Organic gardening is all about gardening in as natural a way as possible, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. As well as feeding your plants with liquid fertilisers, you feed the soil by mulching with home-made compost, manure and other organic matter to increase soil fertility. Instead of spraying pests you look for alternative ways to manage them, for example by growing companion plants to confuse them and attract their predators, or by using a jet of water to blast them off your plants, where previously you might have used a chemical spray. Instead of spraying weeds with weedkiller, you weed by hand, and use mulches, sheeting and ‘No Dig’ methods to suppress weed growth.
Organic gardens are rich, vibrant spaces, alive with birds and other wildlife, which do the job you used to do with chemical spray. Hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and house sparrows eat aphids. Blue tits and wasps feast on caterpillars. Eventually, pests are no longer pests because their numbers never reach pest proportions – they become simply food for other species further up the food chain. Sadly wildlife doesn’t do the weeding or mulching for you – you’l have to manage those tasks yourself. But you’ll be amazed at how quickly you adjust to organic gardening methods, and how much you enjoy a closer relationship with the land.
Browse our list of 10 tips for success with organic gardening, below.
Whether you’re growing ornamental plants or fruit and vegetables, feeding the soil is key to success. Organic matter such as compost and well-rotted animal manure adds humus to the soil, aiding soil structure and fertility, conserving moisture and increasing worm activity. All of these things help your plants grow strong and healthy. While animal manure costs money and needs to be fully rotted before being applied to the soil, home-made compost is free. Use as many compost bins, pallets and other containers as you have room for and fill them with a mix of green and brown material. Turn the heap regularly – taking care not to disturb hedgehogs or other wildlife, and use it as a soil mulch after a year.
- Discover five ways to winter compost
- Learn four ways to better compost
- Browse different types of compost bin
Weed little and often
Weeds can quickly smother a garden – whether it’s organically managed or not. If you’re used to regularly spraying weeds with weedkiller then mechanical methods of control will seem like a chore at first. The trick is to not let the weeds grow too big – regularly hoe them off at the seedling stage and you’ll barely notice the difference, but wait until the weeds have developed large tap roots and you’ll have a huge job on your hands.
Weeding isn’t the only way to eliminate weeds. You can use mulches to block light and suppress weed growth – try laying cardboard over the soil and adding a thick layer of compost or well-rotted manure over the top. In the allotment or vegetable patch, Sowing a green manure at the end of the growing season can prevent growth of weeds while increasing soil fertility.
- Find out how to remove perennial weeds
- Learn how to identify weeds by their seedlings
- Tackle weeds growing on your garden path
Grow companion plants
Companion plants are used to confuse pests as well as attract predatory insects such as hoverflies. Simply by planting onions with carrots you can ward off carrot root fly, while planting tagetes beneath tomatoes can prevent whitefly. Growing annual flowers among plants prone to aphid infestations can lure hoverflies to lay their eggs on the plants (their larvae eat aphids). You can also use planting combinations to feed each other – cabbages and lettuces planted among beans will benefit from the nitrogen fixed in the soil by the beans’ roots.
- Discover companion planting combinations
- Browse our pick of 10 companion plants to grow
- How to companion plant sweetcorn and courgettes
On the vegetable patch, if the same crops are grown in the soil year after year, then soil can become depleted of nutrients and pests and diseases can build up. By paying attention to what you grow and where, and rotating the type of crop you grow in each bed or patch of soil per year, you can avoid problems. Employing crop rotation can also help suppress weeds, as some plants, such as potatoes, have leafier foliage, which blocks light to emerging weed seedlings.
We’ve all been there. When you first notice aphids or caterpillars ‘attacking’ your plants, your instinct is probably to reach for the nearest bottle of bug spray. However, even as an organic gardener, reaching for the spray (be it homemade weed killers or a jet or water) can still do more harm than good.
Garden ‘pests’, whether aphids, caterpillars, leaf miners or sawfly larvae are at the bottom of the food chain. As such, they provide food for species further up the food chain, including house sparrows, blue tits, hoverflies, ladybirds and parasitic wasps and flies. By removing the pest, you’re removing the source of food, which could potentially harm wildlife – did you know that one blue tit chick needs to eat 100 caterpillars a day for three weeks, from hatching out of its egg to fledging? Ladybirds and hoverflies may already have laid eggs on aphid infestations by the time you spray them with a jet of water, so you could be taking out the predator along with the pest. What’s more, if you never let the predators find the pests, you’ll always have to manage the problem yourself.
It’s hard at first but by relaxing at the first sign of pests, the predators will come more quickly to deal with the problem. So, instead of reaching for the soap spray or jet of water, why not wait a while, and see what happens? You may be surprised by what turns up to feast on your garden ‘pests’.
- Discover Alan Titchmarsh’s tips for organic pest control
- Create more habitats for pest pretors by making a lacewing home
Make your own plant food
As an organic gardener, you’ll need to find alternatives to traditional methods of plant feeding. While organic plant feeds are available to buy, you can easily make your own. And, by having these on tap you can give your plant a nutritious boost without breaking the bank. To grow healthily, plants need a good balance of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). A shop-bought plant food will contain the perfect ratio of NPK for your needs: lawn fertilisers have higher amounts of nitrogen for leafy growth, while tomato foods have more phosphorous and potassium for flower development and fruit set. You can make your own by steeping nettle or comfrey leaves in water for three weeks and then draining and diluting the solution. Nettle leaves are rich in nitrogen so are perfect for feeding foliage plants, while comfrey is rich in potassium, perfect for stimulating flower growth.
Mulches are hugely important in organic gardens. Mimicking the natural processes of woodland, where leaves fall and clothe the woodland floor every autumn, a thick mulch can suppress weeds, conserve moisture and feed the soil. There are lots of mulches to choose from, including home-made compost, well-rotted manure, and leaf mould.
- Discover five organic mulches to use
- Find out where to mulch with organic compost
- Choose the best leaves for leaf mould
Use raised beds
Consider using raised beds instead of planting direct into the soil. These are easier to manage and keep weed-free. What’s more, the soil in raised beds warms up sooner than the ground, so you’ll be able to sow seeds earlier in the year than those without raised beds.
With organic gardening it’s a good idea to spend time simply looking. Observing the garden and its ways can help you understand the systems in place and can also help you spot problems before they become unmanageable. Watching birds scour trees and plants for insects to fed their young will help you understand the systems in place that keep pests under control, while keeping an eye out for weed seedlings will save you hours of back-breaking labour. Learning how your garden works, including where the sunny and shady parts of the garden are, will make you a better organic gardener in the long term.
Keep an eye on slug and snails
Slug and snail numbers fluctuate from year to year. In a good year you may have few problems with them, but in a bad year you may struggle to grow seedlings without using some form of control. Slug pellets containing metaldehyde are extremely harmful to hedgehogs and other wildlife, but organic pellets, made using iron phosphate, are a suitable wildlife-friendly alternative. You can also buy woollen pellets, which form a barrier that slugs and snails don’t want to cross, while copper tape can be used around pots to deter them.