Home gardeners who want to try their hand at growing organic vegetables should lower their expectations just a little and be prepared to put in more "sweat equity."
Growing organic vegetables takes extra planning. If you use organic fertilizer sources or organic soil amendments, these need to be tilled into the garden well in advance to be effective. (Ideally, this process should begin in the fall prior to spring planting.)
Organic amendments don't provide nutrients as quickly as synthetic fertilizers. So, if you want to gain the benefits of organic fertilizers, give them plenty of time to decompose. Soil microbes have to convert them into a form that plant roots can absorb. An added benefit of organic amendments is that they can act as a slow-release fertilizer throughout the season. This improves soil structure.
Less pesticides, more weeding
Growing organic vegetables takes extra work. Since you won't have the option to "shoot first and ask questions later" with herbicides and insecticides, you will need to spend extra time and energy in your garden.
Weeds must be pulled or hoed. Mulch must be applied to prevent weeds. Disease or insect damage must be pruned away from plants. The key is to catch all of these problems as early as possible to prevent them from becoming bigger problems and spreading throughout the garden.
Organic gardening requires homework. You must become familiar with common garden problems and be able to tell the "good bugs" from the "bad bugs." The last thing you want to do is get rid of beneficial bugs like lady beetles that actually help control aphids, mites and other insects.
Veggies don't have to look beautiful
Growing organic vegetables requires the gardener to lower his expectations. To understand my point, go to the produce section at your local grocery store and watch customers pick through a pile of tomatoes or apples in search of that one spotless specimen.
Unfortunately, I think we are all habitually programmed to do this. When growing organically, you can't be that picky. Small spots and blemishes can be easily cut off of fruits or vegetables. Appearances don't affect taste, especially if the produce is headed for a casserole dish.
Tips to follow
Here are a few more tips for the novice organic gardener:
• Get your soil tested by taking a sample to the local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office. This is the most important thing to do first.
• Start small and increase garden size each year as you become more comfortable with organic techniques.
• Use basic cultural control options like mulching, pruning, proper spacing, crop rotation, using resistant varieties and planting at the proper times.
• Clean equipment periodically. A 10-percent bleach solution used on pruners and other tools after cutting away diseased plant material will minimize the spread of diseases.
• Water plants as needed and only in the early morning. This helps prevent diseases and develops strong, deep root systems.
When you have gardening questions, call your local UGA Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1 and ask to speak to a certified Master Gardener. These volunteers are trained to help you solve gardening problems.
For more information, see UGA Extension publication B1011, "Growing Vegetables Organically," and other gardening factsheets at www.ugaextension.com.
By Paul Pugliese
University of Georgia
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