How to Go Organic
I have just read your article that was in the Telegraph, last November I think? How interesting! I will try and remember some of your tips when we are ordering/buying plants.
Do you have to wait a period of time before you can plant organically, or say that things are grown organically? I like the idea of being organic, but how do you keep pests and diseases at bay? I know the previous owners here used various sprays and slug pellets etc.,
Mary in Gwent on 30 October 2013
Lower Lovetts Farm
My meaning of Organic.
Thank you Mary for your question and the answer is simple, but different for everyone as their soil will vary. When I started trying to answer your question, it needed more explanation than I originally thought, so the answer is longer and more detailed. I also got bogged down with theories and ideas rather than giving simple practical advice. Three quarters of the way through writing this answer, I decided to split the question into two and write on Organic Gardening Theory, and a second answer on practical advice. This is the first answer on The Ideas of Organic Gardening.
Strictly, being Organic is defined by the Soil Association, in simple terms, as a series of things that you can and cannot do in your garden. Most of them detail the chemicals and products you are not allowed to use in order to grow plants. The style and methods of growing are also stated and, after a two year period of supervision, you can get an organic certificate. Although I agree with the vast majority of their criteria, I have developed some of my own, and try to think of the environment in my garden as a whole, rather than just the growing of plants. Ideas like using organic paint on wood and not using plastic flower pots are some examples.
Perfect gardening (organic or not) could be said to grow plants in a natural way that are healthy and strong, with little intervention. Or put another way, to grow plants in a perfect, pest and disease free environment, in conditions in which they love and thrive.
This sounds all very well, but like a swan, to look graceful and elegant requires frantic movement elsewhere, which is not always seen. Organic growing does require a lot of work but sometimes in ways people do not normally understand.
If I take the two statements above:
A perfect pest and disease free environment &
In conditions in which they love and thrive.
1 A perfect pest and disease free environment.
Pesticides, Fertilizers, Fungicides & Herbicides.
Not using the above chemicals is probably what most people think of as being organic, and so not using chemicals on bugs that are eating your crops might be defined as being Organic. But it isn’t really true and is only part of the story. Like much in life, you cannot just take things away and get a better product. When you use the above chemicals you are trying to protect your plants against their enemies, and by taking them away (i.e. by being organic) you leave the plant to fend for itself. If you remove these chemicals you must help the plant in other ways, otherwise it will become impoverished. The help needed should be so beneficial that the plant not only survives attack, but grows better into the bargain. This could be said to be an alternative view of organic gardening.
In my eyes, growing organically is more about helping plants grow strongly in their environment rather than what you cannot spray on them. I try to be positive rather than negative, but still observe the rules.
2 In conditions that Plants love and thrive in.
Plants need light, heat, food and water etc to grow well; very similar in fact to ourselves, and the nicer and better the food, like ourselves, the better we grow. If you want very healthy, strong plants they need to be in an environment they love and this means the right ph and type of soil, the right amount of heat and light, with space to grow and protection from some of the elements they most dislike.
Most vegetables like a soil ph around 6.5, some a little more; some less and this can be achieved by adding various compounds to the surface of the soil. Chalk, lime and crushed oyster shells will raise the ph and make the soil more alkaline, while ericaceous compounds, mostly sulphur-based, will increase the acidity. With time most soils become more acidic as rain water is slightly acid, along with manure and leaf mould, so in most circumstances we try to make the soil more alkaline.
One of the major jobs in an organic regime is to increase the humus or organic matter content of the soil by adding rotted organic matter such as manure, compost and leaf mould. Most people think of soil as dirt, gritty bits of material, but for organic gardeners the most important aspect of the soil is the humus content of it. Humus is what feeds not only the plants, but all life in the dirt, as well as retaining water and nutrients.
Some of this other life in the dirt, fungi and bacteria, are the most important of all and enable, by their activity, plants to grow better. If one does not add organic matter to the soil, but constantly kills the bugs with chemicals, the soil will become impoverished. This is perhaps the biggest difference between organic and non organic gardening, as these microbes are what help plants fend off unwelcome visitors by keeping them strong. Keeping these microbes alive and building up their numbers is what soil fertility is about. This is what I spend most of my time doing, not growing plants or fighting pests but building humus in my soil. It’s the most important thing I can do, I cannot stress this enough.
Much of this addition to the soil increases its acidity to some degree, so I have to correct the balance. It is a constant process of adding humus and then correcting the alkalinity to keep the soil stable at a particular ph.
Some of this material is slow release, such as leaf mould and compost, but they increase the acidity of the soil, whereas crushed chalk and crushed shells increase the alkalinity of the soil. Slow release material can be added at the same time i.e. together. It is possible to increase the organic matter (which is acidic) and add some alkaline to keep the soils in balance on a constant basis. The slower acting the products are in the soil the better. The longer composted matter stays in the soil the better it is for the organisms.
Manure (to add humus and futility) and lime (to increase alkalinity) is fast acting and should not be added at the same time. If you are adding lime it will tend to rot and disperse the humus in the soil and make it less beneficial to plants. One should be added one year, the other the next.
Soil structure is also important to plants and, if it is good soil, it will be free to work and crumbly. This is called loam, if it is sticky and tends to get heavy and slippery it is clay, as mine is, and needs to be broken up and made more crumbly.
This is done not only by physical activity, but more importantly by adding humus and other matter, such as sand, which will help stop the clay particles from sticking together.
The importance of soil structure can easily be seen if you plant one half of a group of plants is soil that has been well worked, rich in humus and is of a soft, crumbly nature full of earth worms. If you plant the other half in unworked clay that is sticky and hard, the difference between the two groups of plants will be enormous and almost difficult to believe they started out the same.
This soil structure is all part of soil fertility and they go hand in hand to produce good vegetable garden soil.
Light and Space.
Most vegetables like sunshine and, if planted in shade, will suffer. It is not always possible to have complete sunshine over the whole vegetable plot, but the more light they get the stronger vegetables will grow and so be better to fight organically.
My philosophy is that a piece of ground will produce a certain weight of crop. If you grow lots of small plants in a set piece of ground they will be the same in volume/ weight as a few large ones. This fact is useful in predetermining the size of vegetables when planting. The closer you plant the smaller the vegetables will be when grown. An example is carrots; the more you thin them the larger they will get.
A problem many people have is trying to cram too many plants into a spot. One of the criteria of being organic, is to have strong plants that fend off problems, and if the plants are planted too close together they will tend to be thin, weak and not strong. I always allow plenty (more than most of the books say) of space per plant in order to get healthy plants.
A list of some of the organic Criteria
Not using (mostly) man-made chemicals to kill anything that is not wanted.
Not Using substances to enhance the soil (fertilizers) that do not add to the fertility of the soil and its microbial life. They tend to be man-made to speed the growth of plants, and will quickly dissipate from the soil.
One of the Biggest Problems
One of the biggest problems when going organic was in the first few years. Having stopped using chemicals, and with the soil fertility not up to standard, plants tend to get attacked with bugs, and it is very tempting to start spraying again.
I am afraid the only course of action is to suffer the problems, in the hope that they will get better as time goes by. They will. One has to wait for the predators to build up numbers to maintain a balance. They will do it as a free meal (the bugs) will not be long in attracting hungry predators. In the meantime it gives you a good chance to build soil fertility to help your plants.
My own experience was that it took one year of devastation to pass before a balance was in sight. In my second year the pests seen to subside a little and I could actually get some vegetables to eat. Now after many years I seem to get very few pests at all and am able to concentrate on them when they do arrive.
There are many ways to help and these I will try to explain in the second article.