If you’re interested in learning how to grow organic food, I have some tips today.
Admittedly this post is a little bit all over the place, but hopefully there’s something in here that will be useful to you.
The video is worth watching, and at minute 3:57 I explain the ‘3 sisters’ that I was planting in the video last week.
(At the beginning of the video, I say ‘Back from Amsterdam!’ – that’s because I shot this video last year when I had just returned from my trip there where my sister and I had made a bunch of videos on container gardening.)
First, How Big?
Not too big. This is an important one.
I say even just doing a good job with 10 different kinds of plants is much better than struggling with 30.
You can grow a decent amount of organic food if you intensely plant 100 square feet, and it won’t be overwhelming.
The biggest time investment is usually in spring, when you amend the soil, optionally start seedlings, and plant and sow your beds.
Then comes summer time when you can end up with loads of the same kind of fruits or veggies at once, so you need to be ready to preserve or share them or they’ll go to waste.
If you start small, you can keep on top of weeds and watering and fertilizing and really pay attention to everything that’s happening in the garden, rather than spending all season scrambling to keep up.
Grow Organic Annuals
Some approaches to growing organic food have a long-term outlook, while others are more focused on immediate results.
Annuals like tomatoes and cucumbers are more for the short term.
They’re definitely a real treat, and they’re mainstays of an organic vegetable garden, but they do have to be planted every year, and they need some attention throughout the growing season.
A problem I sometimes run into, what with me not actually living where my garden is located, is that some of my annual plants struggle because I may plant them and then be gone on an adventure for a month.
So while annuals are great as long as you have time to plant and care for them, I’m increasingly interested in perennials…
ALSO Grow Organic Perennials
Permaculture emphasizes using long-term strategies to grow organic food-producing gardens that largely manage themselves after initial setup.
This approach focuses on fruits and nuts, perennial veggies like asparagus and lovage, and perhaps self-seeding plants like Russian kale and self-seeding herbs like dill and cilantro.
This is appealing to me because once these plants are established, they largely take care of themselves, and the weird weather we often have (too wet/dry, too hot/cold) doesn’t have as big of an impact.
And yet, another permaculture principle is “get a yield.”
We usually want to get some organic foods from our gardens right away, which lands us in the realm of traditional annual vegetables like potatoes, lettuce, etc.
You don’t have to choose just one approach – just find a balance that fits your situation.
Before You Plant
Some of the first things to take care of in the garden are water, access and structures.
In fact, there’s an acronym that sometimes gets thrown around in permaculture called W.A.S.P.
We want to make sure there’s:
- Water. Preferably more than 1 good water source near the garden.
- Access. Easy foot and wheelbarrow access anywhere you might need it.
- Structures. A potting station, a compost zone, areas for storing amendments and tools, etc.
- Plants. Then you can get excited about growing organic food.
It’s essential that the garden space meets the plants’ needs for sun, water, and soil type. Most annual vegetables require full sun in temperate zones.
If you have many shady areas, you can cross-reference a few online lists of more shade-tolerant food plants.
Organic Food Crop Rotation
While conventional farming relies on monocultures, there’s no reason we need to do that in the garden.
If you grow organic food plants in combinations, it can improve yield, soil health, and biological diversity.
This can start with something as simple as crop rotation, where we plant different crops in a bed each season, making sure to wait at least three years before planting something from the same family again.
It’s mostly agreed that this reduces disease pressure and lets the soil regenerate, as each plant has unique nutritional requirements.
Companion Planting – The Three Sisters
The 3 sisters: corn, beans and squash
Taking it further, we can combine different plants within the same bed.
Companion planting mixes plants that actively support each other.
A well-known example is the traditional Meso-American ‘3 sisters’ combination – corn, beans, and squash – which I planted this year.
- The corn provides a trellis for the beans and food for the nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
- The beans house those bacteria, who fix nitrogen for the nitrogen-hungry corn.
- The squash shades the soil, controlling weeds and decreasing evaporation.
There are many guides out there on companion planting, but they don’t all agree with each other as to which root crop loves which leafy green, so you may do just as well by experimenting.
I sometimes just mix 10-20 different plants in a bed, including growing organic food plants along some beneficials like wild marigold, nasturtium, and bee balm. This is called a polyculture.