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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Originally Posted: March 19, 2009

Colin M. Graham

The Mulford Farm garden in full bloom in the summer. Even in the first year, you can see noticeable results from practicing organic gardening techniques.

Southampton - Whether you're tending a flower or vegetable garden or just trying to maintain a healthy lawn and plush privet, you probably have realized somewhere along the line that keeping your plants happy and healthy can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. Nothing can make a gardener as crazy as a crop that seems to be under continuous assault by pests, or a section of lawn that is perpetually infested with crab grass. Each year, people spend untold amounts of money buying pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers to try and solve their agricultural angst when in reality most any horticultural mishap can be solved with a different approach to gardening. This year, it's time to think about going organic.

Putting work into your soil now will reap you many benefits later. Here Katy Graham
and Hollis Forbes start work on the garden at Mulford Farm in East Hampton.

Organic gardening - the name conjures images of hippies singing to sunflowers and lots of extra work for little or no definitive gain, honestly, is playing Bach for your broccoli going to keep cutworms away? Despite what people may think, organic gardening isn't about progressive, new age ideas, it's about rediscovering what we've known about agriculture for thousands of years; after all, the ancient Egyptians were able to support their civilization with crops they grew in a desert and without using Miracle Grow. By going organic, not only are you going to be producing a superior crop, but you will actually be saving yourself time and money by letting nature manage all the minutia - all you have to do is facilitate the natural processes that would be happening anyway and it all starts with your soil.

The primary rule in organic gardening is to keep everything that goes into your soil, and ultimately into your plants, completely natural with the goal of restoring the natural balance of minerals, nutrients and microbial activity vital to the healthy development of all plant life. "Basically in an organic garden, you're really feeding the soil, not the plants," explained Jeff Frank, founder of The Nature Lyceum School for Environmental Horticulture in Westhampton. "If you have healthy soil, you'll have healthy plants that will grow without the need for synthetic chemicals; you won't even need insecticides because when plants are healthy and strong, they provide their own defenses by attracting helpful predators that will prey on the pests that prey on your plants."

So how do you get healthy soil? Compost. If you don't compost already, you should start - it's easy to do, and recycled household scraps will make any garden grow like gangbusters, but food scraps and other organic matter don't turn into nutrient rich "humus" (the term for the decayed organic matter in soil) overnight, so to get started you might have to go and buy some from any local garden or landscaping center.

All of your landscaping can benefit from the effects of going organic, not only will
your property look more vibrant, but it will be easier to maintain.

Katy Graham, a long-time gardener and current Treasurer of the Garden Club of East Hampton agrees that "one of the biggest components of organic gardening is composting. All it is, is just broken down organic matter so things like vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, egg shells, grass clippings, plant remnants dead leaves, even things like shredded newspaper and even dryer lint are all compostable - the only things you want to stay away from are diseased plants, meat, and animal bones," she cautioned.

Compost works on several different levels: first it improves the tilth of the soil - tilth refers to the overall health of the soil in terms of its ability to retain water and nutrients, it can literally quadruple your soil's ability to store water - second it feeds earthworms and microbial life in the soil, which in turn, feed and support your plants. One happy side effect of healthy, organic soil, is that you don't need to rototill it every season; rototilling breaks up the soil system that the earthworms and microbes have worked so hard to create, so just a light raking every spring is all that's needed.

One of the biggest advantages for your plants from composting and using an organic fertilizer as opposed to a synthetic one - other than the environmental advantages of course - is that you're ensuring a wide mix of natural nutrients and beneficial microbes will be available to nourish and promote strong and healthy growth of your garden. Frank explains that the idea behind synthetic fertilizers is that they give your plants what was considered to be the three essential nutrients for their survival: nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.

Plants do need those elements, but they also need many other elements in the soil as well as active microbial life to truly flourish. "People were trying to feed their plants with only these three elements," Frank said excitedly. "That's as crazy as only feeding a child Twinkies and expecting him to grow naturally and live healthily, which is exactly what you're asking your plants to do when you use synthetic fertilizers on your garden."

The soil here on the East End can naturally support a wide variety of plants, flowers
and herbs. Don't be afraid to research and experiment with different combinations in
your garden until you find what works best for your needs.

Not only are synthetic fertilizers to blame, but so are chemical pesticides and herbicides, all of which, when applied to a garden, will eventually leach into the aquifer that provides Long Island with its drinking water. "There were over four-and-a-half million pounds of pesticides used on Long Island alone last year," Frank recounted, "and it's totally unnecessary. People don't realize that insects, weeds and diseases are symptoms of a failing crop, not its cause. For example, if you have dandelions, it's a sign that your soil needs more calcium, if you're struggling with crab grass, it usually means you soil is too compacted. It's all about knowing how to read the signs your garden gives you and then respond with what it needs."

So what are some organic solutions for pest and weed control? For weeds, horticulture strength vinegar can help, and isn't toxic, or pouring boiling water on them can be effective, however the best way to deal with weeds is to simply pull them up.

When it comes to pesticides, one of the biggest problems is that they kill a wide variety of insect life, including those bugs that are beneficial to your garden. There are organic pesticides, but those still are too indiscriminate in their effects. One totally organic method is known as companion planting, which involves planting flowers and vegetables that grow well together and don't use up all of the same nutrients. For example, planting asparagus next to tomatoes, parsley, and basil is a good combination. Certain plants also help attract beneficial insects: fennel, sweet alyssum and evening primrose will entice plenty of good bugs to patrol your plants and keep the peace.

So what's a gardener to do? Compost, yes, but compost alone won't necessarily provide your plants with everything they need. There are organic fertilizers available but it helps to know what you're looking for and what some of that information on the label means. Usually on the back of any fertilizer you'll see three numbers that represent the ratio of those three elements we mentioned earlier: nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (these numbers are also known as NPK ratios for their symbols on the periodic table and for the alphabetical order they appear in on the label). If you look on the back of Plant-tone fertilizer, which is fully organic, you'll see 5-3-3, numbers that Frank explains are O.K. for an organic garden. "Ideally you want your first number or nitrogen number to be under 10, but around five is pretty good," Frank instructed. "For your phosphate you want a low number, like a one or a zero and the higher the potassium level the better, you can even go as high as an eight."

The fruits of your organic garden come from healthier soil, which is ultimately
healthier for you.

There are many benefits to going fully organic (or as fully as you can) in your garden, not the least of which are the environmental aspects. "When you go organic, you'll end up using half the water. On average, one acre uses 1,800,000 gallons of water a year, cut that number in half and you'll see there are significant savings to be had," notes Frank. Watering less will also help your plants and lawn form stronger and deeper root systems, which not only make them hardier and less prone to disease, but help maintain good consistency in the soil.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to going organic is that not only does it represent a healthier, more environmentally friendly way of doing things, it also represents an eventual reduction in the amount of labor you need to do to keep your garden thriving. "Organic gardening is cumulative," says Frank. "The more you go organic, the heathier your soil gets and the less work you'll have to do keeping up with all of your landscaping needs."

Chances are you won't have a fully organic garden teeming with produce come June, but that shouldn't deter you from taking that first step now. "Organics are cost effective and result orientated. By going organic you're detoxifying your property, which takes time, however not as much as it took to toxify it in the first place," Frank relates. "With a good program a chemically dependent property should still look good the first year. And being an understanding, informed customer is a plus so researching and learning as much as you can about what is happening in your garden is always the first step."


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