Organically grown runner bean 'Czar'

How to switch to organic gardening

Want to ditch chemicals but don't know how? Follow our steps to make the switch to organic gardening.

The potential toxic effects of using pesticides (insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) on wildlife, human health and the wider environment, is of increasing concern to many gardeners. What’s more, non-organic methods of growing your own food are becoming less popular, as gardeners seek more natural methods of cultivation.

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Organic gardening provides an alternative to using synthetic chemicals. Rather than relying on synthetic fertilisers to increase growth, gardeners apply surface mulches of compost or organic matter, which feed soil life and improve its structure and nutrient supply, giving your plants a healthy place to grow. Rather than using insecticide, gardeners rely on beneficial insects to control pests or use traditional methods such as hand-picking or spraying with water. Instead of using weedkillers, gardeners use mulch to suppress weeds, or weed by hand.

Often, after switching to organic gardening, gardeners find that gardening becomes easier and problems (particularly pest problems) reduce.

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Follow these easy tips to get started on your organic gardening journey.


How to eradicate weeds organically

For areas with few weeds

Adding mulch to a bare bed
Adding mulch to a bare bed

Pull up larger weeds and spread a 5-7cm layer of mulch, such as home-made compost or well-rotted manure, over the soil’s surface. Alternatively, pull up or hoe every weed, then spread a 3-5cm layer of compost. You can start sowing and planting as soon as the weather is warm enough for your chosen crop.


For areas of moderate weed growth

Lay thick cardboard over the weeds, then apply a 8-15cm mulch, adding finer compost on top. You can start sowing and planting as soon as conditions are warm enough.


For dense weed growth and persistent weeds, such as couch grass

Spread a thin layer of organic matter over the area in winter, then cover with black polythene, weed-suppressing fabric or thick cardboard. If using cardboard, overlap the edges by 15cm, and add another layer of cardboard after 10 weeks. In late May, lift up the covering material. If the weeds have died, you can remove the cover and start planting. If there are still lots of white/yellow weed leaves, replace the covering material and make holes in it to plant through.


Grow organic food

Organic bean seeds
Organic bean seeds

Organic seeds are harvested from plants grown organically, and by buying them you’re supporting organic growing methods. Also, healthy robust plants will produce vigorous organic seeds. However, it’s not always possible to source organic seeds or young plants of the varieties you want to grow, especially F1 hybrids. Take a pragmatic approach and buy organic seeds where possible.


Tackling pests and diseases organically

Avoid problem times

Organically grown runner bean 'Czar'
Organically grown runner bean ‘Czar’

By helping your plants grow strongly you will make them better able to withstand attacks from pests. Feed the soil by mulching with compost or well-rotted manure, and water regularly. What’s more, you can also time sowings of certain crops to avoid key pest seasons. For example sow rocket in August, rather than spring, to avoid flea beetle season, and delay sowing of carrots until June, to ward off carrot fly. Wait until squash and courgette plants are large enough to withstand the attentions of slugs and snails before planting them out, and consider sowing beans in plugs rather than direct in the ground.


Reduce your blight risk

Reduce the risk of late blight damage to your potatoes by growing second earlies rather than maincrops. A bonus of doing this is that you’ll have time and space to plant leeks, beetroot or sprouting broccoli after you’ve cleared your potato harvest.


Tackle slugs and snails

A surface mulch of compost on undug soil gives plants a headstart against slugs in spring. As the season progresses, keep the growing area scrupulously tidy by removing all weeds and any diseased and yellowing leaves, beneath which slugs and snails hide during the day.


Attract beneficial insects

Tomatoes with French marigold companion planting
Tomatoes with French marigold companion planting

Plant flowers among and near your vegetables to attract a greater balance of insect life. California poppies, dwarf nasturtiums, marigolds or herbs that have bolted are all good.


Evict aphids

Using mesh fleece as a cloche over lettuce
Using mesh fleece as a cloche over lettuce

Cover susceptible plants with insect-proof mesh. You can buy predatory insects to kill pests inside your greenhouse, which are an effective but usually a more expensive route. You may prefer to keep insects in check by spraying leaves with water, until predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies arrive naturally.


Use a natural spray

Homemade organic aphid remedy
Homemade organic aphid remedy

For persistent aphid problems, blend three chillies, three garlic cloves and a cup of mint leaves with six cups of water and a little eco washing up liquid, then spray onto affected plants. One application should be enough, or you risk killing predators, such as hoverfly. Take care, and wash your hands thoroughly after use.


Results a year on

By growing organically, you benefit all of the life in your garden, including the unseen but important inhabitants of the soil. If you have previously been using chemicals, it can take time for the beneficial life to build up, but even in your first year growing organically, you should start to notice a difference. Over time, gardening will become easier, as pests and predators reach a balance in the garden.

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Remember, pests and diseases are part of the growth cycle and are never going to disappear completely, but if we can learn why they’re present then it becomes easier to find ways to live with them, and to minimise the damage they do to our plants. A few holey leaves are part of a healthy ecosystem. Our reward for tolerating them is a haven for wildlife that is under threat elsewhere.


Bumblebee cutout. Photo: Getty Images.