Guest post: Learning from Experience: Tips for New Organic Gardners

While I’m on vacation until Aug. 9 , I’m featuring several guest bloggers. Today’s post is from Meryl who blogs at My Bit of Earth.

My grandfather was an avid gardener. He grew tomatoes, beans, peas, corn–he even had a small orchard from which he would pick fruit for my grandmother’s fabulous pies. He gardened for 70+ years, all within 100 miles of where I live today, making any advice he could have given me invaluable as it would have been both well-tested and specific to my climate.

Unfortunately, my grandfather died years before I caught the gardening bug, so I’ve had to learn the hard way–experience.

I am now in my fourth year as an organic gardener–mostly veggies, but some flowers too. I have a 10×10 plot in my local community garden, as well as a mostly-container garden at my house. Here are seven bits of wisdom my experiences have taught me.

1. If it’s worth planting, it’s worth writing down.

Keep a paper journal, start a blog, do what you must, but make a record of your garden. At minimum, it should include the specific variety of what you plant, when you planted it, any problems you had, and how your harvest went. Pictures are a nice bonus.

Review your record before you plan your garden each year. Not only will it help you to remember the name of that fabulous tomato you planted last year, it will keep you from making the same mistakes over and over again. For example, because I wrote down when I planted “Ideal Market” beans last year, I now know that if I plant them in April they’ll just get eaten by bugs and I’ll have to plant anew. But if plant them in May, I should avoid the boom of bean-eating bugs and get a good crop.

2. Buy (at least) one good book.

I love the internet as much as the next person, but I’m convinced that it’s still worthwhile to have one great gardening reference book to help narrow down your searches when you have a problem. This year my Brussels sprouts were being attacked by red bugs, and I couldn’t figure out what the bugs were by searching online. (“Red bugs” isn’t much to go on!) So I looked up Brussels sprouts in my book, and found that they are commonly attacked by Harlequin bugs when the weather gets warm. Sure enough, when I did an image search for “Harlequin bugs” the results looked just like the bugs I had in my garden.

The specific book you buy will depend on what you’re growing, but look for something like an encyclopedia. Something that lists good practices for the crops you want to grow, as well as what to do when things go wrong. For vegetable gardening, my trusty book of choice is Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver.

3. Make friends.

It’s always so nice to learn that someone I know is also a gardener! Partly because I know I won’t bore them with discussions of cabbages and coneflowers, but also because other gardeners–especially if they’ve been gardening for a long time in your specific area–are a wonderful mine of knowledge.

In the community garden where I have a plot, there’s one lady who’s been there for years and, as such, is an absolute treasure. A few weeks ago, when I was having the aforementioned trouble with my Brussels sprouts, she told me to sprinkle them with cayenne pepper. I followed her advice, and a day later my bugs were gone.

4. Visit your garden often, and while you’re there….

Because one of my gardens is not at my house, I don’t always get to it every day. But I’m there every other day, at least. While I think this is necessary for all gardeners to some degree, if you want to garden organically it’s essential.

When you don’t allow yourself to drop a chemical bomb on every pest that comes along, you have to catch little problems before they become big problems. Last year, I started noticing little bronze eggs on my pumpkin leaves in mid-July. I didn’t get on top of it as quickly as I should have, and before I knew it my whole crop was decimated by squash bugs. If I had picked the eggs off the first time I saw them, it would have been a minor blip on my road to Halloween jack’o'lanterns and pumpkin soup.

While you’re doing your walk-through, take five minutes and pull as many weeds as you can. Like pests of the insect variety, weeds will creep up on you until all of a sudden getting rid of them without chemicals is overwhelming. Catch weeds when they’re small and scratch them out with a hoe before they start to take over.

5. Raise your soil right, feed it well, tuck it in.

When I initially started container gardening at my house, I thought of it as kind of a temporary thing until I had space to plant a proper “in-the-ground” garden. After a few years though, I’m convinced that raised beds are the way to go.

In my neck of the woods the problem is clay, but, whatever deficiencies your soil may have, it’s easier to fix them if you raise everything off the ground a bit. Even just logs or landscaping timbers pushed together in a square–which is exactly the set up in my community garden plot–helps make digging, mixing in compost, and planting much easier.

When you go to fill that raised bed, think compost, compost, compost. My city does a free compost give away every year, and I always take advantage of it. Get as much as you can, and mix it in well with your existing soil. If you want your plants to feed you, you must feed them, and they crave compost!

Lastly, cover your soil. You can use pretty mulch if you want, but this year I experimented with newspapers and straw. I put down about six layers of newspaper (black and white only), sprayed it with water, and spread one or two inches of straw over the top. When I went to plant my veggies I just used a shovel to poke a hole through the paper. It’s kept the weeds down, let water in, and whatever is left of it next Spring can easily be tilled into my soil.

6. Keep things in perspective.

There will be setbacks, there will be loses. If you’re committed to going organic, you should realize that sometimes a problem is going to get away from you. You’re going to see visions of your entire crop being ruined, and you’re going to be sooo tempted to resort to a chemical spray. When this happens, step back and regain your perspective.

Yes, yes, I know. You worked hard for that plant, whatever it is. You dug and toiled in the hot sun–perhaps were even devoured by mosquitoes as you regularly watered.

But, if you’re a small scale gardener, is it really worth it? Do you really need that eggplant that’s probably half-chewed on by bugs anyway? Or can you accept that nothing is a failure if you enjoyed the learning process, put down the nasty spray, and pick up your eggplant at the farmer’s market this week instead?

Good for you, that’s what I thought.

7. Grow what you love, but love what you can grow.

If you can be perfectly satisfied with a garden of tomatoes and peppers, go for it. If you’re intrigued by exotic varieties of garlic, plant yourself some. If you just can’t stand life without that pretty kind of rose that’s named after you, figure out what it needs to thrive and make it happen. To me there is no point in having a garden if you don’t grow the things you absolutely love.

With all that being said, however, over the past few years I’ve found the plants I truly love are the ones that don’t need much fuss, and are happy in the climate and space that I have to give them. I’ve killed four beautiful rose bushes to date, and none have made me as happy as the beautiful ‘Diablo’ cosmos that are popping up almost unbidden all over my garden right now. Like clockwork, every year I decide to try a pretty flowering hanging basket. After the last one didn’t live a week–the darned things need a crazy amount of water–I bought a sturdy fern that looks better at week four than most of the flowers did on day two. The ugliest thriving flower looks better than the prettiest dead one–work with what you’ve got!

I hope my experiences are helpful to you–best of luck in your garden!

Meryl Carver-Allmond writes about gardening, photography, crafty stuff, dogs, and whatever else happens to tickle her fancy on any given day at My Bit of Earth.

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14 thoughts on “Guest post: Learning from Experience: Tips for New Organic Gardners

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  6. Great post! I already do most of your suggestions, but your reminded how lax I’ve become when my record keeping. Even though I just started a gardening blog, I haven’t been recording everything that’s going on – that is going to have to change.

    Thanks for all the info!

  7. Meryl-
    Your post could not have come at a better time. I’m an organic gardener wanna-be with no idea where to begin. I’ll start by bookmarking My Bit of Earth.

  8. This is a great post, thank you. Living in the desert makes it a little hard for me to want to plant anything but things can change. Thank you.

  9. Great post! Love your style.

    Kisha–try no-dig gardening in the desert…started in Australia by a woman named Esther Dean in (I think) the ’70s…picking up steam here (sometimes called lasagna gardening, too–a reference to layers, not the food). You can find something about it on Google–might be a good solution.

  10. Excellent advice! The boyfriend and I were talking about growing all of our vegetables as soon as we buy a house so I’ve been trying to read a little bit here and there about organic gardening and basically, how to do it since I have no experience whatsoever. Thanks a lot!

  11. Thanks for all of the nice comments everyone!

    Another thing Holly’s comment reminded me of–remember you can grow most things anywhere! I actually have very little space (and I rent!). A few years ago I just kind of got fed up with waiting “until I have more space” to grow stuff, and just started experimenting. You’d be surprised at what you can grown in containers.

    For example, one of my favorite gardens to go look at pictures of is this rooftop garden: http://www.yougrowgirl.com/thedirt/2008/06/27/roof-garden-slightly-less-chaos/#more-1645 It’s entirely containers, and small ones at that, but it’s lovely.

    In the words of the fabulous Tim Gunn–make it work!

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