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Organic Gardening

Gardening Tips

Simple tips on how to create your own organic garden and use of organic fertilizers.

Anyone can grow food. It may sound unreal, but a small 10' x 10' (100 square feet) area can provide fresh vegetables for an entire average sized family! Here are answers to the most commonly asked questions by beginners. You will be surprised at how simple and inexpensive it is to grow healthy food.

1. Where should I plan my organic garden?

Select a spot with good exposure to sunlight. Length of sunlight exposure will directly translate in to production. 6 or more hour of light between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is ideal.

2. How should I lay out my garden?

The critical thing to keep in mind is that bed width shouldn't be more than 5 feet for easy access to weed, till and harvest without walking over the beds. Length can be determined by available space as well as perceived needs and time. Generally 100 to 150 sq ft of total growing area in a bed is a good start.

3. How to make a vegetable growing bed?

* Assess area requirements as a first step and then mark borders. Leave an 18" walkway if beds are parallel.
* If there are weeds in area, till the soil very well about 8-10 inches deep, 2 -3 times and remove weeds, roots and rocks.
* Making a border around the bed is very essential. This keeps the soil from falling out and also prevents the weeds from crawling in to the bed space. Borders can be made with wooden ties, 2-3 high, or 2"x8' or 10's or stone tiles or bricks. However, do ensure that all the joints are secured well to prevent future shifting. Border height must be a minimum of 10 inches, a little extra won't hurt. Reinforce the edges if needed.
* Find a good soil mix containing compost, top soil, coco coir and fully decomposed bark mulch, etc. There are lots of good choices available. A mix is always better than straight peat or straight bark based soils. They are richer in nutrients and have better nutrient / moisture retaining capacity. A good mix will also help in keeping weeds away.
* Before filling soil in the bed area, spread out dirt within the borders evenly. If weed infestation is strong and there are buried roots in the beds make a mix of 1 part regular household vinegar diluted with 1 part water and spray heavily on soil. This will kill any weed seeds and roots.
* Take sheets made up of recycled brown paper. Cut them in a way that they cover not just the base, but also the sides of the borders. Staple if necessary. Paper layer must be 2 sheets thick to prevent any roots of surrounding shrubs and weeds from resurfacing. Good quality weed barrier can also be used instead of paper but do use two layers for optimum protection. Don't use plastic, as it will make a puddle in the root zone by not allowing proper drainage and may cause root diseases.
* Fill the bed with 14-15" depth of soil mix and then compact using a plank or shovel. For every square foot of area (1 ft length x 1 ft width) use about 3 teaspoons (15 grams) of a 100 % organic, general purpose, granular fertilizer. Broadcast evenly over the bed and mix into the top 3-4". This will work as an initial nutrient charge for the soil and will become available to roots by the time seedlings are transplanted or seeds germinate. You may be wondering why I asked the height of bed to be 14-15 "? Soils always compact and following a few irrigations and rain, it will likely compact to 8-9 ". This will be your "root zone"; this must not be contaminated with any chemicals if you want to grow healthy, organic vegetables.

4. How to grow your own seedlings?

Seeds, any peat moss based propagation mix (soil for growing seedlings, generally finer than regular soil), seedling tray with cubes and a clear plastic dome (cover for the tray) are generally what you need to start your own seedlings.

Fill tray with medium (propagation mix) and put one seed in each cell at depth according to seed requirement mentioned on the label. Generally, 1/3 of an inch is the guideline for most seeds. Water gently, just enough to soak medium. Place the clear plastic dome on top and put the tray in a well lit (not dark) area till the seedlings germinate. Do remove the dome once a day to let fresh dry air replace the super humid environment inside. Water gently in between as needed before soil dries out completely. Remember, you don't need too much or too little water. Once the first set of leaves appear, move the tray to a brighter area with more sunlight and remove the top cover and water as needed. Once the second set of leaves starts to establish and seedlings start to look strong, use a light dose of a general purpose organic liquid fertilizer (I prefer fish fertilizers) and apply according to dose mentioned on the label using a watering can. If the fertilizer is 100% organic, generally 10-12 ml of fertilizer / litre of water can be used. As well, 1-2 fertilizer applications at seedling stage are enough. Watch out for fertilizers that claim organic on label but can be up to 70-80 % synthetic. Unfortunately, the word organic is sometimes used too loosely when it comes to fertilizers. Always follow label directions when using fertilizers and ensure that fertilizers are 100% organic or derived form 100% natural sources. "Natural based" or "organic based" aren't organic or natural. They merely contain "some organic" materials in them and are enriched with concentrated synthetic chemicals to increase potency. Tomatoes, Chillies, Peppers, Egg Plant, various Squash, spinach, lettuce, celery, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc, all can be very successfully grown with seedlings.

5. When and how to transplant seedlings?

Rule of thumb for transplanting seedlings is about 3 weeks (21-24 days) after germination (seedling emergence) for flowering crops like tomatoes, chillies, peppers, squash, etc . About 2 weeks (14-16 days) for leaf crops and greens like lettuce, spinach, celery, etc. The thing to observe is that seedlings should have 3-4 sets of small yet mature leaves and should start to look like miniature plants before they are transplanted.

6. How often and how much fertilizer must be used?

Organic fertilizers behave differently than synthetic fertilizers. They are a little slow to work at first, but if you have the right fertilizer, you can easily come at par or even outperform synthetic fertilizers without becoming a professional gardener. Remember we applied a charge of 15 grams of an organic granular fertilizer / sq ft when making the beds. Generally I prefer a mix of both liquid and granular fertilizers in organic form. Granular organic fertilizers act more like a slow release but continuous nutrition supply source, while liquids act fast and give a quick rush of nutrients generally needed as vegetables require high bursts of energy since they grow so fast and are generally short duration crops. Also, liquids can be used in foliar (spray) which directly targets the leaves and fruits and results are fast as roots are bypassed. Please note that foliar feeding only works as a supplement. A plant's nutritional requirements can't be fulfilled through foliar feeding alone. Fish based, good quality organic liquids are very effective but "may have" a mild odour. As a general rule, use 15 grams /sq ft, granular organic fertilizer once a month and work it gently in soil. Top it off with a heavy drench of a liquid fertilizer solution, once at transplant and again every 2-3 weeks. You will need about 3.5-4 gallons (about 14-16 litres) of solution (liquid fertilizer + water) for every 100 sq ft, for each application.

7. What to do about pests when growing organically?

Regular household salt works as an excellent slug repellent in walkways however has very short life in wet conditions and has to be applied repeatedly in walkways. "Don't use salt inside the beds". Commercially available Slug baits are very effective and should be used every 2-3 weeks on walkways around beds and inside beds only if needed. If walkways are well protected, slugs won't make it in the beds. For flying insects and caterpillars there are several home remedies available which include the use of oils and soap based solutions. They are not as toxic for pests as their chemical counterparts and generally work very effectively if used more as a preventive measure than as a cure. Ask your local garden center for available options which include soap based solutions, tobacco extract, garlic oil, sulphur powder for dusting, etc. Please note that some of these products are not registered insecticides but are generally used as remedies for non commercial use.

8. How to make my own compost? Can compost alone meet fertilizer requirements?

Ideal raw materials for making rich compost includes food based kitchen waste like vegetable and fruit wastes, eggs shells, coffee and tea grinds and leaves, dinner leftovers, etc. Compost made only from grass clippings or leaves are generally poor in quality and take too long to break down. For making ideal compost, use the following tips. For each wheel barrow load of waste to be composted:
* Use as much kitchen waste as possible along with some crushed garden trims, grass clippings, etc.
* For each wheel barrow load, add 1.5 - 2 lbs of blood meal and a cup or 2 of molasses diluted with 2 litres of water.
* Add a lb or two of chicken compost pellets, or steer or other manure based compost. Alfalfa pallets may also be added. A more diverse range of inputs will significantly enhance the potency and nutrient quality of compost. Some people also use bone and fish meals, seaweed powder, rock phosphate, etc. There is a long list of ingredients that can be added. A handful or two of each will enhance quality.
* Mix above ingredients very well. For composting you can either use a conventional heap method or use a composting bin. If using conventional heap method, mix the materials well, apply some water on top, cover with a clear plastic and ensure that the ground beneath is flat. Cover the edges of plastic with a heavy ring of dirt / gravel so that the plastic does not fly off. Also put some planks or other weight on top and sides of plastic. Using a paper layer at bottom is also advised.
* Covering the pile will ensure right temperature and humidity in the heap to speed up composting. The presence of various additives suggested above will ensure ample reproduction of beneficial microbes, decomposing waste into usable compost.
* Mix the heap well after 20 to 25 days by taking off the plastic and cover again till you start to see the pile turn in to a dark blackish brown powder. The process should take about 3 months.
Composting is the healthiest way to nourish the growing beds. However, occasional use of granular and liquid fertilizers will always be helpful to boost production and fill any mineral deficiency in soil for obtaining optimum production. Biodegradable kitchen waste coming from food sources can be collected in a separate bin and once enough is collected, it must be turned in to valuable nutrients for your organic garden. It will do better in your garden than in a land fill.

9. How often seedlings should be done?

For greens, generally every 5 weeks a small quantity of fresh seedlings should be done, perhaps a tray or so. Unlike tomatoes, peppers, etc. greens must be replanted 3-4 times during a typical year to ensure steady supply of fresh harvest. What is better than a fresh salad?

10. What plants can be grown together in the same area?

This really comes down to common sense. Plants with similar height, structure and varieties should be planted together. A typical garden can have 4-5 general sections, one for tomatoes, peppers, egg plants, etc. One for various squash varieties, one for greens, one for roots crops like radish, beets, turnips, carrots, green onions and a small section for herbs. If space is an issue, you are better off doing herbs in containers as they do very well in small 2 - 3 gallon pots however, they will require more watering in pots compared to being in soil.
Organic gardening is a way of life, it will not just transform your diet, it will also revitalize your mind and soul in a way you can't imagine without experiencing it. It is very likely to become your favourite hobby if it isn't already. 15-20 minutes, twice a week will reduce your stress levels beyond belief and will ensure a healthy dinner plate with unbelievable flavour and nutrition for a healthier you and your family