It’s a concept that’s more than a little confusing: Food companies and farms that choose to grow and sell organic products and label them as such must take rigorous and expensive steps to get certified. Only then can they display the prestigious USDA Organic seal on their food, and even then, they must continue to get recertified annually.
But “organic” simply means “natural”—the way nature intended—so organizations, such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Organic Trade Association, believe it’s the nonorganic growers who should be subject to excessive scrutiny, not the ones who work in harmony with Mother Nature.
If you agree with them and think that sounds a little backward, you’re not alone. But while these groups and many others are working to get the food industry to phase out high-yield agricultural practices, such as using and developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and chemical pesticides, there is something you can do—start your own organic vegetable garden at home.
“Organic gardening may sound intimidating, but the principle is quite simple,” says Mike Rittenhouse Rigby, a landscape consultant and designer in Virginia who has been growing organic produce for more than 40 years. “If it’s made from oil, plastic or chemical sources, just don’t use it. You have more control over Earth’s destiny than you might think.”
The latest dirt on organic gardens
It’s true: The small step of going organic in your own veggie garden will benefit your health and the health of the planet.
When you grow your own food, you’re reducing your carbon footprint; instead of getting in the car and driving to the store for food and ingredients that may have been shipped in from across the world, you’re simply heading out your back door and picking them yourself. You also have more control over how your food is grown, so it’s fresher and healthier for you and your family. Unnatural chemical fertilizers and pesticides decrease soil fertility and zap plants of essential vitamins and minerals. According to a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition many organically grown vegetables contain 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown produce.
By following organic principles, you’re also being kind to the birds, bees, butterflies and other critters that might visit your garden. (And humans, too; pesticide use on produce has been linked to a number of health hazards, ranging from headaches and nausea to endocrine disruption and cancer.) The purpose of a chemical pesticide is to kill pests; unfortunately, most are indiscriminate, also killing off beneficial organisms in the soil and friendly insects above ground. Harmful pesticide residue can also be carried off in the wind or seep into groundwater. This means it’s damaging our water sources, which in turn diminishes the health of the planet.
“We don’t often think of our gardens as being part of the local watershed, but when water falls onto our garden from the sky or from our hose, it’s going to do one of two things: either sink in or run off, and most of it runs off,” explains Morgan Vondrak, a California-based landscape designer who specializes in sustainability. “As water runs off our properties and to the nearest body of water, it picks up pollutants along the way, like brake dust, gas and oil from cars, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and dog poo, just to name a few. Multiply that by hundreds of homes in an area, and that’s a lot of polluted runoff making its way into our rivers, lakes and oceans.”
And that doesn’t just happen when you live near a large body of water, says Jenifer Atkinson, chair of the Colorado Ocean Coalition, a grassroots organization growing across the country as more citizens raise concerns over water quality. “In fact, 80 percent of all pollution in the ocean comes from an inland source,” says Atkinson. “And since the ocean generates about 70 percent of the oxygen we need to breathe, we encourage people to shift their habits to more sustainable ones. Organic gardening, including the reduction of chemical nitrogen fertilizer, is an essential step in improving water quality, now and for generations to come.”
If you’re not quite ready to commit to your own organic garden, we suggest starting small, perhaps volunteering a few hours at a community garden to see if you enjoy it or experimenting with a few plants in containers on the deck.
But if you’re eager to get started, we’ve outlined some basic steps for you here.
7 steps to a fresh home harvest
Step One: Plot your success.
The first step is to find the best place in your yard for your garden. Don’t go too big too soon; if you’re just getting started with gardening, a site that’s too large will end up being a source of frustration. (You can always expand next season.)
Look for an area that gets a minimum of six hours of full sun each day but that isn’t too windy. Most people choose a plot in the back yard, although front-yard edible landscapes are a growing trend across the country. If you’re considering planting food in the front, check your city’s regulations or ask your HOA, if you have one. If you get the go-ahead, don’t plant too close to the street or the driveway, where deicing salt, other road debris and pet waste can affect your food.
You’ll need good drainage, so avoid areas where water tends to pool for extended periods of time, and don’t plant too close to large trees or shrubs that will compete with the garden for water, nutrients and sunlight. Finally, advises Kristen Friedrich, a soil expert and professional organic gardener based in Colorado, pay attention to the yards around you.
“Any pesticides or herbicides your neighbor uses in their yard, or what your HOA or city uses in common areas, can easily drift into your yard and undo all your good work,” she says. The best solution is to stay as far away from shared borders as possible—or to build raised beds instead. “With raised beds, which are fairly simple to build, you can create your own soil layers, which means you know exactly what’s going in and you don’t have to get it tested,” Friedrich explains. “Plus, you won’t be bending over as far when you’re tending to the garden, and you might deter crawling insects, which will have farther to go to do damage.” Go to thefoodproject.org/BaG for instructions to make DIY Raised Beds.
Step Two: Test the soil.
Unless you’re gardening in raised beds, testing your soil is the most crucial step in the entire process, says Robert Weitz, a certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental Group. No matter where you live, how long you’ve lived there or whether you’ve had a garden in that spot before, you need to test the soil to learn the pH levels and the concentrations of key nutrients. You can get a simple at-home testing kit for less than $10 from your local garden center or county extension office. Armed with the test results, head to your local garden center and ask the experts how to interpret the results; they can recommend the right organic products to get your soil ready for planting. Soil amendments include dolomite lime, sulfur, gypsum, kelp, blood and bone meals and beneficial bacteria, each providing different nutrients as needed.
If you live in an older neighborhood, built before 1978 when lead-based paints were finally banned, dangerous lead could have leached into the soil. In this case, or if you’re concerned about pesticide use by a previous homeowner, you’ll need a different soil test. Your county extension agent might be able to test the soil on-site, or will know where to send it.
Keep in mind, though, that soil tests are not a pass/fail situation, Friedrich says. “Almost all soil will need some sort of amendment, and you’ll want to repeat the test every year, because things can change from season to season.” And whatever you do, she cautions, don’t omit this simple but important step. “Skipping this part of the process will cost time and money in every other step.
Step Three: Pick your plants.
Once your site is chosen and your soil is tested and amended, it’s time to decide what to plant. Whether you want to use seeds, seedlings or fully rooted plants, you’ll need to make certain they’re completely organic. Although any traces of chemicals found in conventionally produced seed will be nearly negligible by the time the plant is mature, introducing them into your garden would defeat the purpose of going organic, Friedrich says. “If you’ve gone this far already, you want to know what you’re getting.” Seeds are less expensive and more readily available, she adds, but rooted plants with a full set of true leaves are less susceptible to diseases—and you’ll see the delicious results much sooner.
When to plant what mainly depends on where you live, so consult a planting calendar specific to your growing zone; you can find one online or at the garden center. If you live in the northern Midwest, for instance, and you’re eager to plant tomatoes, your planting calendar will suggest sowing the plants outdoors around mid-May; you’ll be harvesting juicy tomatoes until about mid-September. But if you live in south Florida, you get two tomato seasons—planting in mid-February for harvesting through early summer and planting again in October for harvesting through December.
Don’t plant something without knowing its suggested growing season for your region—that’s setting the plant up for failure and yourself up for disappointment. The maximum temperature that peas can handle is 75 degrees, for example, so they’d never survive a summer in 110-degree Phoenix like they would in 68-degree Anchorage, Alaska.
Step Four: Explore fertilization solutions.
The thought process in organic gardening is that you feed the soil, and the soil feeds the plant. That’s opposed to conventional gardening, where fertilizers feed the plant directly. Organic compost, the most popular type of fertilizer, enriches the soil, retains moisture and suppresses pests and diseases. But it can be tricky: If you were hoping to take advantage of the free or low-cost compost your city offers, you might want to reconsider.
“If you use public compost, you may be exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other toxins,” says Weitz. “That’s because when municipalities pick up lawn clippings and other organic debris for composting, they don’t test first to see if it’s free from contamination.”
The solution? Buy certified organic compost, or make your own. (See: Composting at Home.) Although some people reject the idea of starting a compost pile or bin because they’re afraid it will smell or will attract pests, Friedrich says if it’s done correctly, “it won’t do either of those things.”
Step Five: Repel pests—naturally.
In conventional gardening, chemical-based pesticides are used as a reactive strategy to kill or repel insects that attack plants. Pesticides also kill beneficial organisms in the soil and beneficial insects like ladybugs, which eat aphids, the most common garden pest in North America. But with organic gardening, pest control is a preventive strategy—taking steps to deter pests before they even appear.
Although there are too many organic pest-control methods to cover here, two of the most popular are “companion planting” and “ally planting.” With companion planting, certain vegetables are planted next to each other—the plants enhance each other’s flavor and growth, and healthy plants are less susceptible to pests. Conversely, there are certain plants that should never be grouped together. Growing beans? Good companions are cucumber, celery, carrot and radish, but never plant beans near garlic or onion or you’ll stunt the beans’ growth. Onion is a friend to carrots and lettuce, though.
With ally planting, or ally cropping, specific herbs or flowers are planted near vegetables to repel or confuse insects. Plant summer savory near your beans to discourage bean beetles. Chives deter aphids on peas, and basil repels flies and mosquitoes on tomatoes, while also improving growth and flavor. Marigolds deter beetles on cucumbers, and mint and sage deter cabbage moth.
Wet foliage attracts pests, so water early in the day to give leaves a chance to dry in the sun. Good air circulation (not overcrowding the plants) also promotes drying of the plants.
Step Six: Control weeds.
Weeds can be just as destructive as pests in the garden; they provide hiding places for insects and steal the sunlight, nutrients and water from your veggies. The key is to get weeds out before they grow so large that pulling them out destroys nearby vegetable plants.
To stop weeds before they start, you can cover the garden’s surface with an organic mulch; not only will it reduce weed-seed germination and suppress weeds trying to emerge, the right mulch can also retain moisture and act as an insulator, keeping the soil cooler in warm weather and warmer in cool weather. Popular organic mulches include hardwood and softwood barks, crushed corncobs, spent hops from local breweries, peat moss and pine needles.
Hand-pulling the weeds is, of course, the most natural method, even though it’s time-consuming and tiring. It’s easier to do if you pull when the ground is wet; if the weed has an especially thick root, stick a knife blade or screwdriver into the soil next to the weed as you pull.
Step Seven: Let’s eat!
Now comes the fun part: Enjoying the fruits (and veggies!) of your labor. If you find yourself with too much to eat, research how to freeze, can or ferment what you grow for use throughout the winter. And share with grateful neighbors and friends.
“Nothing compares to the experience of growing fresh food and picking it at the peak of ripeness,” Rigby says. “It’s the greatest reward for your hard work and hours of time spent in the garden. It’s food that tastes like … hope.”