How to get started with organic gardening – useful tips and advice

Claire Ratinon
·5-min read
Photo credit: CSMimages - Getty Images
Photo credit: CSMimages - Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

I discovered my love for organic gardening when I was living in New York City and I found my way to a rooftop farm called Brooklyn Grange. The most wonderful, delicious and interesting produce from heirloom tomatoes to shishito peppers to graffiti aubergines were growing there. The farmers’ approach was to grow their crops in the most natural way possible by refraining from using any chemicals to feed the plants or deal with pests and diseases - which I thought was a no-brainer given that the plants were destined for our plates! Seeing organic food growing up close for the first time helped me realise that there are many ways in which chemicals can and do make it into and onto the food we eat. So when I returned to London, with my heart set on being a food grower in the city, I made a beeline for the Hackney-based social enterprise, Growing Communities, where I was trained in growing salad leaves using organic principles.

Growing organically means growing with nature at the heart of what you do. It means leaving synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides out and putting your energy into caring for the soil and encouraging a balanced ecosystem to emerge which will support your plants as they grow. The objective of growing organically is not to get the maximum amount of food for the least amount of effort but to grow in way that is sustainable and better for the environment.

Photo credit: Dougal Waters - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dougal Waters - Getty Images

Organic gardening: How to get started

There are many ways to incorporate organic techniques into your gardening at home. Here are few key pointers to help you get started:

  • Fertile soil is more than just the medium your plants live in - it is key to organic growing. Healthy soil contains the creatures and bacteria that ensure that the nutrients, minerals, water and air needed for plant growth are available at the root level. The way to cultivate healthy soil is by generously and regularly adding organic matter in the form of compost or well-rotted manure to it. I practice no-dig growing so I lay a thick layer of compost or manure on top of the soil once or twice a year and let nature do the rest! The earthworms and other creatures will do the hard work of incorporating the organic matter into the soil below, saving you from wasting your energy digging.

  • Using barriers - such as netting and mesh - to keep pests away from your plants is a great non-chemical intervention to protect your plants from being damaged or eaten by creatures other than you. For example, bird-proof netting can keep blackbirds away from ripening berries and fine mesh can keep cabbage white butterflies from laying eggs on your brassicas.

  • It is possible to make natural fertilisers using beneficial plants like nettle and comfrey. Nettle feed is a nitrogen-rich fertiliser ideal for leafy vegetables and comfrey makes a potassium rich feed for your fruiting plants like tomatoes and courgettes.

  • Encourage biodiversity by inviting wildlife into your garden. Grow nectar-rich flowers, create a pond and leave areas to grow wild and weedy to entice birds, mammals, amphibians and beneficial insects to join you in your garden. The objective is to encourage balance in your garden ecosystem which will benefit all the creatures and plants who live in it, including your crops. Yes, it does mean you’ll have some pests but you’ll likely have predators too, so it should be that no one problem gets out of control.

Organic gardening: Top tips

There are many more ways to incorporate organic principles to your growing adventures at home and a good place to learn more is through Garden Organic. Their website is a great place to start for anyone who wants to learn the basics from making your own compost to how to manage your soil.

Photo credit: Tom Werner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Werner - Getty Images

You can grow any edible plant organically and if you’re planning to try your hand for the first time, I’d suggest giving salad leaves a go. They’re straightforward to grow from seed, are quicker than most crops and don’t suffer from many pests and diseases. Plus they are edible right from germination all the way to harvest so if your plants aren’t growing as well as you’d hoped, eat what you’ve got and start again! Try growing lettuce, parsley, kale, mustard greens, rocket, dill and sorrel; harvesting their leaves for a salad mix.

Although much of the focus for growing organically is on soil, you can use many of the principles described above if you’re growing in containers. In fact, I’ve found it far easier to control pests on the crops that I’ve grown in pots.

Organic gardening: What are the benefits?

By adopting an organic approach to growing, you’re working with nature to create a healthy and sustainable environment in your garden. By avoiding the chemicals that lead to imbalance and pollution, you’re protecting the life and fertility in your soil and allowing the beneficial plants and creatures to make your garden their home which not only benefits the edible plants you’re growing but the wider environment too. The more you feed your soil and encourage biodiversity, the healthier your garden will become and it will reward you with harvests for years to come.

Claire Ratinon is an organic food grower, writer and author of How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

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