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Organic Gardening 101 – Easy steps to insure organically grown goodness

by Christy Wilhelmi (Gardenerd)

Winter harvest in CA

One of the most daunting tasks about organic gardening is figuring out how to begin.  It seems like there is so much to learn, so much to know before you can start gardening.  The truth is that the best way to learn how to garden is… to garden.  Just do it.  It’s sort of like raising a child; you can read about it all you want, but you won’t really know what you’re doing until you’re in the middle of it, getting your hands dirty.  It may feel tentative and awkward, but before long it’s a habit – and a good one at that.


The basic idea of gardening is this: get some soil, bury a seed, water it, give it light and wait.  Organic gardening operates the same way; the difference is in the choice of products you use.  For those who dream of growing vegetables or flowers organically, but don’t know where to start, here are a few helpful tips to get you on your way:


Start with the soil – the foundation of a good organic garden is literally the soil.  The general idea behind this concept is that if you have healthy, nutrient-rich, living soil your plants will outgrow any pest or disease that comes its way.  Good soil is comprised of ingredients like peat moss (or coir – pronounced coy-yer - a more sustainable option made from the outside fibers of a coconut shell), vermiculite or perlite, and compost.  Other nutrient-building ingredients are spent coffee grounds, composted animal manures, worm castings, and wood ashes.  All of these help achieve what we call “loam”, the ultimate soil texture every gardener seeks. 


Compost is your friend - Whether you have clay or sandy soil, both types of soil can be improved by adding compost.  Composting is also a great way of recycling your kitchen and yard waste into a usable resource for your garden.  You don’t even need a bin, just a 3 x 3 foot area to pile up layers of browns (dried leaves, pine needles, straw, corn stalks, and other dried yard waste) and greens (grass clippings, kitchen scraps except for animal proteins, coffee grounds, weeds – before they bolt to seed – and other green material).  Turn garbage into black gold, and close the loop on waste.  


If you don’t have room for a compost bin, maybe a worm bin is more your size.  They take up less room and can handle most household kitchen scraps.  If neither of those options works for you, check with your local city Bureau of Sanitation to see if they offer free compost from city tree trimming projects and yard waste collection, otherwise you can buy it from your local nursery or garden center.


Use organic fertilizers – FYI – Miracle Gro is not organic.  Synthetic fertilizers are processed using natural gas and petroleum and are therefore not sustainable.  In addition to drawing upon this precious resource, they cause other problems down the line.  When heavy quantities of nitrates are applied to soil, whatever isn’t absorbed by plant roots heads south to the water table.  It infiltrates our waterways, causing larger than usual algae blooms, which rob the water of oxygen, therefore suffocating the aquatic life.  It also contributes to acid rain. 


Organic fertilizers have far less an environmental impact on the earth and yet still supply plants with the life-giving nutrients they need.  To identify organic fertilizers, you should be able to pronounce the sources on the label (mostly animal by-products like bone and blood meals, kelp and fish meal, etc).  It should say organic, and it’s worth investigating the company a little to make sure they are compliant with organic standards.  There are plenty of trustworthy companies out there who provide organic gardeners with the supplies they need. 


Grow from good seeds – If you really want to go full-speed organic, start with organic seeds.  There are plenty of companies that offer untreated seeds and some that offer organic seeds, like Seeds of Change.  Grow heirloom seeds as well to increase our planet’s bio-diversity.  Hybrid seeds can offer strong varieties, but avoid them if you plan to collect seeds from your harvest, as hybrid seeds won’t produce the same results from year to year.   If a seed catalog doesn’t specifically say that they don’t use genetically engineered seed, then there is a chance that they do use genetic engineering in their seed production.  Use your best judgment about whether you want this in your garden or not. 


Fight pests with nature – Organic pest control is a vast subject, but the idea is universal:  Use pest controls that don’t cause more harm than good.  Natural predators like lady bugs, lacewings, decollate snails and others will go after your aphids, snails and slugs.  Marigolds will help keep pests away.  Organic horticultural oils (like neem and canola based oils) can be sprayed to help prevent scale, white fly and some airborne fungi.  The OMRI – Organic Materials Review Institute has a great site for information about organic pest control if you want to investigate further.  Visit to get the low down. 


The key to organic gardening is to get connected to your soil, plants and the environment.  You can’t help but do this as you nurture little seedlings along their way.  Start small, embrace learning experiences (A.K.A. mistakes) and have fun.  Your garden will reward you in more ways than you can imagine.


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I really needed this and right in time- just starting everything a little late. Thanks for this!
nematode commented on 05/03/10
That's an awesome intro in to organic gardening. I think it is the way to go for sure.
gardengirl commented on 04/29/10
Christy, what an awesome post and primer for organic gardening. Thanks so much for sharing with all of us :-)
chief cultivator commented on 04/28/10