One of the best ways to ensure you have a bountiful organic veggie garden is to take the time to organize it. Your garden may already be in for the season, so read these helpful tips to make life easier for you next year. Learning about the particular needs of your veggies can make all the difference in an organic garden's aesthetic and yield.
Step 1 - Pick a Spot
Chances are you have a spot set aside already where you want to plant your veggies. If not though, there are a few things to consider.
Soil - First, take a look at your soil. A simple soil test can reveal a lot about the components of your garden soil and can be an invaluable help for the untrained eye. Most veggies prefer a loamy soil, which contains the perfect balance between clay, sand, and humus. An easy test to tell you what basic type of soil you have is to dig down into your garden at least 6 inches and grab a handful of soil. Squeeze your hand into a fist, and then release. Sandy soil will instantly crumble when you open your first. Clay soil will maintain the shape of your fist and loam will fall into soft chunks. Chances are different places in your yard will have slightly different soil composition, so test in a few locations and pick the loamiest one.
Sun - Next, spend some time observing what kind of sun your intended plot is getting. For most types of vegetables, the more sun the better. But a plot half in sun and half in partial shade is actually ideal so that you can grow a range of sun and shade-lovers.
Water - Planting your garden near a water source, like a stream or creek, is a great way to ensure your veggies stay moist. However, if you ever plan on using non-organic fertilizers or pesticides, please plan your garden as far away from moving water as possible to prevent toxins from being carried into the water system. That being said, as harmful chemicals work their way down into the soil they will eventually reach the watershed regardless of whether or not they are near a stream. So, maintain a fully organic garden and try not to use them at all. Gardens near standing water such as a lake, pond, or birdbath have the potential to be totally over-run by mosquitoes later in the summer and - let's face it - you are not going to want to go out there if that's the case.
Deer - If your yard is prone to pests of the four-hooved variety, planting your garden as close to the house as possible would be a deterrent. Installing a motion activated security light is a very effective added measure.
Step 2 - Choose Your Veggies
Take some time to think about your garden plot's conditions and which veggies would thrive best before you head to the nursery. Garden centers these days have huge selections of veggies, which can be very intimidating if you don't know what you're looking for. The best time to start planning is late winter, since many popular veggies prefer cooler springtime weather.
Soil - First, think about vegetables that work best in your particular soil type. For example, carrots, lettuce, turnips, potatoes, corn, squash, strawberries, and collard greens will all thrive in sandy soil. Keep in mind that sandy soil is much more porous and therefore will need to be watered much more frequently than any other soil type. Clay soils are nutrient-rich but may retain too much moisture and will need to be amended at least somewhat. Most veggies will thrive in light clay soil, except perhaps carrots.
Sun - Most vegetables require at least 5 hours of full sun each day. Tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, squash, melon, corn, carrots, eggplants, and most herbs all flourish in very sunny conditions. However, keep in mind that in direct all-day sun your garden will need to be watered deeply at least twice a week for best results. A dappled sun allows you to organize your garden by planting sun-lovers in the sun and shady plants in the dappled or partial shade. Some plants that do well in partial shade include lettuce, spinach, green onions, garlic, parsley, brussels sprouts, thyme, swiss chard, and cilantro. Remember, all plants need sun to produce a crop and the more shade you have the smaller the crop. Full shade areas are best left to moss. You can brighten up a shady garden by trimming back surrounding trees and bushes or by using an organic reflective mulch.
Harvest Time - Lastly, consider more than one crop harvest. Though many veggies, like tomatoes, prefer the hottest part of the summer, many enjoy cooler temperatures. So, by planning ahead and designating a space for cool weather crops you can plant one cycle of cold-lovers such as lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, turnips, beets, and kale as early as March (after danger of frost). Then, come late August you can start again with these cool weather crops, which will thrive in the early fall.
Variety - And of course, the most important question you have to ask yourself when considering vegetables, "Will I eat it?" Only plant what you and your family will enjoy.
Need help choosing varieties? It is true that in the good old days fresh veggies tasted better. That's because a large variety of vegetables were cultivated back then. These days only a few varieties are being cultivated, based on how well they are able to be packaged and shipped and how tolerant they are to frost, drought, and chemical pesticides or fungicides. These varieties, including the tomatoes Big Boy, Early Girl, and Better Boy may be easier to grow, but they just don't taste as good. Organic heirloom varieties can have a much more distinct flavor, but take some extra care and attention as far as watering during droughts and protection during cold snaps. Grafted vegetables are becoming increasingly popular these days. They are heirloom variety plants that have been grafted onto hardy drought and frost-tolerant root stock. Grafted veggies, most commonly tomatoes, can be bought at most nurseries and are both flavorful and hardy. Buying organic seeds or seedlings is almost always more expensive, but it is widely believed that you make up for this in flavor, as well as peace of mind that no toxic chemicals were released into the environment during the growing of your new plants and seeds. If you are interested in having an organic garden, the first step is buying organically grown seeds and seedlings.
Step 3 - Start Early
Buying individual veggies as seedlings may not seem expensive, but the cost can add up fast. Seed packets however, can cost less than a dollar for 25 or more seeds, and also offer a huge selection as far as varieties go. If you want to get a head-start and enjoy more than one crop harvest, start your seeds in the late-winter indoors. This way, by the time the weather is nice enough outside to plant, you will have your own healthy little seedlings all ready to go.
Decide which veggies you want to plant and either head to the nursery or order out of an (often cheaper) online seed catalog. Don't get overwhelmed by all of the options, make a note of everything that piques your interest and remember them for next year. But, order sparingly because each packet contains more seeds than you will probably be able to plant.
You can use either a seed starter tray or some small 2-inch pots to start your seedlings (the trays take up less space). Plant them in a seed starter mix, or just regular potting soil and keep them moist but never soggy. Spritzing them daily with a mister bottle is a great way to maintain good soil moisture. Keep the trays or pots in a sunny window, either eastern or western exposure, and in around 2 weeks you will have a burgeoning crop of seedlings. As soon as danger of frost has passed you can transfer your cold weather lovers (lettuce, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips and peas) outside. For the rest, wait until Mother's Day (or when nighttime temperatures are above 40 degrees) to move them out.
Step 4 - Mark Out Your Garden Space
Although it is always tempting to mix up your annual and perennial veggies, keeping them in separate plots will save a lot of time later on. Which plants are perennials depend on your area's USDA hardiness zone but typically include fennel, rosemary, oregano, strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb as well as many fruiting trees and shrubs. During the winter, these plants store their energy under the ground in extensive root systems or tubers. In the spring when it is time to till the soil for your annuals, the last thing you want to do is disturb your dormant perennials, so keep them separate!
Perennials - Some perennial plants should be kept VERY separate because they are extremely vigorous growers, also called invasive species. These include oregano, mint, and strawberries. Over time, garden plots once planted with these will become completely over-run if you are not keeping a careful eye out and cutting them back. After a good rain, mint vines can grow inches in 48 hours, so "careful" may be putting it lightly. These herbs and veggies are best suited to container gardens where they cannot escape and take over.
Trees and Shrubs - For some fruiting trees and shrubs, set aside more space than you think you need. That grape vine may look practical and cute in the nursery but they grow fast and will latch onto anything in sight. Soon, your prized weeping cyprus may become an expensive grape trellis. So, always plant your grape vine against a fence that you can train it along. Or, go with a more expensive professional setting and buy a nice arbor to go along with it. Raspberry and blackberry canes are an enticing purchase as well, but in loamy soil the canes multiply quickly and will soon be infringing on the boundary of the plot you set aside. Make sure you have at least 30 square feet of free space before you consider planting these robust growers.
Vines - Vining annual veggies such as cucumbers, squash, melon, zucchini, and pumpkins take up a surprising amount of space. By planting them at the perimeter of the garden you can train the vines to climb outward, spilling over the boundary of your garden plot. This way they will not choke out the rest of your veggies.
Companion Planting - One last thing to note is the concept of companion planting. Companion planting is the idea that when two or more specific plants are in a close proximity to each other (i.e. in the same bed) they can benefit each other somehow. These benefits can range from helping the other veggies repel insects to increasing vegetable yield. This same concept works in reverse too; some vegetables can affect others negatively when planted in close proximity. Take a look at this handy chart to find out which veggies should be planted close, or far away from each other. Again, don't get overwhelmed. These are all just general guidelines. (http://farmtopreschool.org/pdf/2.3_CompanionPlanting_Chart.pdf)
Spend a few hours in your empty garden thinking about what plants would do best where and mark out the boundaries with construction flags or by making a simple low fence with yarn and yard stakes. These visual boundaries will help hugely when it comes time to plant.
Step 5 - Get It all Set Up
As I mentioned earlier, knowing what kind of soil you have is imperative to having a healthy organic garden. Unless you have naturally loamy soil, which is rare, chances are you will have to amend your garden with helpful organic matter. Soil rich in organic matter is able retain water very well, keeping your plants cool and moist throughout the summer. The microbes and nutrients in organic matter keep your plants healthy and fertilized at all times, which is very important in organic gardening. By amending your soil early in the season, you eliminate the need to use harmful commercial fertilizers later on.
Compost - There are many different forms of organic matter, but one of the most helpful is plain old compost. You can buy bagged organic compost at most any nursery or garden supply center, or - hey! - you can make it yourself using only kitchen and yard scraps and a compost bin. Remember: not all compost is organic, if you are buying it make sure to look for "organic" on the label. How much compost you need will depend on the size of your garden and the quality of your soil. Soil that is close to loam will need an amendment of 1/2-inch, while soil that is mostly sandy or clay will need closer to 4 inches. I usually recommend 2 inches as a great starting point.
Tilling - On a nice day in the early spring, head out to the garden with your shovel, spade, garden claw, rake and compost. Avoiding any areas containing perennials, use your tools to turn the top soil under and pull bottom soil up, basically mixing the soil in your garden. The deeper down you mix, the better, ideally around 4-6 inches. When the soil looks adequately mixed, spread a layer of compost over the turned ground in the thickness you desire. Grab your tools again and start turning under, incorporating the compost evenly into the top 4-6 inches of your garden soil. Using a rototiller can be expensive, but renting one out for the day is a good idea for first-time veggie gardeners who have never amended their soil before. With this treatment each year, your soil will continue to improve and will become easier and easier to work with.
Compost Holes - If you have very heavy clay soil and lack the energy to amend an entire garden plot, many gardeners swear by the Compost Hole method. Instead of incorporating compost into all of the garden soil, simply dig holes for your plants twice as wide and deep as the root ball and fill the hole with compost. Then, all you have to do is plant your seedling into the compost!
Step 6 - Plant!
Now that your garden is all organized and amended, this step should be a breeze. Follow the plot boundaries that you set out ahead of time, making sure to plant your cool weather plants first, shade-lovers in the shade, sun-lovers in the sun, and leave adequate space for vining annuals and perennial shrubs and trees. Plant your seedlings in holes that are two times as deep and wide as the rootball, and water well after planting. Spreading a 1-inch layer of straw around your seedlings and over the top of newly planted seeds will keep them cool, as well as keep hungry bunnies and chipmunks away from the tasty new shoots. Later on in the season, this straw will help control your weeds as well.
Some annual flowers have insect repelling properties such as citronella, marigolds, and ageratum. Interspersing these annuals throughout your veggie garden is a great organic insect control that will work continuously all season long. Perennial bee balm and cat mint contain the same properties and will work wonders planted in your perennial beds.
By considering all of these organizational ideas and taking some time to plan out your organic veggie garden in the future, you will be ensuring the best health for all of your plants, reaping the most benefit from your garden, and making sure all of this hard work pays off. Come July, when you are munching on your organic garden-fresh salad, I know you will be glad you took the time to organize!