Tips for Growing Your Own Organic Produce
There is nothing better than fresh food you grow yourself. Our daughters were raised picking peas and digging carrots and potatoes. Teaching children how to grow and harvest vegetables can be fun, really; you reap the benefits of time spent together outdoors, being productive. Below are some suggested practices my family uses for growing organic produce at home.
You may choose to develop a vegetable garden, build raised beds, or grow in containers. My husband Pat grows carrots, beets, kale, and chard in large (#3) nursery containers. He sows seed directly into our commercial potting mix. It has proven to be relatively easy: he starts the first crop in early March, as soon as we turn on the heat in the greenhouse, and when the greenhouse is full of our retail crop in early April he moves the containers to a protected area outside. These cold crops can withstand temperatures into the 20s at night.
Cold crops include the above as well as peas, spinach, lettuce, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, parsley, chives, mint, oregano, thyme, and sage. They prefer cooler nights and days. Once the temperatures reach 80 degrees their growth slows down and often they begin to flower. In the lower valleys these crops can be grown in the early spring and fall.
Warm season vegetables and herbs include peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, squashes, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, basil, and dill. Temperatures below 30 degrees will usually burn plant tissues and may kill the plant. If you notice black leaves after a cold night, this is generally frost damage—but sometimes they will recover after a light frost with subsequent warmer temperatures and will continue to produce. It is usually best to buy most of these plants as starts from a nursery as their crop time is longer. Downvalley, we get them in the ground around Memorial Day. At higher elevations, we recommend purchasing larger plants and waiting until mid-June to leave them outside at night.
Growing organically means not using most pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Many of these products are harmful to our health, bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Proper watering and high-quality seed and plants eliminate most disease issues. Insect pests can be controlled by attracting beneficials, or “good bugs,” to eat the bad ones. Beneficials are especially attracted to dill, borage, calendula, California poppies, basil, pansies, coneflower, gaillardia, and monarda but there are many others as well. If all else fails, use gentle oils, soaps, or Neem products to fight the bad bugs.
When digging a garden, incorporate organic matter into your soil. Compost is best but old manure can also work well. I prefer old horse or chicken manure. Horse manure may contain weed seeds, so it is best to use manure from barns or stables rather than pastures. Keep in mind that most purchased cow manure comes from feedlots; this concentrated product often contains high levels of salts, which are toxic to plants. When using any manure it should not smell, attract flies, or look fresh. Fresh manure robs nitrogen from soil as it decomposes, may burn tender plants, and often does more harm than good.
Other products that will improve your soil include fine composted bark (such as Soil Pep), mulched and shredded leaves, grass clippings, and composted sawdust. Working these materials into the soil will break up the clay as well as add minerals and nutrients. My rule of thumb is one-third organic material to two-thirds native soil dug 10 to 20 inches deep.
Once the soil has been prepared and the plants purchased, you should harden off any plants grown in a greenhouse. This can be done by placing them in a sheltered area out of direct sunlight, or under a tree or an overhang for a week or 10 days. If you skip this step, your tender seedlings will be at risk for sunburn. Sunburned plants generally develop dead or discolored areas on their leaves, and are stunted and stressed. With few exceptions, plant at the same depth that you find a seedling in its nursery container, and be sure to remove all leaves that might be buried first. With these tips in mind, an organic home garden will produce vegetables you can enjoy all season long.
Lynn Dwyer teaches gardening classes at CMC and owns Dwyer Greens & Flowers in New Castle.