Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Secret to My Organic Garden

“Organic gardening is too labor intensive.” So sayeth the generally ignorant population. This is the standard defense line of traditional chemical gardening (crops grown with the use of treated seeds, artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides). But I would beg to differ.

I’m a fundamentally lazy gardener. I try to grow mostly useful plants, and the few flowers I cultivate are nearly all perennials that can take care of themselves. As much as possible, I try to garden organically. I choose heirloom and/or organic seeds and seedlings and save seeds each year. I use no pesticides and depend on the ladybugs, chickens, bats, and cats to keep the pests under control. Our horses, chickens, and compost provide plenty of fertilizer. But what about the weeds?

I have only one word…Mulch.

I love mulch. I even love to say the word. Mulch. Unless you enjoy spending hours bent over in the sun wrestling weeds from the ground only to wrest the grandbabies of those same weeds out of the ground the next week (and sometimes the next day), mulch is your best defense.

If you’re rich and can afford expensive store-bought mulch delivered in individual bags – more power to you (although I might toss a little guilt your way when I see you stuffing all those plastic bags in the trash). I confess to purchasing a few scoops of mulch myself and ferrying it home in our redneck truck to use on the perennial flowers and cover the newspaper mulch around the fruit trees. It looks nice (for about a day and then my husband blows grass clippings all over it as he mows). I have no idea where that mulch originated (and neither does the hardware store it seems) so I wouldn’t use it on my vegetables, but it does serve a purpose.

If you want to cut down on the number of weeds and help the world out by sequestering more CO2 in the ground, I recommend that you NOT till your garden. Sure, a freshly tilled garden looks great, but when you turn over all that dirt, not only do you any sequestered CO2, but you bring deeply buried seeds closer to the surface so they can germinate and grow in to chickweed or another of its annoying cousins. Leave the earth as unadulterated as possible. It’s best to just dig up only what you need to plant your seeds and replace it.

Once your veggie plants have raised their little green faces to the sun, it’s time to mulch. In the past I’ve used newspapers (secured by the plentiful crop of rocks that rise to the surface unbidden every season), but this year I’m opting for straw. A thick bed of straw will keep the weeds under control and help control erosion. Those of us who garden on a hill appreciate anything that assists us in keeping our soil where it is.

Last year we used rye grass (planted the previous fall) as mulch for my tomatoes and it worked magnificently  In the spring before the grass had gone to seed, we weed whacked it down to the ground and then planted the tomato plants directly in to the bed. The grass died and worked perfectly as a mulch for the tomatoes all summer while its dead roots added natural nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. This year's rye crop was devastated by a chicken escape problem, so it's pretty spotty but we'll use what we can and add straw where we can't.
Around my blueberries, I’m using empty paper feed bags I collected all winter. Cut apart at the seams, they instantly and completely mulch about a 3x3 space. I secure them with rocks, but once we have a few rains they can handle the job on their own.

The evidence that I am growing wiser (or perhaps lazier) as I grow older can be seen by the increasing amount of mulch I use on all my gardens. Who wants to spend a July afternoon breaking your fingernails and sweating in the sun just to keep the burdock and crabgrass and blessed clover from taking over the gardens?

No, much better to spend the afternoon in the hammock, with a cold beverage watching the mulch do my work for me. Organic gardening is labor intensive? Well, sometimes it does require that I venture back down the hill to refill my glass.

Book Club Update:
I’m nearly finished reading Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. It’s packed full of information about organic agriculture and sold evidence of the benefits of organic life. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to distill it down to one reasonably sized post. But I had to comment on the information found on pages 70-71. This passage made me laugh out loud, and then think deeply about our country’s history of selfishness.

It seems when it was discovered that bird guano taken from an area of South America was powerful fertilizer, the US Government passed the Guano Island Act in 1856. “As a result of that act, the US government seized 94 islands off the coast of Peru just to harvest bird shit.” I guess we didn’t think we had enough bird shit here. Upon further reflection I realized that history does repeat itself.


  1. Cara, the fact that you have a garden shows that you are by nature not lazy. ;) But I enjoyed reading about your gardening "techniques." I hope to get a community garden next summer (live in a condo). We tried to get one this year, but we did not get one (they have a lottery for open plots). I do miss getting my hands dirty, but am glad we have a wonderful farmer's market. We plan on jarring this year - how about you? Do you jar/can any of your homegrown foods?

    1. Hannah - I'm headed to the hardware store today to buy lids for all my jars. The strawberries are just coming in and I plan to can some strawberry-rhubarb sauce for ice cream this winter! As you wait for the community garden plot, do you have any CSA options? Some let you work off part of your share! Thanks for reading and commenting. Blessings to you for an abundant summer!