Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard
Spring in Iowa feels like stepping out of the Ice Age into some of the most appreciated warm weather on the planet. After enduring 20 snow and ice storms from November to March (and more still possible all the way to early May), a person’s patience begins to thin. Mine does, anyway. But a few days of warmer weather, say in the 50s and 60s, changes my whole outlook.
About mid January, I stop thinking of winter as “pretty” or “picturesque.” I remember the salt, backaches, missed appointments, missed school days, cars that won’t start, jumper cables, ice-covered windows, car accidents, tow trucks, frozen body parts, wind chill, slips and falls, black ice, power outages, cold feet, heavy blankets, long johns, and itchy wool sweaters. Winter, you’ve overstayed your welcome.
I am ready for spring. I am ready for the rain to wash all those chilly memories away. I am ready for the plants in my garden to return. I am ready to see green buds pushing up through the dead leaves. I long for the feel of dirt under my fingernails. If you live in a cool climate, I’ll bet you’re ready, too.
This year, Julia and I are motivated to do more than plant flowers. We’ve decided to add vegetables to our backyard garden, small as it is. I have a design in mind that will let us grow a number of vining veggies and still give us access to their harvest without having to crawl on our hands and knees. (Watch for more details in a later post.)
So, how about you? Are you thinking of planting vegetables this year? You don’t need a large area, even a few pots or planters will get you started on a delicious harvest for your family. You do need a lot of sunshine, though. And here’s one other thing to consider: If you want your garden to be organic, you have to start with the soil.
Organic from the Ground Up
If you’ve been putting chemical weed killers or artificial fertilizers on your lawn (and we hope you haven’t), you can’t just dig up a patch of grass and call it good. Those chemicals are still in your soil, and soon will be in your vegetables, then inside you and your loved ones. Instead, build a simple raised bed, or convert old washtubs, barrels or other used items into container gardens. Be certain that the containers never held anything toxic, or you’ll defeat the purpose of using them high above a chem-treated lawn.
If you’re just starting out, and you’re unsure of the chemical history of your soil, or you’re opting for container gardens, consider buying organic soil from a trusted supplier. Packaged potting soil from a garden center may well be better than the soil in a chemically treated lawn. But if you’re looking for soil you’d trust to grow food for yourself and your family, check the label for the word “organic.”
And don’t forget to start your own compost bin. Leftover food scraps mixed with yard waste will create all the fertile soil you will need in time. We have already written about the value of the red worm and the advantages of vermiculture. But be warned, red wrigglers cannot survive outside in an open-air compost heap. You will need a covered wooden box or bucket to house them.
Why Plant a Garden?
With the extra effort it takes to plant, sow, and tend a garden, why do it? I can think of several good reasons. Maybe you have others to add.
- You know the grower. You’ll have no worries about how wholesome the food is.
- It’s the epitome of “shop locally.” When you shop in your own garden, you save fuel. Here in Iowa, most of our fruits and vegetables are trucked 1,500 miles before reaching our tables. How far are yours transported? (Can you say, “carbon footprint”?)
- No mowing! You don’t have to mow the area where you plant your garden. This isn’t a “no-labor” proposition, though, as you’ll get your share of exercise planting and tending your plot.
- You get to experiment with agriculture on a limited scale. Learn which plants grow well together. Find out firsthand whether the natural pest control suggestions keep aphids in control.
- If you’ve got kids, it’s a great opportunity for them to learn about the cycle of life and of reaping what you sow.
- You get to relax a little. Gardening lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s good for you in so many ways.
- You can see Nature at work. Bees and butterflies are becoming a scarcity today. If they stop by your garden for a visit, you’ll get to watch life replicating itself on a tiny and important scale. You won’t get that experience going to the grocery store.
- You’ll save money. Sure, you have an initial investment in seeds, a few tools, and water, but the payoff in healthy vegetables (and your health) far outweighs the modest amount you have to invest.
Tips for Beginners
I asked Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, an Iowa City group that encourages gardening “in your own backyard,” what a novice should consider when starting a garden. These were his suggestions:
- Pick an area with a lot of sun.
- Choose plants that are easy to grow: beets, beans, squash and tomatoes. You can buy starters from greenhouses or at the farmers markets. (In general, bigger seeds mean easier-to-grow plants.)
- Don’t over till the soil. The best nutrients are at the top.
- Fertilize with compost, not chemicals. Start your own compost.
- Control weeds and moisture with mulch, yard clippings, and newspapers.
- Don’t over water. Water is too precious. Capture your rain water.
- If you have questions, contact a Master Gardener. Or read the many relevant publications available online.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about my tiny backyard garden. If you see me on the street, check my fingernails to see how my garden is doing.
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