Guest blog post by Roxann Ward, author of Color-Rich Gardening For the South: A Guide for All Seasons
The organic gardening discussion has been going on for decades, and in 2021 the availability of organically-grown food is something we take for granted. While it is easy to pick up that container of organic strawberries to add to your morning yogurt, I wonder how many home gardeners have embraced organic practices as the best way to grow produce in their own backyards? Now that we’re paying more attention to the food we buy for our families, do we still reach for the old standbys when it’s time to fertilize the tomatoes growing in the backyard?
In my early days of gardening, like many people, I reached for that well-known container of blue crystals that is mixed with water to feed vegetables and summer bedding plants. I grabbed that familiar box each spring at the garden center because it was what everyone else seemed to be using, and that was good enough for me.
I began decreasing my use of traditional fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides about thirty years ago. At the time, I had three small children and we spent almost every day outside in the back yard. They practiced cartwheels on the lawn and piled collections of sticks, rocks, flowers, and pinecones on our deck. I didn’t want to use fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides in my garden or lawn that would undoubtedly end up on their shoes, and possibly on their skin. I wanted to keep their small world as safe as possible.
All those years ago, I decided to focus on feeding the soil, so that it would provide all the nutrients and minerals needed to help my grass and plants thrive. I pulled weeds by hand, as much as possible, and if I had a problem with a garden plant, I looked for the least toxic solution. Back then, I depended on books to guide me into the world of organics, but today there is a vast amount of information available to help you begin.
A quick web search will yield plenty of information to answer any questions you may have about going organic. If you want to hear from people committed to this way of gardening, I encourage you to find a podcast to listen to, or a YouTube channel to watch. For a glimpse into the organic gardening mindset, follow the weekly podcasts of Margaret Roach, a talented writer, who gardens in upstate New York. Her latest book, A Way to Garden, is a wise and witty commentary on both gardening and nature.
If you want the view from across the pond, spend a rainy spring afternoon watching Gardener’s World on Brit Box or YouTube. I’m inspired by how the British people (truly a nation of gardeners) are working to protect and restore natural habitats, by building healthy soil and rethinking what they plant in their own backyards.
Here in Georgia, I focus on composting anything I can get my hands on, including kitchen scraps, paper egg cartons, newspaper, and spent garden plants. I spread finished compost in the fenced garden where I grow vegetables and fruit, along with perennial flowers. I buy earthworm castings bagged up for sale at a farm near my home, and buy spent logs from a mushroom farm in the area, which makes fantastic mulch for my evergreen shrubs.
I use native plants, such as coneflowers, to bring pollinators into my garden, along with a diverse mix of blueberry shrubs, fruit trees, herbs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, and flowering shrubs. I try to put the right plant in the right place, so that I minimize problems with disease or insects, and I also rotate crops such as potatoes and tomatoes. I remove pests, like slugs, by hand when I see them, or I find the least toxic way to treat the problem. And yes, I pull lots of weeds. Most of all, I have stopped expecting perfection. Weeds, slugs, and Japanese beetles are part of gardening life, and I don’t stress about them too much these days. I’m not trying to grow the biggest strawberries or the tallest cosmos. I’m just along for the ride.
I wonder if gardeners in this country will ever be willing to give up the quick fixes, like the iconic blue fertilizer of my childhood? I hope so. I’m encouraged by the next generation of gardeners, who seem to understand that as individuals we can make a difference, and maybe one place to start is in the garden.
Roxann Ward, owner of Roxann Ward Design in Senoia, Georgia, is a garden designer and consultant.