It wasn't until winter's end that the store of food from Joan Gussow's garden finally came up short. "I had to buy a carrot," says Gussow, a Columbia professor and author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader (Chelsea Green, 2001). There were still, however, potatoes, garlic and onions in cold storage, a freezer stuffed with beans, tomato sauce and roasted eggplants, plus all kinds of berries. And this abundance was produced organically, without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, on the banks of the Hudson River, just 20 miles or so north of New York City.
Unfortunately, that's not how everyone's garden grows. "In the United States alone, gardeners spend an estimated $1 billion per year on pesticides ... inevitably self-defeating, as pests eventually develop resistance ...," writes Howard-Yana Shapiro in Gardening for the Future of the Earth (Bantam; 2000). Worse, pesticides may be linked to the rise of certain cancers, such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), according to the USEPA. A study published in 2000 found that the children of parents who use lawn and garden pesticides have seven times the risk of developing NHL. They may also be connected with the development of autism.
Here's how to "work with nature," in Gussow's words, rather than against it.
1. Plan for your locale
Contact the nearest USDA extension office for free advice about local climate and growing issues. This will spare you the heartache of trying to grow arid-climate plants in Seattle (though some succulents grow surprisingly well there), say, or water-guzzling groundcovers in Arizona; also, which species are native, and therefore well-suited, and which are invasive and should not be encouraged.
To conserve water, organic growers often practice "xeriscaping," choosing plants that require little or no watering other than what falls from the heavens for planting in arid regions (for more information, see xeriscape.org, Highcountry Gardening). Shapiro encourages gardeners to collect rainwater. Planet Natural offers rain barrels among other garden suppliers. Sunlight is another necessary "input." Survey your plot, looking for places that "get about six to eight hours of sun a day" for your vegetable patches.
2. Start with the soil
Many gardeners have their soil tested before making planting choices. Ask your extension office if they sell soil-collection kits and provide analysis (many do, for as little as $10). If you want to test your soil yourself, you can buy a test kit from Gardens Alive. The test results can steer you toward the right plants, those that thrive in sandy, clay-laden or whatever soil you've got. Testing your soil also shows you how it might be deficient. Before planting, you should condition your soil to provide the right nutrition and structure, says Fred Kirschenmann, North Dakota organic farmer and Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "Organic farming and gardening systems recycle their wastes back into the earth and invite earthworms and other organisms so essential to healthy soil."
John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables (Ten Speed Press, 1982, $17.95), advises "double-digging" the soil to a depth of 24 inches, to provide good aeration and water flow. Then mix in compost or organic fertilizer, also available from Gardens Alive. After planting, place mulch around base to conserve moisture, reduce erosion and discourage weeds. Use straw, hay, grass clippings or, as Gussow does, wood chips scavenged from tree-service crews.
3. Plant the rainbow, starting with seeds bred for taste, nutritional value and better regional adaptation
Eating the rainbow, or fruits and vegetables of many different colors, write the authors of True Food, a new book from National Geographic, "improves your health and, according to the USDA, reduces your chances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other scourges of the modern industrialized diet." See Eat the Rainbow to learn more. So plant the rainbow and reap the benefits of a many-colored harvest. So plant the rainbow and reap the benefits of a many-colored harvest.
It's better to start your garden from seeds, rather than seedlings, as anyone who grew tomatoes in the summer of 2009 learned (remember late blight which ravaged many growers crop?) Or if not seeds, buy starter plants from a local grower or nursery, preferably selecting more than one variety of the same vegetable. As Dan Barber, chef and co-owner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, writes in The New York Times, after losing his 2009 tomato crop to late blight, "It is no better to plant a tomato plant that traveled 2000 miles to your garden than to eat a tomato that traveled 2000 miles to your plate." When you start a garden, Barber reminds is, "you become part of an agricultural network that binds you to other farmers and gardeners." As we grow more of our own food, we need to understand that "what we grow, and how we grow it, affects everyone else."
Choose organic seeds as they've not been treated with pesticides, non-GMO (non-genetically modified) seeds as they've not been genetically engineered, and/or local varieties, whether they are heirloom or hybrids, as these have better regional adaptation. Ecology Action's Bountiful Gardens website offers among other things an online catalog for untreated, open-pollinated, non-GMO, certified and heirloom seeds.
4. Pest control without pesticides
When Gussow’s bean patch was plagued by a beetle infestation, she introduced tiny wasps. The wasps bypassed the beans and ate the beetle larvae, which never reappeared. Plants can help, too: Daisies, for instance, attract the wasps that eat bean beetles.
"Biopesticides" range from red pepper and rosemary oil to diseases that attack specific pests. Nell Newman (of Newman's Own Organics) has set out "small dishes of cheap beer sunken into the ground" to attract, then drown, slugs. EPA's website offers more information on biopesticides, and Planet Natural is a good online source for ordering them.
For plant pests, Monsanto's Roundup herbicide is so heavily used that "Roundup-resistant" weeds are cropping up. Predictably, organic growers are Roundup-resistant, too, preferring to reduce weed growth in nontoxic ways, including mulching, pulling immediately so seeds can't spread and eating such varieties as dandelion, purslane and lamb's quarters in salads, when young and tender.
5. Love the bees
Learn to love bees, since they are not pest insects. In fact, honeybees are crucial to producing about one-third of all the food we eat. The list of crops that simply won’t grow without honeybees is a long one: apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, almonds … and it goes on. Get your kids to help you make a nesting block to put in your yard. Here's how. And plant some bee-attracting flowers and trees in the yard as well. To learn which plants are particularly rich in pollen or nectar, and therefore very attractive to pollinating bees, click here.
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