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How to Grow a Specialty Garden

Planting an Organic Garden

Organic gardeners shun the use of synthetic chemicals to keep their yards free from potential hazards. But the real success of organic gardens lies in the methods used to keep plants growing vigorously, without a heavy reliance on sprays. Organic gardening cuts right to the heart of the matter: soil.

Soil enriched with organic matter is moist and fertile.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Soil with organic matter is moist and fertile.

Soil is the life force of the garden. When enriched with organic matter, or compost, the soil becomes moist, fertile, and friable, which is ideal for healthy plants. It also nourishes a rich population of beneficial organisms such as earthworms and nutrient-releasing bacteria. And it harbors root-extending fungi that help make growing conditions optimal.

Make compost the lazy way by layering leaves, lawn clippings, and kitchen waste. Then simply leave it until it's ready. Nature's recyclers will take organic matter no matter how it is presented and turn it into rich, dark compost. This process just takes longer in an untended pile.

To begin your compost heap, dump yard scraps in a far corner of the yard. An ideal blend would be equal amounts of soft or green material (manure and fresh leaves) and brown or hard material (dead leaves and chopped twigs). Or, if you prefer, keep the compost materials neatly contained in a wooden slat or wire mesh bin. If you put an access door on the bottom of the bin, you can scoop out the finished compost at the bottom while the rest is still decaying.

Add compost starter or good garden soil to a new compost pile to help jump-start the decay of organic materials.Compost starter, available in garden centers or from mail-order garden catalogs, contains decay-causing microorganisms. Some brands also contain nutrients, enzymes, hormones, and other stimulants that help decomposers work as fast as possible. Special formulations can be particularly helpful for hard-to-compost, woody material like wood chips and sawdust or for quick decay of brown leaves.

Compost Blends
Organic material decays most quickly if blended with approximately equal parts of the following:

Nitrogen-Rich Soft and Green Material: manure from chickens, cows, horses, rabbits, pigs, guinea pigs, and other herbivores; fruit and vegetable peels; grass clippings; green leaves; strips of turf; alfalfa

Carbon-Rich Brown and Hard Material: wood chips; ground-up twigs; sawdust; pruning scraps; autumn leaves; straw

Good garden or woodland soil, although not as high-tech nor as expensive as compost starter, contains native decomposers well able to tackle a compost pile. Sprinkle it among the yard scraps as you are building the pile.

Use perforated PVC pipes to aerate compost piles. An ideal compost pile will reach three to four feet high, which is big enough to get warm from the heat of decay. Why is heat important? High temperatures, when a pile is warm enough to steam on a cool morning, semi-sterilize the developing compost, killing disease spores, hibernating pests, and weed seeds.But the problem is that for decomposers to work efficiently enough to create heat, they need plenty of air, and not just at the surface of the pile. Aeration is traditionally provided by fluffing or turning the pile with a pitchfork, which can be hard work. But with a little advance planning and a perforated pipe, this can be avoided.

Learn tips on maintaining a compost pile and how to use fertilizer with optimal results in the next section.

The proper use of composting and fertilizers will ensure that your organic garden reaches its full harvest.

Start a compost pile on a bed of branched sticks that will allow air to rise from below. Add a perforated pipe in the center, building layers of old leaves, grass clippings, and other garden leftovers around it. The air will flow through the pipe into the compost pile.
  • Use on-site composting for easy soil improvement. Gather up old leaves, livestock manure, and/or green vegetable scraps and let them lie in or beside the garden until they rot, then work them into the soil. Or just heap them on the garden in the fall and till them into the soil. They will be decayed by spring. You can also dig a hole, dump in the yard waste, cover it with a little soil, and let it rot in privacy.

  • Expect to use more organic fertilizer, by volume, than synthetic chemical fertilizers. That's because organic fertilizers contain fewer nutrients by weight, averaging from 1 to about 6 or 7 percent. Contrast this with an inorganic lawn fertilizer that may contain up to 30 percent nitrogen, more than four times as much as organic fertilizer.