Wednesday, September 19, 2007

First Steps: Organic Gardening

First steps Now that you've decided to try your hand at organic gardening, you might be wondering how to begin. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Learn about gardening and plants. Garden forums, are a great place to start. You can also hone your skills by reading a good gardening book or two. Consider joining a local garden club or enrolling in a class to learn about gardening while meeting other gardeners in your area. Plan your garden carefully and keep good records. Learn as much as possible about the types of plants you want to grow and select varieties that are well-suited to your particular growing conditions. Design your garden beforehand to ensure your plants receive the proper spacing and growing conditions. (You can use's Landscape Vision software to design your garden right on your desktop!) Record your successes and failures in a notebook or journal and refer to these notes when planning next year's garden. Get to know your soil. Your County Cooperative Extension Service can provide a kit and instructions for having your soil tested (by a professional lab) or you can do it yourself using a soil test kit. Correct any deficiencies with natural soil Click here for information on amending your soil. Start composting! Recycle garden wastes while improving the soil. Prevent pest and disease problems before they develop. Mulch! Mulching helps to control weeds, retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature, check the spread of disease, protect plants from extreme weather conditions, and more Amending your soil Organic matter There are few things as important to successful organic gardening as adding organic matter to the soil. The term "organic matter" refers to various forms of living or dead plant and animal material. Organic matter is an essential component of healthy soil for a number of reasons: It loosens the soil structure, improving drainage and allowing better root penetration. It improves nutrient and water retention. It increases the activity and populations of soil organisms. It helps combat pest and disease problems. It encourages earthworms, which aerate and enrich the soil. You can add organic material to your soil by digging or tilling it into the top several inches of the soil or by mulching with it. However, organic matter does not remain in the soil. The natural process of decay gradually converts organic matter to a very stable form called humus. Humus is composed of simpler compounds that are utilized by plants as food. Therefore, to maintain a healthy, humus-rich soil, you must add organic matter to your garden every year. You can slow the loss of organic matter by cultivating the soil gently, keeping the soil surface mulched during the growing season, and mulching or planting a cover crop during the winter. Try to maintain 5-6% organic matter in your soil. A good guideline is to add about 1 inch of finished compost or other fine-textured organic matter to your soil each year. Apply a thicker layer -- about 4 inches -- if you use a bulkier material, such as chopped leaves or straw, because there is less organic matter per volume. You may need to add organic matter more frequently in the South and West as organic material can break down twice as quickly in hot soils as it does in cooler soils. Take care not to overdo it, particularly with fresh organic matter such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, and green weeds. Adding too much fresh organic matter can overstimulate soil microorganisms -- which can consume a great deal of nitrogen and other plant nutrients, causing temporary declines in soil fertility -- or even burn your plants' roots. Mineral supplements There are several organic soil amendments that can correct specific pH and mineral imbalances. In general, you should only use them if a soil test or plant analysis indicates a deficiency. Adding too much of a mineral supplement can create an excess of a particular nutrient that can damage your plants or interfere with the uptake of other nutrients. It is a good idea to do a little research, to learn more about mineral supplements and their recommended uses, before adding anything to your soil.

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