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We’ve been talking about local produce and CSA’s- ways to find great, organic produce for a good price. Now, we’re going to talk about the cheapest way to get the best organic produce – gardening! There is a saying that “growing your own food is like growing your own money.” We’ve been trying to grow a garden for a few years now. Let me start by saying…it should have worked. We talk about organic food, but let’s learn more about organic gardening soil!
Two years ago, my husband and I became incredibly motivated and excited about starting our vegetable garden. We cleared land. We built raised beds. We spent too much money on the “perfect” soil blend. (see below)
We bought heirloom seeds and babied our seedlings with the best of our skills.
Our return on investment? One jalapeno pepper. A $134 jalapeno pepper.
The next year we performed a little better: four heads of lettuce.
So, here we are. Spring 2014. We’re finding it very difficult to invest any more time or money into our stubborn garden. I decided I wasn’t going to give up on this venture, but I also was not going to invest a lot of money. Let’s troubleshoot my garden from the ground up. (Disclaimer: obviously, I am not an expert on organic gardening. If you can add to the knowledge base, please share everything and anything in the comments!)
Step One: Organic Soil
A great garden begins with good soil. [So I’ve heard, not that I have any experience with a great garden.] Before we start talking about all the ways to improve your soil, let me just say…don’t feel like you have to do anything to your soil. You don’t have to excavate your yard and replace all your regular old dirt with fancy new dirt. However, if your garden isn’t productive, enhancing your soil is probably a good place to start.
3 Simple Ways to Enhance Your Soil
Add Organic Matter (aka manure): Adding a bit of manure will give your soil a quick nutrient boost. Since the organic matter in manure has not decomposed, its nutrients are readily available, just waiting to be used. It’s a quick fix, and (if you can find it) local manure is quite cheap or completely free. Too good to be true? Maybe. There are a few considerations for working with manure.
Always wear gloves- Yes, it’s nutrient rich, but it’s still poop. Manure can carry pathogens and make people sick.
More is not better- Too much manure in your soil can cause an overwhelming flood of nutrients, especially phosphorus which can affect plants in a bad way. If all these nutrients aren’t used, they will leech into the groundwater, where they are considered contaminants.
Give root vegetables time- If you are growing any root vegetables, like carrots or beets, give them at least three months in a manure-mixed soil before harvesting. This will reduce the risk of contamination from the manure. Other veggies that do not have direct soil contact should be fine to harvest at any time.
Compost: The organic matter in compost has been broken down and decomposed, providing excellent slow-release nutrients. Adding compost will help with water retention and prevent soil diseases. You can buy a bag of compost at the hardware store, or you can start your own compost pile at home for free! Collect your organic kitchen scraps and yard waste to make a compost pile. (More on this soon!)
Cover with mulch: Placing a layer of mulch on top of your soil will help it retain moisture and protect your seeds from temperature extremes. You can buy a bag of mulch at the hardware store, but you can also use a layer of leaves to lower costs. The high carbon content of leaves and mulch can be a good thing, giving microbes and earthworms something to nibble on and then depositing more plant-nourishing nitrogen into your soil. At the same time, the high carbon content of mulch can have a negative effect if it gets worked into your soil, stealing nitrogen to break down the carbon. Think of mulch like the icing on your cake, a final step to protect the moist cake underneath.
Keeping It Organic
For a commercial farm to be certified organic, the land must be synthetic chemical-free for at least three years. What about a piece of land in your own yard? If your lawn is chemically treated for weeds or fertilized, consider building raised beds instead of working directly into your ground. This will help minimize the amount of chemicals that your plants’ roots may reach.
My advice (and what I should have done 3 years ago): get a soil sample professionally tested. You may have a service available locally, but if not, you can ship off a sample to a lab. I discovered that for $6, I can have a bag of soil analyzed locally, thanks to the University of Georgia’s agricultural extension program. If you’re in Georgia, you can use this program, too.
A soil analysis will provide information on your soil’s nutrients, where it’s deficient, it’s pH, and more. Once you know what you’re working with, you will know how to improve it. I’m sending off a sample next week, and I’ll let you know what is discovered.
Have you ever tested your soil? What experiences have you had with growing your own food? Impart your wisdom!
I’m going to take a look at seeds. Do you really need to buy organic seeds? What about heirloom seeds? How are these seeds different from the conventional ones?
The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.