crops, adjusting planting dates to avoid times when harmful insects have the highest populations or planting several crops in the same area (intercropping). Barriers such as paper or plastic cups or aluminum can be placed around young plants to protect young plants from some insect pests like the cutworm.
Pests may be controlled, but not necessarily eliminated. In some cases, there are no reliable organic controls and gardeners may want to avoid growing certain crops altogether.
Another important natural pest control technique is creating a habitat for beneficial insects and predators including spiders, bats, lizards, birds and toads. There are more than 100 families of insects, spiders and mites that are natural enemies to insect pests. Include plants attractive to beneficial insects in borders or within garden beds and avoid applying any chemicals that might harm them.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Virginia Cooperative Extension provides recommendations on specific disease and insect pest problems in Virginia in the 2022 Pest Management Guide for Home Grounds and Animals. This guide provides integrated pest management strategies including cultural practices (for proper care of plants), mechanical and physical controls (for preventing or removing disease and insect pests) and biological controls (using beneficial insects, biological pesticides, and naturally occurring organisms), as well as both natural and synthetic chemicals that can be used in organic gardens. When purchasing organic products to use in your garden, you can consult the label to see if the fertilizer or chemical meets the organic standards of the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
These strategies provide the tools grow healthy fruits and vegetables. To learn even more, visit the Piedmont Master Gardener website search feature to find additional information on organic gardening.
“Building Healthy Soil”, Diane Relf, Extension Specialist, Environmental Horticulture, Virginia Tech, 426-711, 1 Jun 2017.
“Growing An Organic Garden – The Fundamentals”, Sanchez, Else, Associate Professor of Horticultural Systems Management, Penn State University, Penn State Extension, 22 October 2007.
“Introduction to Organic Practices”, United States Department of Agriculture, USDA National Organic Program, Agricultural Marketing Service, Sep 2015.
“Organic Fertilizers for the Garden”, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, April 2021.
“Organic Vegetable Gardening”, Gu, Sanjun, State Vegetable Specialist, Lincoln University Cooperative Extension.
“Tips for Starting an Organic Garden”, Flynn, Kelly, United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, 21 Feb 2017.
“What is Organic Gardening”, Charlotte Glen, State Coordinator et. al., North Carolina State University, NC Extension, Pender County Center.
“What is Organic Gardening”, University of Massachusetts, UMass Extension, Center For Agriculture and Landscape Program Apr 2017.
“What is Organic or Sustainable Vegetable Gardening”, University of Maryland, University of Maryland Extension, 16, May 2022.