Organic Newbie Seeks Advice

tcleigh(6)August 26, 2011

Greetings, organic gardeners!

I am a relatively experienced gardener, but I am new to organic gardening. I came to it today by accident, actually, when I was fortuitously offered a coveted plot in an organic community garden. The plot needs a lot of weed removal, but I hope to plant it with various greens, beets, carrots, etc. in the next few days.

My question is simple: What are the organic fertilizing basics I should know as I embark on this project?

I don't have compost yet, or anything really, and I've been told to view mass-marketed organic ferts with suspicion.

So, what are some simple things I can do to enrich the soil in my plot? Coffee grounds? Egg shells? Seaweed? Fish emulsion?

Please help a burgeoning organic gardener get started!!

Muchas gracias!

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Everything you mentioned is good. Don't pull the weeds--plant into them & mulch with what you can get. With no idea of size or how you plant, it's hard to give much info. I do intensive beds rather than waste space with rows. Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 5:11AM
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Those "weeds" contain valuable nutrients that could feed the soil. The basics of organic gardening are to feed the soil which in turn feeds the plants. Add enough organic matter to the soil so that soil is good and healthy so it will grow strong and healthy plants that are less susceptible to insect pests and plant diseases. Along with a good reliable soil test from a good soil test lab, maybe your states Cooperative Extension Service, these simple soil tests may be of some help.

1) Soil test for organic matter. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. For example, a good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains� too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 6:05AM
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Thanks for your responses, sotx and kimmsr. I'm a little confused, though. Not pulling weeds goes against everything I've been taught as a gardener. I mean, my plot is COVERED with weeds, thick, jungle-like growth. How could a seedling hope to survive with all that competition?

I will certainly be mulching heavily, but how could I even begin mulching with that sort of weed coverage?

My plot is a small 4x8 raised bed, fyi. I've always planted in rows, but maybe I'll try planting more intensively this go round.

Thanks for those soil testing procedures, kimmsr. I will definitely try some of those. About how much would a soil test from and extension office cost?

My primary concern is getting seeds into the ground with such precious little grow time left in the season. Ideally, I would plant the plot by Monday and be able to incorporate various organic soil supplements as I go along. I assume the soil is sound as the plots in this garden seem to be well cared for. The soil tests might have to wait until February.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 11:07AM
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It it's covered with a thick jungle of weeds, you don't have to worry about fertilizer. :)

The easiest way to deal with this will be a string trimmer to hack the weeds down, and a trench down the middle of the bed to bury them in as compost.

Take about 1/4 of the bed and pull out the weed stubble and toss it into 1/4 of the trench. Cover that part of the trench.

Plant that section with something that likes fall weather: spinach, chard, or maybe lettuce, in rows. Cover between the rows with newspaper mulch to keep the weeds down, holding the mulch in place with something (boards, dirt from the raised bed ... whatever).

NOTE: Planting in rows gives you an advantage for now: if it's not in the row, it's another weed. Next spring, when you have had time to get weeds under control and find some material you can switch to a more intensive coverage.

Then do the next section next weekend, etc. You will have staggered your crops, and not busted your back.

Here is a link that might be useful: composting without bins or piles

    Bookmark   August 27, 2011 at 1:53PM
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I'm faintly surprised at so much advice against clearing the weeds. I didn't realize that no-till practices were so near-universal.

This year, I'm tending a new vegetable garden that's larger than any I've ever had before (by ten times) and I'm using the relatively conventional gardening skills that I already have. This year, "organic", to me, means "use organic inputs"; it doesn't include much in the way of no-till or permaculture practices - and I don't think that "organic" requires one to use such practices, even if one really should?

This means that I weed and till. tcleigh, if I were king of your garden, I'd do the same thing that I did this year, because it's what I would understand for the first year:

- Tilled. Actually, we hired somebody to till the whole big area and rake it to four foot wide rows with paths in between.
- Cleared all weeds, if weeds resprouted because I took so long to get an area amended and planted.
- Added Gardner & Bloome Soil Building Compost. (And I admit that I don't know for sure if this is appropriate for an organic garden? It's not certified, as far as I can tell, but I've seen it discussed in this forum. Yes? No? Good? Bad?)
- Added certified organic bagged fertilizer.
- Re-dug down to at least a shovel depth, mixing compost and fertilizer in.
- Planted.
- Added a thick mulch of alfalfa hay, either immediately after planting for things that seemed likely to be able to punch through, or after the plants had sized up a bit for things that didn't.

No pesticides, no herbicides, of any kind. Mostly organic seeds.

Threre are plenty of ways to improve this - nutritious cover crops, perennial understory crops, assuring that the purchased compost is appropriate for organic gardening, finding a similarly appropriate source of manure, making compost, perhaps adding rock powders, and so on. But aside from the uncertainty about the Gardner & Bloome product, and the "mostly" in "mostly organic seeds", I still consider my description above to be organic gardening. Am I wrong?


    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 12:36AM
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What many people refer to as "conventional" gardening requires the use of manyh harmful products to sustain a garden and that creates weak and wimpy plants that cannot compete with "weeds" or insect pests or plant diseases.
Organic gardening is more then simply substituting organic fertilzers, weed killers, or insect sprays for the, usually, more persistant and harmful synthetic ones.
"Weeds", plants you do not want growing where you do not want them growing, can be indicators of the soil condition you have, but as they grew they also utilized nutrients from your soil and removing those "weeds" also removes those nutrients so "weeds" can be like a green manure crop.
Organic gardening is about making the soil you have a good healthy soil that will grow strong and healthy plants that will be less susceptible to insect pests and plant diseases. If you have a soil that is compacted and difficult to dig in it lacks adequate levels of organic matter and any plants you try to grow there will suffer greatly. if, like me, you have sandy soil that will not hold water and nutrients for more then a couple of hours that soil lacks adequate amounts of organic matter and any plants trying to grow in that soil will be unhealthy and attrract both insect pests and plant diseases.
Start with your soil, looking toward planting next spring and not now.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 6:30AM
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kimmsr said it, this is the basis of organic gardening. Start by building the soil up, then plant.
"Start with your soil, looking toward planting next spring and not now."

    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 9:07AM
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chickenfreak -
I'm a strong proponent of no-till because I'M LAZY!

And for a 4x8 foot raised bed, hacking down the weeds, newspapering and then mulching is not going to be the backbreaking job that doing it for a 40x80 foot plot.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 12:28PM
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IMO, people in this forum sometimes give better general advice than specific. The OP has a bed in a community garden, for pete's sake, they aren't renovating their entire yard! Flame the weeds in your bed with a torch or remove by hand, add some fish or seaweed meal or compost tea, plant your seeds, water, then mulch as needed as the seedlings grow.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 2:39PM
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Come to think of it, if this plot was already used by an organic gardener, it might have decent soil and decent fertility already. It would be unfortunate to empty that fertility and organic matter "bank" without doing anything to add back to it, but there might be a generous buffer for error.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2011 at 7:25PM
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Wow, seems like people have disparate ideas about what qualifies as organic gardening. Thank you all for your help!

kimmsr and lazyfreak - i completely understand (or at least mostly) what you guys are saying and i fully appreciate that sort of long-term approach. this was my first introduction to no-till methods and i must say i'm intrigued!


for my immediate purposes, and with my neophyte understanding of organic methods, i think chickenfreak and dicot are speaking more to my level.

for better or worse, i did clear the weeds in the plot and my soil seems like it's already rich with organic material. i will be adding some homemade seaweed tea tomorrow and planting soon, adding other organic supplements periodically.

so, hopefully, by proceeding in this way, i can simultaneously grow my fall crops AND improve my soil, looking forward to planting next spring.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2011 at 7:31PM
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remember to add mulch to protect the soil from the still hot summer sun & winter rains

dried grass clippings or chopped straw works very well to place by hand between seedlings

start with a thin layer 1/2" or so & build up

tea leaves or used coffee grounds also work as mulch, but the coffee grounds splash up on the leaves, so you might want it as the bottom layer under grass or straw.

makes a big difference in moisture level of soil & will help improve your soil for next year

start a compost pile or bin now & you'll have something within a few weeks to add to the bottom of your watering can or bucket to use as compost tea (nothing fancy just put the water & a few cups of compost in -- then water your plot with it)

You can try planting a 2'x2' corner when it's ready & figure out how the rest of the plot is going to be planted. That way you have something going right away. Lettuces, greens, & radishes mature quickly and you'll be rewarded sooner for your hard work.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2011 at 3:09PM
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thanks, corrine! that is some good advice.

i do plan on mulching heavily as the seedlings get bigger--just found out i can get loads of used coffee grounds from the local cafe. that compost tea idea sounds good too. im also lucky enough to have access to large compost heaps at my community garden, so, with time, im sure i can get my soil in great shape.

thanks for the help!

    Bookmark   August 31, 2011 at 11:11PM
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It is hard to know which direction to go since each choice is correct under certain circumstances. The fact that you are moving forward is the most important thing. The more you read and practice each alternative, the better you will get at knowing when each choice is best for each circumstance.

Here is a link that might be useful: Building Up Soil

    Bookmark   September 2, 2011 at 9:22PM
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Aside from composting right in the beds, which I do, I also do something for instant compost I haven't seen mentioned. Put scraps in a blender and voila! Use it right now.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 5:38AM
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Some of what is in the link greengardens posted tells me the writer does not really understand what they wrote.
Mychorriza is a fungi that, in good healthy soils, will develop a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with plant roots, it is not a root. That relationship will not exist in soils that do not have enough organic matter.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 6:54AM
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I see growing interest here in community gardens, including nice raised-bed gardens, but wonder how they will fare in the longer run in terms of disease buildup.

The plots or beds are really not big enough to effectively rotate crops if you want any multiple-crop diversity at all in each season. Most growers will want year-round growing in Zone 8 here, so there will be that alternation of crops that should help some. Still, tomatoes and peppers and cucurbits, disease magnets, are big among summer crops of course, and their soil-borne diseases are suspected to persist for a winter.

It will be interesting to see how it pans out over years. If I were restricted to one small plot I think I'd try using solarization each year in very late summer after the spring crop began to succumb. I'd hope that earthworms would migrate down to safety and I would reinoculate with microbes via an addition of compost after the treatment.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2011 at 1:31PM
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