By: Richard Nicol

Whether you’re a die-hard foodie or a casual consumer, chances are pretty good you’ve run across the label or term, “organic,” during your weekly (or daily) visits to the grocery store. The sound of that word “organic” gives us a nice feeling inside; even though the meaning may be ambiguous, the word itself suggests a product that’s natural and proletarian — as if it were, just seconds ago, ripped from the ground, and placed on a grocer’s shelf, unblemished by man.

What is clearly evident is we currently live in an age of fast food — food that is processed and quickly produced to meet the high demand and hectic lifestyle of a growing consumer base. Some of us find it difficult to set aside the time (and energy) to prepare an entire meal, when it seems much more efficient to grab something on the go. Discovering all of the chemicals and toxins that go into growing and cultivating produce quickly gave rise to the trend of organic foods.

The term “organic” refers to the way in which agricultural products are grown and processed. It’s true that organic gardeners use only natural fertilizers and pest control as opposed to synthetics and toxic pesticides; however, organic growing goes much deeper than that – literally! Organic growing is a philosophy — it involves establishing and maintaining the natural health of the soil, choosing the most appropriate plants for your area, and working with nature to create a healthy and productive plant or garden.

Now, trendy or not, organic growing is nothing new. The early 1940s saw the mass production of chemical pesticides and fertilizers for lawn care, convincing many people that lawns required these chemicals in order to survive. Today, we know that soil health is crucial, whether you’re maintaining a lawn or a garden, and that not all “pests” are detrimental to plant life, but play a pivotal role in supporting that ecosystem. The idea of soil health leading to the practice of organic growing and farming was proliferated by organic pioneer, J.I. Rodale, in the late 40s/early 50s. J.I. authored many books and magazines still available today, including Organic Farming and Gardening (now known as Organic Gardening Magazine) and Prevention Magazine. He also founded the Rodale Institute in 1947, an organization still committed to groundbreaking research in organic agriculture, while advocating policies and procedures towards a healthier planet and people.

There are many benefits to growing organically. Besides the aforementioned lack of toxic pesticide use, organic foods are often fresher when consumed, as they may be locally grown, and do not generally contain any preservatives. Perhaps just as important is the fact that organic farming is beneficial to the environment; these practices reduce pollution and soil erosion, while conserving water and increasing soil fertility. On top of all this, consider the positive effect organic growing can have on surrounding fauna like birds and other small animals that exist and interact with this ecosystem.
With spring in full swing, and summer on the horizon, what could be better than starting your own organic garden? Sure, you can find organic food almost anywhere, but beware: many products that claim to be “organic” may simply contain organic ingredients. This kind of misleading consumer labelling is common, and only foods that boast “100% Organic” are truly and completely organic. Others may contain a significant percentage of non-organic ingredients.

Whether you fancy a lush floral panorama, or a vegetable cornucopia for your dinner table, here are some tips on how to get started, and some pitfalls to avoid:

1. Where to plant? Choosing a site for your garden

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Planning is the essential first step for any new project. Find the best place for your new garden based both on location and what you plan to grow. For an herb or vegetable garden, consider a site that will experience at least six hours of sunlight daily. Drainage is another issue to consider, as herbs and veggies require well-drained soil. For a smaller budget, plan, or backyard, consider using a container garden, or pots and boxes. (Naturally, floral beds would be placed close to your home for aesthetic reasons)

2. Soil: Imperative to organic growing

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Soil is the main ingredient in this recipe, as your soil quality ultimately determines the health and yield of your garden. Ideally, you’d like to have crumbly, organically-rich soil (drains well and holds nutrients); adding peat, compost, manure, or leaf clippings can aid in amending the soil — composting also helps feed plants, conserve water, and cut down on weeds and garbage consumption from food/yard waste.

3.What to plant? Fruits, Vegetables, and Flowers

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Before heading off to the nearest nursery, be forewarned that most nursery plants are conventionally grown (using chemical fertilizers and pesticides), so it may be in better judgment to start from seed early in the season (ideal for sweet peas, squash, or cucumbers), or seek out seedlings raised without chemicals for later in the season. A good place to find them may be a local farmers market, as they would have fruits and vegetables that grow well in the climate of your surrounding environment. If this is your first garden, take note some easy-to-grow vegetables like tomatoes, pea shoots, beetroot, lettuce, mint, onions, strawberries, and cucumbers.

4.Spacing, Planting, and Labelling

If you’ve chosen seedlings, be sure to water them prior to planting, whether you plan on planting them today or tomorrow; this will help your plant adjust better to its new environment, avoiding transplant shock. How you arrange your plants will ultimately determine the yield. Stagger plants by planting in triangles, as opposed to rows or square patterns. Plant tightly, but avoid crowding; this will cut down on weeding and water waste, and also foster good air circulation, which repels fungal attacks. Watering should be done in the morning, as mornings tend to be cool and calm, reducing water evaporation.

5.Pest Control

Always an issue with any garden, pest control can be proactively addressed, and maintained in an eco-friendly manner. Ladybugs are a gardener’s best friend, as they prey on smaller insects (and larvae) harmful to plant life, such as aphids, mites, and leaf hoppers. Many garden centres have ladybugs available for purchase. Other preventative measures can include nets, row covers, and even organic weapons like Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium that upsets the digestion of caterpillars and other leaf-eaters. There are also horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps, and garlic and/or hot pepper sprays that can be utilized to prevent pests from invading your garden.

6.Succession Planting and Harvesting

Make the most of the growing season by growing more than one crop in a single area, via succession planting. Early crops (such as leaf lettuce) can be replaced with fast-maturing crops (like corn), and then again with overwintering crops like garlic or onions. Don’t forget to replenish the soil with compost each time you replant! When it comes time to harvest, do as much as possible; as a general rule, the more you harvest, the more your plants will produce. Be careful while harvesting (use sharp knife or scissors), as sometimes yanking or pulling with your fingers can damage plant tissue.