Poke around industrial global food production statistics for long, and you’ll come across some truly eye-watering figures. Take apples, for example. According to recent USDA data, 98% of non-organic apples show evidence of pesticide residues, even after washing. Cucumbers, martyrs to every pest and disease going, are routinely sprayed with up to 67 different types of pesticides.
Other fruits and vegetables that test positive for at least 47 different chemicals include celery, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers, potatoes and lettuce. And a recent study from Boise State University found measurably lower levels of organophosphates (pesticides) in people who eat organic fruits and vegetables.
Of course, producing food for the world’s population is an intensive business, and every bite taken out of a food plant by a pest is a mouthful out of the bottom line. But when you’re only producing food for yourself, there’s no need to follow the same path as high-volume, high-intensity agriculture.
Feed your kids home-grown apples, and you’ll know they won’t be laced with cocktails of artificial chemicals. Leave the neonicotinoid pesticides on the shelf, and you’ll opt out of contributing to the decline of honeybees. And you can eat your food as nature intended: no pesticides, no herbicides and nourished only by what was there in the soil already.
Growing organically demands something of a mindset shift. Instead of reaching for a spray gun to treat a pest or disease outbreak, the organic grower concentrates on preventing the problem in the first place. Good gardening practices are vital—keep things clean, grow your plants for strength and health, and they’ll be naturally robust enough to shrug off the occasional setback, just as a plant would in the wild.
Most importantly, when you grow organically, you grow in harmony with nature, using what’s already in the environment around you, whether it’s organic matter, natural predators or the weather, all working on your side to produce the best plants you can grow. Convert to organic with these simple rules and you can produce at least as much fresh food as if you used chemicals. It’ll be a whole lot better for you and the environment, too.
#1: Right Plant, Right Place
Plants pick where they want to grow in nature. A woodland plant like sorrel, found wild in the damp shade at the edge of the forest, would never choose to grow on your sunny patio. Try and put it there anyway, and it won’t grow as well, bolting prematurely as its roots run out of water and become stressed. And a tomato that’s evolved in the high light levels and searing heat of South America produces bumper crops in the warmth and brightness of a greenhouse, but struggles to produce even a meagre crop of green, unripe fruit in shady conditions outside. Give a plant an environment as close to its natural habitat as possible and it will thrive, growing strong and healthy with hardly any additional help from you.
#2: Keep Your Plants Comfortable
Replicating the conditions your plants like to grow in isn’t only a matter of light levels, though. Less-than-ideal weather conditions, dramatic changes in temperature or running out of space in the root zone can cause a growth check that is often hard to reverse. Even when plants do recover, it takes time, and that’s time they could spend growing. Keep your plants as happy as you can. Maintain steady temperatures day and night using heated propagation trays, horticultural fleece or row covers in cold snaps. And always allow plenty of space for the roots to grow. If you see white roots at the drainage holes, move the plant into a bigger pot. A capful of liquid feed in the watering can once a week ensures nutrient levels never run low, even in containers.
#3: Prevention Is Best
Pest and disease control demands a different approach from organic gardeners. Instead of waiting until an infestation takes hold and then treating it,by which time your plants are likely already damaged goods, the organic approach is to do everything possible to prevent disaster from striking in the first place. Look out for disease-resistant varieties that are better able to naturally shrug off disease. And rotate your crops—most pathogens are species-specific, so group vegetables of the same family together, then move them each year, never planting the same group in the same place twice. Much of pest and disease prevention is about good, attentive gardening. Visit your plants every day to check how they’re doing, and act straight away at the first sign of trouble.
#4: Practice Intelligent Weeding
Prevention also comes into play when you’re tackling weeds without herbicides. Minimize the number of weeds in the first place and you’ve already won half the battle. Mulching with a thick layer of garden compost, farmyard manure, grass clippings or even cardboard buries annual seeds deep. Top it up throughout the year and you’ll keep most weeds thoroughly suppressed. Some break through even the thickest mulches, though, and you’ll often turn the occasional annual weed seed to the surface when planting or sowing. Deal with these using intelligent weeding, varying your approach according to conditions. When it’s dry, hoe off annual weeds, and they’ll shrivel to a crisp on the soil’s surface. After wet weather, tackle perennials with long tap roots because damp soil is looser and the long roots come out more easily.
#5: Make Your Own Compost
Throughout the season, you continuously remove plant matter as you garden, whether you’re harvesting, weeding or clearing spent plants. In nature, all those leaves, which are full of nitrogen and other minerals from your soil, fall back onto the soil to break down. Fail to replace these nutrients in your garden and your soil becomes less able to feed your plants. Home-made compost is the solution. Add extras like grass clippings, fallen leaves, horse manure or kitchen peelings and you’ll greatly improve your soil. Aim for a 50:50 mix of greens—nitrogen-rich materials that break down quickly, like leaves, manure and grass clippings—and brown materials like straw, cardboard and shredded prunings, which rot more slowly. Within a year, it’ll turn dark brown and crumbly, perfect for mulching or mixing into your own potting composts, returning all that goodness back to your plants where it belongs.
#6: Look After Your Soil
Garden soil is amazing stuff. It’s teeming with about a billion organisms per teaspoon, nearly all of which help plants, whether it’s mycorrhizal fungi working with roots to absorb nutrients or nitrogen-fixing bacteria enabling beans to feed themselves from the air. Whether you garden in dirt or compost, a well-cared-for growing medium is the foundation of a good organic vegetable garden. Avoid treading on the soil at all costs, as it compacts it into an impenetrable pan. Black polyethylene covers keep excess rain off in winter, as do clear polyethylene row covers in spring, with the added benefit of warming the soil up so it’s ready for sowing. Mulch any bit of soil not covered in plants to keep it moist, cool and crumbly.
#7: Give Your Plants Friends
Monocultures are like party invitations for pests. Plant a whole area with nothing but fava beans, and when blackflies arrive on a scouting trip, they find an uninterrupted feast of their favorite dish. No wonder they settle in and multiply in double-quick time! Mix up your crops in polycultures, with those broad beans nestled amongst other vegetables with complementary growing habits like chard, corn, lettuce and perhaps a few dwarf peas. Include annual flowers like marigolds, alyssum and nemophila, and you totally confuse any passing insect with the riot of foliage, colors and smells, making it almost impossible for them to identify their target. As well as deterring pests, you’ll keep the soil covered so moisture is locked in and weeds are kept out, and you’ll get twice the harvest from your available space.
#8: Make Your Own Fertilizer
When you’re growing in a confined situation, such as a greenhouse or in containers, even gardens well-amended with compost need boosting as the season wears on. There are plenty of off-the-shelf organic liquid fertilizers to choose from, but you can also brew your own from plants you probably already grow. Both comfrey leaves, packed with fruit-boosting potassium, and nitrogen-rich nettles make nutritious liquid plant feeds. Cram a bucket with leaves—the more you fit in, the stronger the feed—and top up with water.
Cover the whole thing and put it outside, preferably a long way away, as the smell is quite pungent. Leave the mixture to rot for six weeks, then strain the resulting nutrient-rich liquid. It’s pretty strong, so dilute about 1:20 with water before using. Feed your plants nettle tea at the start of the season to encourage leafy growth, then when plants start flowering and fruiting, switch to comfrey tea for a bumper harvest.
#9: Harness the Power of Nature
It’s a rough deal being a garden pest. Not only is the gardener out to get you, but the world is full of natural predators intent on eating you, from ladybugs and ground beetles, to parasitic wasps, mites and nematodes. Harness the power of this pint-sized army and you’ll never need a spray gun again.
In a greenhouse setting, beneficial insects control most infestations. Wait until you know you have a problem to release the control, but before it reaches epidemic proportions to give predators time to build up their own numbers. Carnivorous plants also attract, ensnare and devour flying pests from whiteflies to fungus gnats. Sundews and butterworts are ideal for a corner of the greenhouse; pitchers are hardy enough to grow outdoors.
#10: Save Your Own Seed
Leave some of your plants unpicked to flower and set seed and you close the organic growing circle. Commercial seeds are often treated with chemicals to protect them from fungal diseases or deter pests. If you collect your own, you’ll know for sure you’re growing chemical-free.
Plus, when you select seed from a plant that’s performed particularly well in your garden, the next generation will be a little better adapted to your microclimate. Eventually you’ll develop a strain unique to your circumstances, so you get happier plants and better crops every year. Wait until seeds are crisp and papery brown before storing.
If it’s wet outside, bring them indoors to finish drying. Clean off any chaff and other debris and store in labeled paper envelopes with a silicone sachet to keep them in perfect condition until you’re ready to sow them.