What is Meant By Organic Gardening?
You will no doubt often hear the term organic gardening or ‘gardening naturally’. What it actually means - or how strict the definition is - can be different for each individual. A lot of it comes down to what we call ‘inputs’: material such as fertilisers or soil amendments that we add to help the growing process along and increase our chances of success. But in a wider sense, organic gardening is about conserving resources and maintaining the natural balance of our garden ecosystem. The focus is on avoiding chemical solutions, and thinking of the long term as well as the short term.
Organic gardening is closely linked to ideas such as sustainability and biodiversity. It emphasises the cyclical, self-sustaining abilities of the natural world. Soil is a great example of this process in action: adding broken-down compost and organic matter to your soil will create a healthy, well-structured soil, which in turn will lead to robust crop growth.
It’s difficult to be a gardener or food-grower and be 100% organic about it all the time: sometimes you’ll have to make compromises. If you must use a non-organic solution with chemical ingredients, look for one that tries to mitigate its impact and try to use it sparingly. Overall the principle with organic gardening is to foster natural balance and to try and use natural inputs in the vegetable garden as much as you can - whether the goal is soil amendment, pest control, plant feeding or irrigation.
What ways can you practice organic gardening?
Fertilisers and Plant Feed
Back in the day, crops were grown using natural and organic techniques because, well, that was the only way. But the innovation of artificial, chemical-based fertilisers changed the game, particularly for commercial growers, where they led to quicker and more reliable growth rates. Unfortunately, there are downsides to using these kinds of products: the chemicals can harm the environment as they seep into waterways, they eventually deplete the soil and they can upset the natural balance, particularly in small garden environments.
Chemical fertilisers and plant feed are something of a short-term measure that won’t foster soil health in the long-run. Sure, they can have an almost immediately positive effect in the garden, but they also tend to be very water-soluble. What this means in practice is that nutrients can be washed out of these soils faster than if you had added some slow-acting organic matter instead. Chemical-based fertilisers also tend to focus on the ‘Big 3’: namely Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (or N, P and K). They are good at correcting shortfalls of these nutrients, but they lack a range of other micronutrients that go towards a well-balanced soil or growing medium.
Good quality compost plays a vital role in long-term soil health. Growing your own compost is of course a great option, and a perfect example of organic gardening in action. Compost is available to purchase in bulk bags as well. Envirogrind compost - which we supply - is an enriched compost product containing composted fish waste, large amounts of potassium and potash, and slow-release nitrogen. It can be used as a mulch or soil improver, and in our experience it greatly increases crop yields. It’s also worth looking into the possibility that a local farmer might be willing to supply you with some broken-down manure. Failing that, many compost products will feature a certain amount of manure as an ingredient. Over time, a healthy and well-structured soil that has been supplied with rich organic matter will ultimately be in less need of short-term measures such as fertilisers and so on.
For the organic gardener looking to avoid the use of fertilisers and quick-fix plant feed, we would always recommend seaweed products (harvesting seaweed yourself is not advised as there are restrictions). Seaweed has been used as a soil improver for centuries; it contains a range of essential mineral and trace elements that will encourage strong plant growth. A good quality seaweed feed will contain all the major nutrients as well as a rich range of micro nutrients that can often be absent in overworked soil. Our Seafeed range includes a natural pellet fertiliser that combines seaweed extract, poultry manure, fish and humic acid. The unique composting process stabilises the nutrient content and maximises its availability. Seafeed can be used to feed your plants at any time of year, and releases nutrients slowly for up to 3 months. Further options for plant feed include worm castings and liquid comfrey feed.
In many ways this can be the most challenging aspect of organic gardening. Pests can do a lot of damage to your crops in a short space of time and it’s very tempting to reach for a non-organic, fast-acting solution. However, these solutions can be something of a blunt instrument that can do as much harm as good; often pesticides are indiscriminate in their effects and will be toxic to beneficial insects as well as the ones you want rid of. Some can also be hazardous for pets, birds, wildlife - and children.
Something with so many disadvantages has to have its advantages, though, which is why they are still commonly used. The speed and brutal efficiency of chemical pest control has an appeal partly because when you see evidence of a pest infestation, it can feel like you have no other options if you want to save the crop at all.
Organic pest control focuses on prevention as opposed to cure. Maintaining an optimum growing environment will help your plants to grow strong and healthy, and in turn they will be more resistant to disease.
Methods of organic pest control and disease avoidance include:
- Beneficial Insects: Insects such as ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewingscan feed voraciously on garden pests, so it’s a good idea to use methods of attracting them...You can even purchase supplies of beneficial nematodes; it’s a bit like enlisting a squadron of fighters to defend your garden. (As opposed to chemical warfare).
- Smart Sowing and Planting Times: Being strategic in the garden is one way of avoiding some common pest and disease hazards. Planting early potato varieties in mid March means you can likely avoid the peak potato blight season. Fast-maturing pea varieties sown in March have a better chance of cropping before the pea moth lays her eggs.
- Mesh and Fleece: Fleece and fleece tunnels can be placed over crops; this tends to be more commonly used for protection from frosts and the like, but will also have pest control benefits. Micromesh or enviromesh will be more effective than either fleece or netting: it protects against carrot and cabbage root fly, cabbage whitefly, aphids and flea beetles. It also allows air and water to freely circulate. Micromesh can be draped directly over plants, but it’s better to provide it with some kind of support in the form of a frame or hoop system.
- Manual Pest Control!: It may not seem like the most pleasant task, but hand-picking slugs or even smaller insects like aphids and dispatching them elsewhere can stop an infestation in its tracks.
- Traps and Barriers: Hanging traps can entice insects with a floral lure; there are a range of these options available, often designed for a particular pest (e.g. chafer beetle, leek moth). Another creative and effective solution is to employ a ground-level beer trap for slugs. On the other hand, slugs play their own role in the ecosystem - so a kinder alternative is to use natural, non-poisonous granules that form a barrier that they have great difficulty getting past.
- Sacrificial Plants: A ‘trap crop’ is one that you don’t really care for; you’re just growing it as a decoy to keep the pests away from your actual crops. Planting ornamental crops means that if you dodge the pests altogether, you’ll have a nice attractive plant! Marigolds and nasturtiums are often used to attract aphids, spider mites or beetles away from other plants. It can also be an idea to plant extra ‘expendables’ of some of your crops and place them in a more open position for potential pests to munch on.
- Sprays? While all of the above should be your first line of defence, sprays are available which - while they may not be strictly organic - are pesticide free and take steps to reduce their environmental impact. For example, Ecofective sprays work by a physical mode of action that stops pests such as greenflies and spider mites from feeding on your crops while remaining pet, child and wildlife-friendly. Garlic barrier sprays also work to deter aphids, slugs and snails while nourishing the plant itself. These sprays will really only work effectively if you use them before you see signs of an infestation.
- Companion Planting: Mileage (and anecdotal success or otherwise) tends to vary with companion planting. The idea is that planting, say, marigolds near tomatoes or peppers can discourage pests and damage. How much it works in practice is something that is debated among growers. It is a common technique though, and if nothing else it can result in aesthetically pleasing combinations in the garden.
Water is vital for successful crop growing, but there are ways that you can conserve the amount of water you use.
- Rainwater Harvesting is the practice of catching and storing rainwater so that it can be used for garden tasks such as irrigating. This can be done using a simple bucket, with barrels or with larger purpose-built containers known as water butts. The latter are most often connected to the downpipe of the roof of your house or shed. Increasingly popular in areas where hosepipe bans are often in place, water butts can catch a formidable amount of water throughout the year. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, rainwater harvesting can take some pressure off drainage systems.
- Drip Irrigation This irrigation method uses drip emitters to deliver water directly to the root area of the plants. It’s a very efficient alternative to top-down watering, with less water lost to evaporation and less risk of over (and under) watering. Drip watering can be automated to adjust the flow rate or duration depending on plant needs or weather conditions.
- Soaker Hose The soaker hose is another method that will save a considerable amount of water compared to traditional methods like top-watering. It’s a porous hose that supplies moisture steadily and evenly, and can be buried in the soil to bring it closer to the plant roots, optimising uptake. These hoses can be combined with timers for strategic irrigation that can adapt with the weather.
- Mulching is the practice of adding a layer of organic material (like leaves, straw or tree bark) around plants, without digging it in. Mulching helps to retain moisture and reduce evaporation, in turn leading to healthier root growth.
- Timing: Watering your garden in the morning or in the evening - when the sun is not at its strongest - can also reduce water evaporation and allow your plants more time to absorb what they need.
Growing a wide range of plant varieties can foster biodiversity in your garden. An ecologically diverse garden will have a self-balancing effect, where destructive pests will find it more difficult to gain a foothold - as there’s bound to be some beneficial predators taking them down a peg or two! If you have the space, setting aside an area of your garden to grow a little messier and unkempt can provide a shelter for overwintering beneficial insects. Encourage birds by placing bird feeders or bird houses, and avoid disrupting potential nesting areas.
Pollinators like bees and butterflies play a crucial role in the garden, but they have become seriously endangered by widespread destructive practices like deforestation, misguided development and pesticide use. Some ways that you can help and encourage pollinators in your garden include:
- Setting up solitary bee shelters or nesting sites. Simply leaving a small area of soil bare will provide a potential nesting area.
- Avoid mowing your lawn while dandelions are in bloom. In general try not to cut your lawn too often during the summer months: even restricting it to once a month will allow pollinators to avail of clover
- Plant a native wildflower mix. Specially-designed mixes are available that feature varieties recommended for pollinators by the RHS. Just make sure to double check that the included wildflowers are native: otherwise you could be doing more harm than good. Native Irish or UK plants are best suited to serve our native pollinators.
- Don’t use pesticides in the garden… or anywhere outdoors!
- Plant a shrub or native hedgerow: These can provide nesting and food for pollinators as well as corridors for wildlife once established.
Overall, it's never worth beating yourself up if you occasionally fall short of being 100% an organic gardener. The fact that you've read this far means that you're aiming to use organic and non-harmful practices where you can, and that's the most important thing.