“Growing a little bit of your own food is easier than you think,” Mike Cunningham of Country Gardens Farm told us at a recent Georgia Organics Organic Vegetable Gardening Workshop. Many people think that growing a garden can be difficult, but what about an organic garden? Doesn’t that take a lot more time, money and effort? Mike has been farming organically for 10 years on his farm that has been in the family since the 1940s. He reassured us that it is not only more simple than you might think but very affordable to have your own organic garden. Here are seven steps to having your own successful organic garden.
1. Choose the right location. Your garden will only be “seven steps from your door” if you have a location in your yard that receives ample sunlight. If you are building a raised bed, your soil is composed as you desire, and thus, you only need to set it up in a location that has proper sun. Otherwise, you can till and amend your native soil that has complete sun coverage.
The majority of garden plants require around 6-8 hours of full sun. This can be tricky in yards with heavy tree coverage, but Mike gave us a good way to remember how much sun your plants will need: “If you grow it for the fruit or the root, you need full sun.” This means that tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, potatoes etc. will need to be planted in full sun. If your lawn restricts this need, try to find a community garden near you.
If you still want to try it out on your own land, you can follow Mike’s second rule: “If you grow it for the leaves, partial shade is all you need.” Lettuces, kales, etc. may be more appropriate for your yard if sun is limited.
2. Make beds and garden containers. The advantages of where you plant your garden depends on your environment. Say you only have a porch at your apartment. Good news, many tomatoes and peppers will grow well in pots. However, it is important that your vessel is around five gallons in volume (approximately one cubic meter). Some peppers, cucumbers and other plants can adapt to less soil, but most tomatoes will need at least five gallons.
In general, your plants will need enough soil to excel and produce the most fruit. If you have a yard but you want to contain the soil and disruption to your landscaping, a raised bed is an appropriate option for your garden. Raised beds can be built with just about any material (wood, stone, tin, etc.) except for pressure treated lumber. Four by eight feet is about as large as you want to build your bed; this ensures that you can always reach to the center of the bed.
Generally, the soil should be around seven inches thick, so it is best to build your bed about twelve inches high. If you choose not to build a bed, your plants will still benefit from a raised bed. This encourages proper drainage and gives your plants the most available topsoil to grow in.
3. Focus on the soil. Mike Cunningham said, “The most important thing for organic farming is the soil.” He explained how the soil acts as the stomach of the plant. In a handful of soil, there are billions of living microorganisms, and much like those found in your stomach, they help to convert nutrients and other elements into energy.
Essentially, there are two options for your garden soil. The first is starting with the mineral soil (native soil) of your area. If you are using this, you will need to take a core sample of your soil and have it tested to determine the amendments you will need to make.
The ideal garden soil pH is 6.5. If your soil is too acidic, you will need to add lime. Furthermore, your mineral soil will likely need added organic fertilizers, compost and worm castings (act as a probiotic).
If you opt to build a raised bed and establish your soil from scratch, you can purchase many of the premixed bags of potting soil that contain peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite (elements that aid in water retention, aeration and nutrient retention).
You will still need to add compost, worm castings and organic fertilizer to your bed [see bottom for “Mike’s Mix,” a suggested soil mixture]. It is important when adding fertilizers and other soil additives to keep in mind what constitutes an organic garden. For example, organic gardens cannot use synthetic fertilizers. Many of these have chlorine and acids in them that are harmful to mycorrhizae and other fungus that aid plant growth.
Compost can be composed of cow manure, chicken manure, mushroom compost and others. Furthermore, mulch and leaves can be added on top of your beds to slowly add organic material but also to aid in water retention.
The process of soil correction and optimization can take years if you are using your own mineral soil, but it is still important when using potting soil and compost to keep a vigilant eye on the quality and composition of your soil.
4. Know what to plant, when. It’s not just about location, timing is everything in farming. A beautiful, sun-drenched plot with perfect soil could be for naught if plants or seed are in the ground at the wrong time.
Planting times are completely contingent on where you live and on the predicted weather for that specific year. For example, Atlanta is in Zone 8a and 7b according to the USDA’s Hardiness Zones. Thus, you should consult weather, temperature and other predictable factors before you plant your garden.
In general, cool season plants should be planted from March or August to November. Warm season plants should be planted in April. Winter or cool season plants should be planted with protection (plastic covering) in October. Each “season” indicates when the crops are harvested, not planted.
Regarding the approaching warm season garden, check the soil temperature with a thermometer to ensure that it is 65℉ before planting.
5. Keep your garden hydrated. Leaves and mulch should be added to the top of the soil around plants and in walkways to slowly add organic material to soil, aid in water retention and promote fungal growth.
Simply using a ground covering that has not been sourced organically makes your operation not organic. For example, hay or straw can have residual synthetic herbicide treatments on it that could harm your crops and decrease the quality of your produce.
A plant should never be watered arbitrarily. Use your finger. If the soil is dry and light, water your plants. If the soil is damp and water can be squeezed from it, wait to water.
For most open-field plantings in Georgia, the sun will do a pretty good job of drawing the majority of moisture from the soil, so water your plants daily unless a summer thunderstorm soaks them for you.
6. Protect your garden from harmful pests and diseases. To grow a healthy plant, you need 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, productive soil, compost, mulch and proper watering. But what if you do all that and then the insects and critters decide they want a taste of your crop too?
Plants that don’t need to be pollinated (i.e. leafy greens or plants without flowers), can be covered with a fine mesh to prevent insects and animals from eating them. But if they need to be pollinated, there are a few options for predation prevention.
Enclosures of chicken wire or fencing are often the only defense against squirrels, rabbits and other small animals that will nibble your plants to death. However, if deer are your public enemy number one, you have a bigger battle to fight. Deer are able to clear fences that are nine feet tall. And yes, by “clear” I mean jump over. “Fly” may be more appropriate. So, tall fences need another layer, a very literal other layer. Mike Cunningham has found that a double fence system seems to work best if you can’t afford a twelve foot fence.
As your garden grows, constant observation of growth is necessary, but further than that, constant monitoring of what insects are interested in your garden is important. Around 90% of insects that you will see in your garden are good for your garden (pollinators, wasps that eat caterpillars), but there are also the enemies that will destroy your garden. Once you have identified the presence of malicious invaders, an attack plan will be needed, and soon.
Even still, it is good to plant flowers that attract beneficial pollinators and insects (try buckwheat, basil, clover, daisies and many others).
Most synthetic insecticides are blanket killers. This means that when you spray for plant eating moths, you are likely also killing honey bees and good insects as well. But you need to stop the pest before they destroy your garden. There are a few organic options that can be found: organic sprays, dusts, insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, spinosad, organic pyrethrum, neem oil. Always check for target species and proper application.
Disease can still be a problem in your garden if you’ve effectively controlled all of these other elements. Solutions can range from application of copper, soap and milk to potassium bicarbonate, natural fungus blocker and sulfur.
7. Enjoy your harvest! Once you start to see your garden begin to produce fruits and vegetables, you will likely rush out to your garden and rip the produce off to show off to your neighbor or wife. But it is imperative (and the reason that harvest is a step to having a successful organic garden and not the end) that you put as much care into your harvest than the rest of your steps.
As soon as your plants begin to produce, harvest in the morning and often. Use a knife or scissors to clip the fruits and vegetables away from the stems. Treat the plants delicately. Don’t allow the fruits and vegetables to get overly large as this is not only taxing on the plants but also diminishes the potentially delicious flavor of your produce.
Be consistent in your care. Who among us doesn’t like taking care of their pets other than vagrants, criminals and angry old aunts? Your organic garden is your new pet. You can’t just plant it and leave it like you may do with your kid at summer camp.
Having an organic garden is a lot of work, but presumably you are interested in having your own because you care about where your food comes from, you desire to have a smaller footprint, you hope to minimize the amount of synthetic materials added to the environment at your behest and you love to eat delicious fruits and vegetables. Perhaps, the seven steps necessary to build, plant and tend your organic garden will make you think about all of these things while you discuss life’s big issues over a fresh heirloom tomato and cucumber salad—that you grew.
This story was made possible by Georgia Organics and based on Mike Cunningham's presentation about the 7 Steps to Organic Gardening. You can learn even more from his book. Check out the Georgia Organics events calendar and the Country Gardens events page for more opportunities to learn about organic food and farming.
Story by Gresham Cash
Photos by Paige French (except where otherwise noted)