Organically Certified – Enlightened Gardening #2

I’ll say it right off – keeping an organic garden is not so easy. I’m not saying it is difficult but it does require greater vigilance and prompt, timely measures. Compared to freely applying chemicals preventively and pro-actively, organic practices are somewhat more demanding. But isn’t that worth it if it means not polluting the air, soil or water? Are our children and pets not worth that effort? They should be able to play freely in the outdoors without worry of getting sick from chemicals in their environment. Preserving the health of our world is the legacy we pass on to future generations.

Last week I regaled you with the power of compost on your lawn. In truth, it is essential everywhere in the garden. I know it is hard to believe that this one ‘product’ can be fertilizer, mulch and thereby weed suppressor and water-conserver all in one. But that is only because the manufacturers of chemical/synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have done an excellent job of telling us otherwise. This is no different from baby food manufacturers who in the mid-1900’s convinced women that the factory made formulae were superior to breast milk. But we now know better don’t we? Enough said.

I use compost on lawn, flower beds, pots, vegetable plots, around fruit trees and shrubs. Literally everywhere in the garden. In the beds, I do cover the compost with a layer of cedar wood chips for both aesthetic reasons as well as to create a hindrance to the vagaries of digging critters like squirrels, dogs and cats. No other product needed.

On the few occasions when additional feeding and spraying is required as in the case of nurturing the apple and pear tree espalier fence, only organic products like seaweed and fish emulsion and dormant oil spray are used. Producing organic fruit is a particular challenge and I’ve learned to deeply respect the farmers who supply our markets.

In conjunction with maintaining an organic garden, it is imperative that the plants one selects are largely native plants. Native flora attract native fauna. These native fauna will not only pollinate cheerfully but they will also safeguard the plants from predators. Think ladybugs eating aphids, birds picking off pesky beetles and caterpillars, bats devouring mosquitoes etc., Research has shown that when a plant is attacked by pests, it does two things. First, it changes its leaves by making them less nutritious and then, it releases chemicals like jasmonic acid that act like ‘screams for help’ which are signals picked up by beneficial insects that zoom in to feed on the pests thus protecting the host plants. Even more interestingly, planting the right plants alone does not bring in the right insects. The pests must arrive first, do some harm to which the plants ‘cry out in alarm’, and only then will the predators show up. There is an implicit protocol or line of action that ensues. While we are still trying to understand these highly complex and rather impressive phenomena, we can purposefully create the correct balance of flora and fauna thereby doing right by the environment.

Whether one uses chemical or organic pesticides, we are not simply taking care of specific pests. The products are broad-based killers. So even the good guys are wiped out. It is important that we do not use any product if we can help it. For example, dormant oil spray is applied to smother the eggs of pests such as aphids, certain mites and scales. But it will also cover everything else. So, when it is sprayed is crucial. The window is small – when temperatures are above freezing for more than 24 hours but not yet too warm,when  rain is not expected for a few days and, before leaves are put out and the buds have not as yet opened. Miss that time and then don’t bother. It’s too late! Or else you risk choking the leaves so they are unable to photosynthesize properly and, coating opening buds making them unpalatable to arriving pollinators.

My general principle is to keep it simple. As few or no products. Accept that organic fruit may not look perfect. They will however taste wonderful. The sheer, unadulterated joy of biting into an apple right off the tree is priceless. Or, how about a carrot freshly pulled up from the earth and gently rinsed to get the grit off before crunching into its crisp, sweet, orange flesh? Imagine having no worries when you pluck nasturtiums and roses to add color, taste and beauty to your salads and desserts. Scented geranium leaves to perfume lemonades. Chemical-free catnip for your cat. Are you catching the organic spirit?

So first, get yourself started with a collection of native plants. ( see my article from 2 weeks ago Giving Back To The Future for sources) and organically produced vegetable seeds and/or plants which are available at any good nursery. Set up bird baths, nesting boxes and hidey-holes for beneficial fauna to take up residence. Set up your own composter and feed it garden and kitchen waste. Until you start generating your own compost, purchase it from local nurseries. Your town, like mine, might have a place to get free compost. ( For a nominal fee, they will even deliver large amounts of compost or wood-chip mulch).

Get to know your plants intimately. Learn their appearance and habits. This will prepare you to notice right away if something is amiss. Act promptly and prevent further damage.

Now you are in the organic business. Get to work!

The hyacinths inside the house have bloomed and the air is redolent with their perfume. Sheer heaven. Meanwhile outdoors, snowdrops and some hellebores are in bloom. Distinct signs of spring! Enjoy the images below:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

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