The same principles apply to both a garden plot and balcony growing.
The main elements in organic growing are soil fertility through composting and manuring; mulching for weed control, moisture conservation and nutrients; companion planting; and pest control without poisons.
There is no single ’correct’ way to grow vegetables organically. From the following basic principles, it should be possible to find a method that suits the local conditions and produces abundant crops. Allow for the fact that improving soil fertility from scratch will take time.
IMPROVING SOIL FERTILITY
Soil will be fertile if it is well aerated, moist and contains plenty of humus (decayed organic matter). Using a mixture of plant and animal matter is best.
Humus can be added to the soil in a number of ways:
- In the form of compost made in a home-made compost bin or commercial bin or tumbler.
- Bury your kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, etc., in the top-soil layer in shallow holes in a continuing sequence around the garden. It may take months for decomposition to occur, but it’s simpler than composting.
- Spread kitchen scraps thinly over the soil surface, covering with lawn clippings for appearance. This is not the ideal way as flies and odour may be a problem in warmer weather.
- If you keep laying hens, throw them the kitchen scraps and any surplus lawn clippings and they will turn these into perfect fertiliser. What the hens don’t eat, worms will consume with surprising rapidity. Have at least two separate yards so that the hens spend summer in one and winter in the other. Grow the vegetables in the empty yard after the chooks have been fertilising it and devouring insect pests for half the year. This way of fertilising is effortless and yields wonderful free-range eggs.
- Spread animal manure over the soil and dig it in. Manure from battery hens is unsuitable because of antibiotics and chemical additives. Free-range poultry manure is suitable when well seasoned. Horse, cattle and goat manures are generally very suitable.
Earthworms are worth their weight in gold for soil fertility. They aid composting, convert organic matter into humus and keep the soil well aerated.
Mulching is the easy way of controlling weeds while you sit by with your feet up! Mulch needs to be spread at least a month before planting so that weeds are killed and have time to fully decay. Otherwise weeds need to be dug out manually.
The mulching material needs to be compatible with vegetables. Sawdust and the leaves of trees are unsuitable for vegetables because they tie up the soil nitrogen while they decay and make the soil unfriendly for vegetables.
Suitable materials are grass cuttings, lucerne hay (spoiled hay would be OK) and the wastes of succulent crops like cabbage. Hay from cereal crops may be suitable if there is plenty of nitrogen in the soil. The ideal mulch is your own and your neighbour’s lawn clippings - but make sure that they are pesticide-free.
Immediately after mowing the lawn, let the clippings dry out by spreading them up to 10 cm deep on a vacant bed or path. When the mulch is dry, I find that the easiest way to spread it on the beds is after the seeds or seedlings have been planted.
Mulching Provides Multiple Benefits
- It retains soil moisture and greatly reduces the need for watering.
- It prevents rain forming a crust, which restricts aeration and increases evaporation through capillary action.
- It controls weeds effectively. By the time weeds are eventually flourishing, the vegetables are likely to be ready for harvesting anyway.
- The bottom layers of mulch gradually decay, releasing nutrients to the soil.
- Mulch feeds worms and encourages their proliferation.
- The extra organic matter feeds the soil bacteria which break down nutrients for the plants.
BED PREPARATION AND PLANTING
There are two ways of preparing a garden bed.
The no-dig way. If the soil has good crumb structure (it tends to hold together in small balls when you pick up a handful), plenty of humus, and is at least 10 to 15 cm deep, it will usually be better to leave the soil layers undisturbed by not digging -and also avoiding a lot of hard work.
The digging way. If the topsoil is infertile, heavy or shallow, it will be necessary to dig the bed thoroughly to aerate the soil and allow breakdown of nutrients. Firstly, rake any mulch to one side and then dig, preferably with a fork, aiming to not turn the soil over, but rather to keep the top layers near the surface and the lower layers near the subsoil. In other words, just break up the soil with a fork.
Good drainage is always essential, so dig a drain around each bed with a fork (a fork minimises worm damage).
In the case of the no-dig bed, place the forkfuls of soil on top of the bed, and level out with a steel rake so that there is fine soil, at least three to five cm deep, to make an excellent seedbed. A good bed size is about a metre wide and two to four metres long.
Some gardeners have found benefit in planting according to the phases of the moon. Moon Planting charts are available from Thomas Zimmer, Mt Cougal Rd, Tallebudgera Valley, Qld 4228.
In this new age of water scarcity, to maximise the effectiveness of watering, plant each seedling into a shallow ’saucer’ of soil. Using trowel and fingers, scrape out a depression about five centimetres deep (and 20 to 40 cm diameter depending on the vegetable) and plant into the centre. In the case of veges that are planted close together, such as carrots, make a shallow ditch, say 15 cm wide.
After planting, place the mulch close to the seedlings so that it will leave little room for weeds. But mulch must not touch the stems of the seedlings because this can cause rot.
Immediately after planting, water the seeds or seedlings gently. Watering each plant individually will save water.
Water regularly at first, but without overdoing it and drowning the seedlings. As the plants grow and become stronger, watering can be less frequent. The aim is to keep the soil moist and neither allow it to dry out nor become a bog. With well-drained soil, the latter won’t be a problem.
It is surprising how moist the soil will remain under the mulch. Remember that with mulch in place, watering can be quite economical.
WEED AND PEST CONTROL
If the mulch is topped up as it gradually decomposes, there may be almost no weeding required. The few strong weeds that do come through will pull out easily because the soil remains moist and soft under the mulch.
If birds are a problem eating the seedlings, either cover the beds individually with bird netting, or cover the whole garden with wire netting on frames above head height. The simplest way is to rest bird netting over the bed, place steel or wooden pegs along the edges of the bed and stretch the netting between them. The netting needs to be well clear of the seedlings to allow for their growth. When the plants are well advanced, remove the netting. Other useful devices are an anti-bird tape that hums in the breeze and imitation cats and owls, all available in plant nurseries.
Insect pest control without poisons is beyond the scope of this short article - other than the few pests covered below. Safe pest control is well covered in a number of gardening books. The starting point is to grow healthy plants that are resistant to disease and also produce their own natural insecticides. The growing methods described above are designed to achieve this.
A useful technique for enhancing the health of plants is companion planting. Plants that like each other are planted in adjacent rows, while those that don’t are kept well apart.
Organic gardening books often include companion planting charts.
To eliminate snails and slugs, try any of the following:
· Encircle each bed with a sprinkling of dry sawdust; snails can’t cross this. Top up the sawdust after it is moistened by dew.
· Place saucers containing beer slops around the beds. The pests are attracted to the beer and drown.
· At night by torchlight collect snails and slugs that have come out to play - and feed.
· If you must use a chemical, place Enviroguard, Defender or Baysol in the lids of jars and collect them when their job is done. Ensure the chemical doesn’t enter the soil.
· If you have run chooks prior to planting, they will have ’sterilised’ the area of slugs and snails, which are unlikely to reappear in significant numbers before an annual crop is finished.
Control of fruit fly in tomatoes is a major challenge. Fruit fly traps and the new Eco-Naturalure have been effective in my garden.
If cabbage white butterfly grubs are eating broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower leaves, it is practicable to pick them off by hand every day or so. You will need good eyes because their camouflage is amazing. Once the weather turns cold, their activity will be curbed.
Planting aromatic plants like marigolds among the vegetables is helpful because they emit odours which tend to repel insects.
Now, having planted your seedlings (or seeds) and tucked them up in mulch, you need to pay attention to watering and pest control. Otherwise you can put your feet up for six to ten weeks and come back and pick the veges.
And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your veges are among the most nutritious available, and when you’re preparing a meal, you just walk out to the garden and pick them.
The following are the common vegetables that are suitable to be planted in Summer in the climate zones in Australia as indicated. [Source Yates Garden Guide 42nd Edition.]
(Published Natural Health and Vegetarian Life, Summer 2007/08)