Ask any gardener what they consider to be organic gardening, and you’ll hear a variety of answers. If you look up organic gardening, you’ll find it defined as gardening that uses “only materials derived from living things (like composts and manures)” or “no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.”
While these definitions may seem straightforward, managing a garden and its inevitable problems organically can be challenging for those accustomed to relying on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
The basis of organic gardening relies on the creation and maintenance of an ecosystem that encourages healthy plants. Two of the key components of this method of gardening include encouraging beneficial insects and microbes and building soil.
Beneficial insects are a gardener’s helpers and are ones that typically prey on insects that damage garden plants. Lady beetles, for example, can keep populations of aphids, a common pest, in check by consuming up to 50 aphids per day.
Beneficial insects occur naturally and are also available commercially. To make the most of beneficial insects in the garden and landscape, avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides that will wipe out existing populations.
There are several natural pesticides available at garden centers. Examples include products that contain the bacterium Bacillus, which only affects caterpillars and the fungus Beauveria, which affects some foliar feeding insects. Neem oil and minerals, like copper and sulfur, are also natural pesticides. These pesticides break down quicker than synthetic ones, so they may need to be applied more often.
Removing diseased plants, rotating crops, and hand-picking insect pests and eggs before they get out of hand can prevent many pest problems. However, there are some pest problems that cannot be controlled organically.
Some plants are more challenging to grow organically than others. Most herbs have few pest problems, while tomatoes and squash usually experience pest problems that are difficult to manage without the use of synthetic pesticides.
Soil building is usually accomplished by amending soil with compost, which improves drainage in clay soils. Cover crops can also be used to build soil. While compost and cover crops are good for building soil, neither will provide all of the nutrients that vegetables require.
Organic gardeners rely on natural fertilizers, like animal manures and plant products, to provide nutrients. In general, natural fertilizers contain a lower percentage of nutrients than synthetic fertilizers and release them over a longer period of time.
If you have questions about gardening, contact the Caldwell County Extension Service at 828.757.1290 or visit https://caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.