Organic gardening designed to sustain, nourish ecosystem

April 24 pender gardner

Organic gardeners rely on beneficial insects such as this immature ladybug to help with pest control rather than synthetic pesticides.

Photo by Charlotte Glen
Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 12:37 PM.

Interest in organic gardening is higher than ever but so is confusion over exactly how to accomplish it. How do you provide the nutrients plants need to survive? What can you do about insects and plant diseases? Are some plants too difficult to grow organically in our climate? The answers to some of these questions may surprise you.

The organic challenge

A basic definition of organic gardening is gardening without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But organic gardening is much more than simply replacing manmade chemicals with those derived from natural sources. It is a philosophy of gardening that supports the health of the whole system. In an organically managed yard or vegetable garden the emphasis is on cultivating an ecosystem that sustains and nourishes plants, soil microbes and beneficial insects rather than simply making plants grow.

Creating this ecosystem begins with improving the soil. Adding organic matter by mixing compost into the soil increases its capacity to retain water and nutrients and supports beneficial microbes, which are essential to healthy plant growth. Compost can be made at home from grass clippings, leaves, yard debris, and kitchen scraps, or purchased from garden centers and mulch suppliers. Because of the many turkey farms in our area, turkey compost is the most readily available commercially made compost in our region. Another way to add organic matter to the soil is to grow cover crops and turn them into the soil just as they begin to flower. Cover crops that can be seeded at this time of year include buckwheat, cowpeas, millet, and soybeans.

Organic fertilizers

While compost and organic matter will increase your soil’s ability to hold nutrients, they do not supply large amounts of nutrients themselves. In addition to compost, organic gardeners also have to provide fertilizers derived from natural sources such as animal manures and byproducts, natural deposits such as rock phosphate, and plant products like seaweed and wood ash. Most retailers that carry garden supplies also stock organic fertilizers, which can usually be distinguished by their earthy smell.

Another natural product often added to soil is agricultural lime. Made from naturally occurring limestone, lime is used to raise soil pH if your soil is too acidic. Soil pH levels vary tremendously in our area and many soils do not require additional liming. To find if your soil needs additional lime to support healthy plant growth submit samples to the NC Department of Agriculture’s soil testing lab. Boxes and forms are available from your local Extension center.

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