Homegrown: Organic vegetable garden, Part 1

I’m thinking I’d like to start an organic vegetable garden in my backyard. What do I need to do?

— Scott

You’ve asked a pretty big question. There are a variety of different methods of organic gardening and it seems like everyone has an opinion, but let me give you a couple of basics to get you started.

Before I get to that, though, keep in mind that organic gardening takes a bit more time in the garden on your part (not an altogether bad thing), perhaps a bit more work and a more forgiving attitude about less than perfect produce.

The first thing to do is to provide great soil for your plants.

Whether this is done through amending or replacing the existing soil, there really is no “organic gardening” without this step. The thinking behind this is that if you have good soil you’ll have strong and healthy roots, which translates into strong and healthy plants that produce better and are better able to fend off insect and disease problems.

I think anyone who gardens — organic or not — would benefit from heeding this advice.

There are recommendations about building raised beds and filling them with planting mixes. This is the quickest and perhaps easiest way to get where you want to be, but it can be expensive.

Most people opt to amend the soil they already have by incorporating a good amount of well-decomposed organic matter. I’d plan on covering your garden area with a 2-inch or even 3-inch deep layer and Rototill it into the soil to a depth of 6–12 inches.

Keep in mind improving the soil is a slow, gradual process. This initial amending only gets you started. I think it’s a good idea to mix in some organic matter late in the fall every year after the garden has frozen down. You’ll really see some great growing soil after several years of this.

The amendment you use should be organic in nature if you want to stay purely that way. Only use products that have no added synthetic fertilizers to speed up the composting process.

I wouldn’t use straight manure either. It’s cheap and relatively available, but it will be fairly salty and if your soil is already the salty side, you could run into some trouble. If you’re not sure about your salt level, take a soil sample out to the Colorado State University Extension office for a free and quick salt test.

I like adding a bit of manure when I do amend soil (unless, of course, the soil is salty to begin with).

I like using a variety of different amendments. They provide different benefits to the soil, just don’t depend solely on manure to do the job.

Your primary material should be compost or a decomposed wood product. These materials tend to be a bit coarser than manures, and they do a better job of breaking up our native, heavy clay soils.

I suppose the biggest question people have about organic gardening is how to control insect and disease pests.

The way I usually tell people to approach the issue is with a system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It’s not a totally organic way of pest control per se, but it covers the important basics of organic pest control and is easily adapted into an organic pest control program (or into a nonorganic one for that matter).

Here are the basic principals of IPM:

1. Scouting

2. Identification and Knowledge

3. Establish a Threshold

4. Control

In next week’s column I will explain these basic principles.

# # #

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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