Organic Vegetable Gardening
The soil is a biologically active and dynamic resource, providing plants with mineral nutrients, water and oxygen. Organic matter — living organisms, fresh residues and decomposed residues is an essential ingredient in fertile and healthy soils. Organic matter improves soil tilth while preventing soil compaction and crusting. Soils low in organic matter often crust or seal over after a heavy rain, which prevents water and oxygen infiltration to the root system of growing vegetables. Organic matter slows soil erosion and provides a favorable environment for earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. Carbon dioxide from decaying organic matter brings minerals of the soil into solution, making them available to growing plants. The target level for organic matter in healthy soil is 3 to 5 percent. Potential crop yield could increase by about 12 percent for every 1 percent increase in organic matter.
Organic Vegetable Gardening
Organic Vegetable Gardening
As a component of organic agriculture, organic vegetable gardening promotes and enhances natural diversity and biological cycles on the farm. Rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic gardening is based on making the garden self-sufficient and sustainable.
Organic vegetable gardening is becoming more popular with each passing year, as home gardeners strive to grow gardens that are bountiful, healthy, and ecologically friendly. Starting an organic vegetable garden is fairly straightforward; here's what you need to know to get started.
Our gardening resources extend far beyond these crop guides. Check our Organic Gardening page for season-appropriate growing advice. For even more help growing organic vegetables and fruits — including help with knowing when to plant based on your ZIP code, how many plants will fit in a given space, and more — try our popular Vegetable Garden Planner program (also available in an iPad app version called the Grow Planner). Happy growing!
Label your organic plants. You will want to label the vegetables in your garden so you will remember what they are as they begin to grow. This is important if you have several varieties of the same vegetable or if it is perennial (will live for another growing season). It will also help you to determine which plants do well for future gardening plans. Use small wooden stakes to label your organic garden plants. Copper, brass, stoneware and other types of plant labels are also available from online gardening stores.
You'll want to start with organically-grown plants and seeds. Conventionally-grown plants are often already loaded with pesticides and chemical fertilizers — exactly the types of things you're trying to avoid in your vegetable garden. Organically-produced seeds are harvested from organically-grown plants, never treated with chemical pesticides or fungicides, and never genetically modified. There are several good mail order companies that provide organic vegetable garden seeds. More nurseries, garden centers, and big box stores are also starting to sell a selection of organic seeds — these are usually very clearly labeled as “organic.”
Shop for organic seedlings or organic seeds. Organic plants can be difficult to find locally. Many nurseries use fertilizers and pesticides, so be sure to ask. You can purchase organic seeds at online gardening stores. Choose plants that can grow well in your region and soil type. Inspect plants carefully for signs of disease or insect damage. Make sure the plants are healthy and not root-bound. Loosen it from the pot to see if the roots are wrapped around inside the pot. If it is root-bound, you can still use it, but you will have to cut it before planting.
Plant diseases may seriously stunt or kill vegetable plants. Diseases often appear as leaf spots, wilts, stunts, rusts or lesions. The causal agents may be fungi, bacteria, viruses or mycoplasms, or a stressful environment. For example, many vegetable plants will wilt not only from too little water but also from excessive water in the root zone. The key to successful organic disease management is prevention. The following strategies can be used to prevent diseases on vegetable crops.
Cover crops are usually established in the fall (September to October) in Missouri and allowed to grow during the winter and early spring before being plowed in. Cover crops can be interseeded with a fall vegetable crop toward the end of the growing season, which allows the cover crop to get established during the fall vegetable crop harvest. Popular winter cover crops include annual ryegrass, winter rye, winter pea, wheat, oats, triticale, clovers and hairy vetch. Fast-growing cover crops such as buckwheat, soybean, cowpeas and sorghum-sudangrass hybrid can be established during the summer (periods of one to two months between harvest of early planted spring crops and planting of fall crops) to suppress weeds and add organic matter to the soil.
The amount of fertilizer applied to any vegetable crop depends on soil type and characteristics (pH, organic matter and cation exchange capacity), previous cropping history and nutrient uptake by the vegetable. For example, heavy-feeding vegetables like tomatoes can remove as much as 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre each year. Soil should be tested every two years to determine total nutrients within the soil.
As I busily work on my garden plans for the year, I tend to forget that there are still many people that need a crash course on how to start their first organic vegetable garden. I’ve heard this especially from the great folks over at our 25 Day Grace Filled Journey to Real Food facebook group. If you haven’t joined our group, I’d encourage you to. There’s a lot of gardening chat going on.
So, for all of you that are eager to grow your own food and reap from the fruits of your labor, I wanted to share with you my Gardening 101 series that I started many years ago. I plan on continuing in this series this year, so make sure to sign up for my email subscription below this post or if you’re a newbie seeking to know more about real food, sign up for my 25 Day Grace Filled Journey to Real Food email list here. You’ll get all of my email updates on organic gardening as well.
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Organic insecticidesSeveral organic insecticides are available for use by vegetable gardeners, including Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), pyrethrums, rotenone, insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, neem and horticultural oils. Check the labels and consult your certifying agency before using any insecticides.
Lots of people dream of having a huge vegetable garden, a sprawling site that will be big enough to grow everything they want, including space-hungry crops, such as corn, dried beans, pumpkins and winter squash, melons, cucumbers and watermelons. If you have the room and, even more importantly, the time and energy needed to grow a huge garden well, go for it. But vegetable gardens that make efficient use of growing space are much easier to care for, whether you’re talking about a few containers on the patio or a 50-by-100-foot plot in the backyard. Raised beds are a good choice for beginners because they make the garden more manageable.
Legume cover crops, such as hairy vetch and clovers, fix nitrogen from the air and transform it for use by vegetable crops. As much as 120 pounds per acre of actual nitrogen can be fixed by certain legume cover crops one to two weeks before planting vegetable crops. Mixed seeding of grass and legume cover crops is commonly done by using one-third the normal seeding rate for the grass cover crop and two-thirds of the normal seeding rate for the legume (Table 2). Most legumes should be seeded in early fall, whereas grass cover crops can be seeded up to mid-October in Missouri. The following spring, mow or roll the cover crops. Most cereals can be incorporated into the soil when they are 24 inches tall, before head formation. Legumes should be plowed or incorporated into the soil just before full flowering for maximal nitrogen content.
Finally, we end up where we started — with the realization that, although vegetable gardening can be rewarding even for beginners, there is an art to doing it well. There is also a mountain of good information and advice from other gardeners available to you. Yet one of the most important ways of improving your garden from year to year is to pay close attention to how plants grow, and note your successes and failures in a garden notebook or journal.
Over time this kind of careful observation and record-keeping will probably teach you more about growing vegetables than any single book or authority. That’s because the notes you make will be based on your own personal experience and observations, and will reflect what works best for you in the unique conditions of your own garden. As in so many other pursuits, so it is in the art of vegetable gardening: practice does make perfect.
Written by expert gardener Barbara Pleasant, our “Crop at a Glance” collection teaches you how to grow everything from garden classics such as tomatoes and squash to lesser-known crops such as Jerusalem artichokes. Our growing guides are arranged alphabetically here, giving you easy, quick access to these succinct articles on home vegetable gardening.