Go With The O
With a growing cultural emphasis on being “eco-friendly,” organic is a word you often hear these days. But what does it mean to “go green” in the garden?
“Simply put, organic gardening is about using sound gardening principles and materials in their most natural form,” says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturist with the National Gardening Association.
Why go green
There are many reasons to transition to organic gardening. First, using organic products helps restore the balance of your garden’s ecosystem, resulting in reduced maintenance because you’ll have a naturally stronger and healthier lawn.
Second, organic gardening can save you money. Most conventional products must be frequently reapplied to maintain their benefits. Even though organics usually cost more than conventional products, since organic products function by building up the soil’s biology, the results are longer lasting.
Finally, because they’re natural, organic products are a safer and less harmful choice, which benefits not only the environment but also your family and pets.
Building safe soil
Choosing organic fertilizers to give a boost to your lawn and garden ensures your soil will stay healthy for years. “Conventional, chemical fertilizers release energy fast, causing a spurt of growth which can stress plants, inviting disease and pests,” says Bob Scott, spokesperson for Bradfield Organics, which manufactures organic fertilizers.
In comparison, Scott says organic fertilizers work by increasing the biomass in the soil, meaning the soil “opens up,” becoming less compact and, as a result, increases its ability to retain water and nutrients.
Organic amendments such as compost, animal manures and cover crops also are great options for building up your soil. “Cover crops such as buckwheat, winter wheat or rye become ‘green manure’ for your garden,” Nardozzi says. “Plant a crop in areas that need enrichment and, once grown, till it into the soil to help improve the soil structure.”
Is It Really Organic?
Unlike organic food products that carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal, organic gardening products do not have a logo that identifies them; however, here are some tips to know if you are truly buying organic products.
• Look for the “OMRI Listed” seal. The Organic Materials Review Institute, or OMRI, independently reviews products intended for use in organic gardening; however, it’s a voluntary program so products that don’t carry the OMRI label may or may not be organic.
• Look for labels with phrases such as “This fertilizer product is allowed for use in organic production;” “Acceptable for use in organic production;” or “Suitable for organic farming.” Such statements have been approved for use on products allowed in organic production.
• Research products at The Organic Trade Association’s Organic Pages Online (www.theorganicpages.com/topo/index.html), a directory including a wide range of organic products such as fertilizers, composts and soil conditioners.
• Purchase from independent dealers who offer top-quality choices.
Sources: Bob Scott, www.SafeLawns.org
Controlling pesky pests
“One of the main differences between conventional and organic pesticides is the approach,” says Sheri Frey, owner of Arbico Organics, maker of organic gardening products. “Organic pesticides usually control the cause of the problem, where conventional pesticides control the symptom.”
Organic pesticides are made from plants, flowers, seeds, leaves or roots, Frey says. Essential oils also can be used as pesticides, like neem tree oil, which is toxic to insects with exoskeletons.
Many gardening Web sites also offer suggestions for natural, “homemade” pest control. For example, a spray made from a few drops of dish soap diluted with water can keep mites and small bugs under control.
Barry Landry, a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, recommends integrated pest management (IPM) as well. IPM is an environmentally sensitive approach to controlling pests that utilizes common-sense practices such as introducing beneficial insects which are harmful to pests but not to plants.
Picking perfect plants
“Proper plant choice is an organic garden ‘best practice’,” says Bruce Augusten, director of Environmental Agronomy for Scotts. “Choose appropriate native plants adapted to your climate zone and soil.” Consult with your local extension office for recommendations.
Another organic gardening principle is reducing the amount of turf in your landscape—less grass means less mowing, which causes harmful emissions, and less watering, which conserves water use. When choosing turf, make sure to choose a variety that’s native to your area for best results.
Principles of Xeriscaping
Take time to plan the design before you start to plant. Your design should incorporate planting zones to allocate water usage.
• Use native grasses for turf areas whenever possible for optimum water savings.
• Use plants matched to regional growing conditions. Both native and adapted plants need to be adapted to your soil pH, soil type, precipitation levels and weather.
• Create a healthy, living soil—the key to any successful xeriscape.
• Use mulches. Mulching is an essential gardening technique—it helps the soil absorb water, reduces weed growth and creates a healthy root environment.
• Irrigate efficiently. Water deeply and less frequently to encourage deep root growth.
• Harvest rain and snow run off from hard surfaces and direct it onto your landscape for supplemental irrigation.
• Maintain your landscape and garden properly. A well-planned xeriscape will naturally be low maintenance. Whenever possible, use organic products and techniques to create a balanced, healthy landscape.
Source: David Salman, High Country Gardens
“Many principles of organic gardening relate to water use,” Landry says. Zoning, or planting plants with similar water requirements together, and drip irrigation, rather than a sprinkler system, are good conservation techniques, he notes.
“You also can conserve water by planting drought tolerant plants and watering deeply but less frequently,” says David Salman, chief horticulturist for High Country Gardens and a national expert on water-wise gardening.
One of the primary benefits of organic gardening is the soil’s increased ability to retain water. Using mulch, a natural barrier of shredded leaves, straw or bark, aids water retention. “Mulch helps keep the soil cool and controls weeds which compete with plants for water,” Nardozzi says.
Although not a new concept, xeriscaping is making a comeback in today’s green friendly world. Xeriscaping refers to landscaping in ways that do not require supplemental irrigation. “Over the years, xeriscaping has expanded to include organic soil prep and maintenance as well,” says Salman. He notes that one of the main principles of xeriscaping is water harvesting.
“A lot of rain water is wasted rolling off hard surfaces, but passive water harvesting can redirect this water for use in your landscape,” Salman says. Examples include the use of rain barrels or incorporating grooves into your driveway to channel water back to the yard, he notes.
The end result
“Depending on the condition of your yard when you start using organics, you can usually see results in a few weeks and, within a few years, you should have a 5-star garden,” Scott says. Though it may take a little longer, the long-term payoff of organic gardening is lower cost, easy maintenance and a safe, beautiful yard.
Organic soil amendments
If you want your landscape to be truly eco-friendly, consider these options:
• Add a pond or stream to create a microenvironment
• Add birdbaths and feeders—in addition to supporting wildlife, birds are insect predators
• Repurpose household or landscaping materials—for example, used, clean wine bottles make a great bed border and chunks of an old concrete patio can be used for stepping stones
• Use biodegradable weed barriers made from recycled paper or natural fibers rather than plastic landscape fabric
• Keep a few chickens (if your local code allows) for natural pest control
• Build a compost bin — www.compostguide.com is a good resource for information
• Grow shade trees to help keep your home cooler in the summer
• Use native stone, gravel and local non-endangered wood species for hardscapes
• Mix organic polymers into the soil to aid in water retention
• Use organic root inoculants which aid plants in absorbing nutrients from the soil
Sources: Sheri Frey, Barry Landry and David Salman