This is what my organic garden looks like today.
Not quite ready to start planting yet, haha, but I’m gearing up for spring.
I’ve been making sure I have my seeds and organic fertilizers and microbial inoculants all ready to rock when the soil warms up.
(Speaking of which, I’ll have an exciting new announcement at the bottom of this post.)
Two of my biggest gardening goals are to:
- Grow exceptionally nutrient-dense food, and
- Make sure I get to eat it before insects and diseases do
Fortunately, those goals are very much linked.
That’s because these pests only go after unhealthy plants – that’s one of their main roles in nature.
Many experienced gardeners and farmers have a hard time believing that, but they haven’t really studied how insects and diseases communicate, digest food, navigate, and generally live out their life cycle.
But it’s true – if I can grow healthy plants, pests won’t cause much of any problem.
And what I’m sharing today are 7 important steps for growing healthy plants and nutrient-dense food, which fortunately also means keeping pests at bay…
1. Increase Organic Matter
We’ll start with organic matter, because that’s been perhaps the central recommendation of the organic gardening movement since its inception – especially using compost.
I’m a huge fan of compost, but there are a few things I want to address:
- It has to be good compost. If it smells bad or is loaded with pesticide residues, it can really harm the soil. Be sure to only use good stuff – otherwise skip it.
- You don’t need much. A lot of organic gardeners apply so much compost that it leads to fertility imbalances (especially excess potassium) and even anaerobic soils. Just a light dusting is all you need, max 1/3 cubic yard per 1000 square feet. So even if all you have room for is a little worm compost bin, that’ll be enough for many home gardens.
- Many organic gardeners would say compost is all you need to improve your soil, but it usually isn’t. Some people may be lucky enough to have balanced soil fertility that doesn’t need any help, but most of us do need to use other materials to tweak it, at least if we want to dictate what grows in our garden and if we want it to be healthy and free of pests.
Still, a small amount of quality compost is certainly very helpful in a garden.
Then, just as important as compost is a good mulch. That’s how nature does it, always keeping the soil covered.
Leaves are often best for this. Straw is okay, too.
I know many people prefer the look of wood chips or shredded bark, but these can cause some issues in a garden – they’re okay around woody plants, but not as good around herbaceous perennials and annuals, including the vegetable garden.
But I’d rather see wood chips than bare soil, so don’t sweat it too much…
2. Balance Nutrients
Most of our soils don’t have enough nutrients, and even if they do, they’re usually out of balance.
What that means is even if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of nutrients, odds are they aren’t in the correct ratios to optimally support plant health.
For example, most soils have too much magnesium in relation to calcium, and too much phosphorus in relation to potassium – both of which cause many of our common garden problems such as soil compaction, plant sickness and pests.
It’s especially important to get the calcium up to appropriate levels, which is why I recommend everyone apply 10 pounds of calcium carbonate per 1000 square feet to their soil each spring, whether or not you have a soil test showing you need it.
A small percentage of soils won’t benefit from this, but it’s not enough to cause problems.
Even better would be to send a soil sample to a good organic lab and then follow their recommendations. They’ll tell you which specific organic mineral fertilizers to use to get your fertility moving in the right direction.
And the cool thing is you don’t need much fertilizer – just a little to tweak the system.
Then comes all of the micronutrients – boron, zinc, copper and many others, over 80 in total.
We need to have just tiny amounts of all of them because they have important roles to play in plant health.
This is where materials like kelp, fish, molasses, glacial rock dust and even ocean water are extremely helpful…
3. Bring Back The Microorganisms
And we can’t forget microorganisms, which are essential for the health of our soil and plants.
Incidentally, they’re essential for our bodies, too – we have about 10 times as many microbes in and on our bodies as we do human cells!
In the garden, they’re responsible for transforming soil into a place where plants can thrive.
Then they feed plants both nutrients and water, and protect those plants from insects and diseases.
The plants give them food in return, so it’s a nice little love affair.
Unfortunately, most of our gardens are deficient in these beneficial microorganisms for various reasons – tilling, topsoil removal during construction, environmental pollution, pesticide/chemical fertilizer use, etc. – so we find it extremely useful to bring them in.
High quality compost is the best for this, but we’re also finding a lot of benefits from using compost tea and inoculants such as mycorrhizal fungi and effective microorganisms…
4. Start From Seed
Then there are the plants – obviously key to our organic gardens, although as you can see from the points above, they’re only part of the picture.
But of course they’re a rather important part.
And if your goal is to grow nutrient-dense food, you really need to make sure you’re starting plants from seed in the spring and then saving seed from the best plants come harvest time.
Repeating that cycle every year is vital to getting healthier plants, because by continually selecting those that are healthiest in our climate and soil conditions, they’ll get a little healthier every year.
It’s entirely fine to buy plants, too, especially when you’re starting out (in fact I still buy most of my ornamental plants).
But when it comes to my food, I start plants indoors in late winter and I also directly seed into the garden come spring and throughout the rest of the growing season…
5. Remember Environmental Factors
We can make the most beautiful, living soil in the world, but it’s important to remember to go back to basics on a few abiotic (non-living) factors.
I’m talking about:
- Sunlight. Tomatoes generally want full sun, while most hostas like a little shade. If we plant tomatoes under a maple tree, they’re probably not going to do so well. If the hostas go in the sun, they’re gonna fry. It’s important to plant in the right spot.
- Water. It’s easy to get enamored with all of the interesting fertilizers available to us, but if we forget the most important substance of all – water – nothing’s going to work very well. Too much is just as bad as too little, but finding a balance is easy if we pay attention.
- Temperature. In my area, I just have to accept that I need to wait until May to plant most things, when the cold nights are through. There’s not much point in flirting with the frosty nights anyway, as most plants won’t get far until the soil has warmed up as well. And overall, it’s important to choose plants that make sense for your climate.
6. Use A Holistic Approach
This photo will be explained at the link down below.
The big takeaway from this is that we need all of these to be in place.
- There’s not nearly as much benefit applying compost if it wasn’t made in such a way as to contain beneficial microorganisms, and if we aren’t combining it with the appropriate nutrients to correct fertility imbalances. A problem in the organic movement has been too much focus on compost without addressing fertility.
- There’s not nearly as much benefit applying nutrients if we don’t have soil organic matter to catch and hold on to those nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms to help make them available to plants. A problem with the chemical method is that we’re force-feeding nutrients to plants rather than utilizing nature’s way.
- There’s not nearly as much benefit of applying microorganisms if we don’t give them the nutrients and organic matter they need to do their thing. The newer biology-based movements have had a tremendous impact on organic gardening and farming, but we still need to remember the chemistry side of things, that is, the nutrients.
- There’s not much benefit of doing any of these things if we don’t choose appropriate plants for our climate, plant them in the right place at the right time of year, and then give them the right amount of water.
7. Ask Phil For Help
I’m hoping to be the last piece of the puzzle for your garden, because I want to help you with all of this.
So if you have any questions about anything, ask them down below.
And here’s something I’m REALLY excited about.
I’ve been working hard over the last 2 months to put together a list of materials that will help you get the nutrients and microorganisms back into your garden.
Some of them you can buy, while some you can make yourself.
Have you ever worked on a project that’s so exciting you find yourself staying up late every night because you’re just having so much fun?
That’s what this has been like for me 🙂