A Complete Guide to Organic Gardening for Beginners
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Whether you’re a budding green thumb with a bit of experience under your belt or you’ve never grown a garden (or perhaps even a plant) before in your life, there are a few organic gardening basics that are helpful to know when you’re just getting started.
On one hand, growing a garden might seem stupidly easy. At its very core, gardening is simply the act of planting some seeds, watering them and watching them grow miraculously into big, beautiful, high-yielding plants.
But on the other hand gardening can seem so confusing and overwhelming that many people don’t even know where to start!
You need to decide if you’re going to use organic or modern conventional methods (and what that means, exactly).
You’ll need to learn about your gardening zone, your first and last frost dates and figure out what you are able to grow and when you should plant what.
You’ll need to decide whether to start your plants from seed or buy seedlings, and whether to direct sow or start indoors and transplant later.
You’ll need to figure out how and when to fertilize and know what type of soil to buy if you are purchasing from the store.
And of course you’ll need to decide whether you will be planting in containers, raised beds or in-ground rows. And will you choose open-pollinated or hybrid seeds? And what’s the difference? And how do you know if your seeds are organic or if they are genetically modified? And are those even two sides to the same coin? And wait, what on Earth is an “heirloom” seed???
Related: 5 Easy Food Plants Anyone Can Grow
Indeed, gardening can be very simple or quite complicated, depending on how you look at it.
As someone who grew up with next to no gardening experience at all and is pretty much completely self-taught, I’ve learned first-hand that the key to success lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
My best advice is to learn a few gardening basics and then get out there and get your hands dirty. Take a little time to learn the essentials and then take action.
Will you be a world-class gardener right away? Probably not. In fact, even the most experienced green thumbs experience crop failures and bad seasons. But with a bit of foundational knowledge and a willingness to try, you’ll soon be on your way to becoming a skilled home gardener and enjoying bountiful harvests year after year.
Sound good? Alright. Let’s begin…
What You Need to Know BEFORE Starting a Garden
There are a few things you should probably know before you buy seeds or start planning your garden in order to make the right choices, avoid costly mistakes and optimize your growing success.
Know Your Garden Zone
One of the first things you should know before you even buy seeds or start planning your garden is what garden zone (aka. “planting zone,” “growing zone” or “plant hardiness zone”) you live in.
Garden zones are based on region and climate and help to determine which plants will survive and thrive best in each zone. So knowing what garden zone you live in will help you to select plant varieties that will actually, um, grow in your area.
Knowing your garden zone will also help you determine your average first and last frost dates and will subsequently help you plan when to plant what in your garden.
To find out what garden zone you’re in and what plants do best in your specific zone, you can Google your area or follow this link to find garden zones within the U.S. and Canada.
You can also head over to your local garden or feed store for more information tailored specifically to your garden zone.
While knowing your garden zone is important, getting a feel for your microclimate is equally helpful. A microclimate is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tiny (micro) climate within the larger, broader climate or garden zone that you live in.
For example, you might live in a garden zone which is generally pretty hot and (surprise!) supports warm-weather plants. But you might also live in a shady area that is typically a few degrees cooler than the average climate temperatures than your garden zone, which might mean that you are able to grow plants that thrive better in slightly cooler, shadier areas.
Likewise, you might live in a garden zone that experiences pretty cold temperatures throughout much of the year, but if you have a greenhouse or high tunnel you can actually create a warmer microclimate so that you can extend your growing season and even grow plant varieties that normally wouldn’t survive in your region.
Whether you make use of natural microclimates on your property or you create them yourself, understanding how they work will help you select the best variety and widest range of plants for your specific area and extend your growing season as long as you can to reap the largest harvest possible.
Understand What Organic Gardening Really Means
If you’re aiming to be an organic gardener, you should understand exactly what that means, including what practices are acceptable and what you should never do if you want to truly go organic.
I won’t go over the laundry list of reasons you SHOULD use organic methods in your garden (you can find tons of information online if you want to know more). But I will say that using non-organic methods poses a risk to your health and to your garden itself as chemical sprays, seeds and fertilizers can affect the health of your soil which can in turn affect the health of your plants (and your ability to even grow anything with success).
So, what should you do if you want to be an organic gardener?
- Choose organic, untreated seeds and plants
- Use natural fertilizers (homemade compost is an excellent option)
- Don’t use any chemical sprays or fertilizers
- Be careful not to add non-organic items to your garden or compost pile
- Keep your garden as sheltered as possible from neighbours who use chemical sprays on their garden as this can travel through the air to your own garden.
Of course, it might be difficult to control everything that’s floating in the air, but focus on the things you can control and you can rest assured you are doing everything in your power to go organic as possible.
Also, attracting pollinators to your garden is a wonderful all-natural way to increase your yields and create a healthy ecosystem.
Plant wildflowers or other brightly coloured flowers to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Hang a hummingbird feeder. Perhaps even consider purchasing Mason bees or building a bee hotel! Pollinators are essential to healthy crop production. Do your best to attract them rather than deter them:)
Know the Difference Between Organic, Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and GMO Seeds
I could write an essay on this topic alone, but I’m going to keep this short and sweet. There are some fundamental differences between different types of seeds, and some of them overlap or are subsets of each other. Here’s the cliff notes version:
Organic Seeds: “Organic” is an umbrella term that describes any seeds that come from organic plants and have not been treated with any non-organic chemicals. Any of the following seeds could be organic (except GMO seeds by law), as long as they fit this criteria. But any of them could also not be organic if they have been treated or come from a non-organically grown parent plant.
Open-Pollinated: These seeds are as natural as they come. They come from plants grown and pollinated as nature intended (by wind or by insect pollination, or with help from a human hand). This is how plants have been grown since the dawn of time and this method of letting nature do the work has resulted in a huge range of genetic diversity among plant species.
Open-pollinated seeds can be saved and replanted the next year and will grow into the same type of plant as the one they came from. Because of this they make an excellent choice for organic gardeners interested in seed-saving and who do not want to have to buy new seeds each year.
Heirloom Seeds: These seeds are a subset of open-pollinated seeds, meaning all heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms. Heirlooms are seeds that have been saved from specific plants and passed down through generations (hence the name “heirloom”). They are typically the best of the best as they are organic, open-pollinated and have been carefully selected from the strongest, tastiest and highest yielding plants by generations of gardeners and farmers. These are the all-around best choice for seed saving and organic gardening.
Hybrid Seeds: Hybrids come from two different parent plants that are the same species, but not the same plant. They are created by cross-pollinating two different types of plants to create an entirely new type. Some examples of hybrid plants are sweet corn, meyer lemons (cross between lemons and mandarin oranges), and grapefruit (cross between sweet orange and pomelo). If you save seeds from hybrid plants they will not grow true to the plant you saved them from, but instead will grow into one of the parent plants or may not produce at all. If you buy hybrids you are best to purchase new seeds each year so you know what you’re getting.
Genetically Modified “GMO” Seeds: These are the Frankensteins of the garden world. Genetically modified seeds take hybridization to the next level, and not only combine two different plant types of the same species, but different species altogether! So, for example, you might have a tomato that has been crossed with fish genes, or corn that has been genetically engineered to include a bacterial gene that makes it immune to certain herbicides.
GMO seeds are also engineered in a lab and are patented, making it not only difficult to save the seeds (as they likely won’t produce true to their parent), but actually illegal! If you’ve heard of Monsanto, it’s likely because they are infamous for genetically modifying seeds and suing farmers who save and replant them. While it is highly unlikely that you will come across GMO seeds as a home gardener, it’s still something to be on the lookout for and avoid at all costs.
Now that you have some basic knowledge under your belt, it’s time to actually start planning your garden.
First you’ll have to make some decisions about what plants or seeds to buy to get started. Now that you know your garden zone, have an idea of what type of microclimate you’re working with and understand the fundamental differences between organic and non-organic gardening methods and the different types of seeds and starts you have to choose from, it’s time for the real fun part: choosing your garden crops!
Planning Your Garden
Depending on the size and scale of your garden (pro tip: start small if it’s only your first year, even if you have the space), you’ll need to decide whether you’ll be planting in the ground, in raised beds or in containers.
We do a mix of raised beds and container gardening and they compliment each other nicely! No reason you can’t do more than one, and containers are always a good choice for certain crops, so if you will be doing any container gardening, be sure to source out the right type, size and quantity you’ll need to get started.
Related: Container Gardening for Beginners
If you decide to do in-ground or raised beds, you’ll either need to plan your garden to the size of the beds that already exist or plan to build new beds to your desired size. Either way, write down the dimensions you will be working with before you start planning what will go in the soil.
When planning your crops, consider the following:
- What will grow well in your zone and microclimate
- What do you want to grow/what will you actually eat when it comes to fruits and veggies
- What companion plants grow well together (for more on companion planting, check out this post)
- What should you not plant beside each other (for more on plants that go well and don’t go well together, check out this post)
- What, if anything, was planted in that space last season? Rotating crops is important in organic gardening in order to avoid spreading disease and depleting the soil of nutrients, so if there was something planted in your garden the year before, it’s best to choose a plant from a different family to plant in that spot this year. For more information on proper crop rotation, read this.
Choose Your Seeds (Or Starts)
You’ll need to decide whether you will be starting all of your plants from seed or buying starts (established seedlings) from your local garden store or farmers market. You may choose to purchase a combination.
If you are limited on space or if you want to try a few different varieties rather than a large quantity of one plant, you may opt for starts.
It doesn’t matter what you choose, but I will say there is something magical about watching a plant grow from a tiny seed!
If you do decide to start from seed, you will also need to decide whether to start your seeds indoors to give them a head start on the growing season, or if it is better to direct sow them outside.
Some plants like tomatoes, peppers and onions tend to do better when started indoors a few weeks before being transplanted outside as it gives them more time to grow. But others, such as peas, spinach, radishes and carrots, do better if they’re direct sown outdoors when the time is right.
If you start your seeds indoors, be sure to harden them off for a few days before putting them outside for good. This just means you need to introduce them to the outdoors slowly so as not to shock them with the temperature difference. First, put them outside for a few hours in the daytime and then bring them back in. Then put them outside for a few hours longer. Then put them outside for a full day and then overnight. Then finally, transplant them outdoors.
If you direct sow your seeds, either be sure to space them far enough apart or thin out the seedlings once they start growing to give each plant enough room to grow.
Once you’ve chosen and bought your seeds/starts, time to get planting!
Check your local garden supply store (or search online) for a chart on what to plant when in your area, or make your own chart according to your garden zone and the instructions on each seed packet.
Plant your starts and start your seeds. You’re well on your way now!
Maintaining Your Garden
We all know plants need adequate light and water, so decide how you will give your plants both. If you start seeds indoors, you will most likely need an artificial growing light. For full instructions on how to make your own indoor growing stand with lights, click here.
If you are planting directly outdoors, you won’t have to worry about light, but you will need to make sure your garden gets enough water. If you have a small garden, you can water by hand. But a very large garden is more easily maintained with a drip irrigation system. What you decide on will depend on the size of your garden as well as the money and time you have to invest in it right now.
Be sure to give your plants adequate water, but don’t overwater either. Make sure the soil is well drained. In-ground and raised bed gardens tend to need more water than containers as container hold more moisture.
As well as water and sunlight, you will need to “feed” your garden from time to time. You can do this with a store-bought organic fertilizer like fish fertilizer or with homemade compost or even compost tea. Fertilize once every month or so by spraying a liquid fertilizer on the soil or adding organic, well-aged compost to the top of the soil and watering.
Weed & Pest Control
Ugh. Weeds and pests. The nemeses of every gardener everywhere. These are two not-so-pleasant side effects of gardening that you will inevitably have to deal with at some point, and if you are sticking to organic methods, it will involve more work and diligence on your part.
Dealing With Weeds
When it comes to weeds, you can lay down landscape fabric and/or mulch to help suppress them in the first place. Also, there are certain weeds that prefer more acidic or more alkaline soil, which means you can help to eradicate them by adjusting your soil’s PH balance by either adding things like coffee grounds to make your soil more acidic, or lime to make it more alkaline.
Short of that you’re pretty much stuck with hand weeding. It sucks, but it’s a part of gardening and it can be quite therapeutic once you get in the flow!
Controlling Pests Organically
As for pests, some of the best organic methods include:
- Soapy water (this works especially well on aphids)
- Eggshells (deters slugs and snails)
- Diatomaceous Earth (great for insects with an exoskeleton like ants and earwigs)
- Beneficial Nematodes (good for underground pests like wireworms and grubs)
- And of course the ol’ “hands-on” method (but who wants to be dealing with pests by hand when you’re busy weeding!).
Another excellent way to control pests is by using predators insects. Ladybugs, spiders and praying mantis’ are some of the best predators for pest control. You can even purchase ladybug eggs to introduce to your garden! I once caught a ladybug and put it on the stem of my parsley plant that was infested with aphids. I literally watched as it started devouring them and the rest of them ran and took cover. The next day, no aphids!
Again, talk to the experts at your local garden supply store about your specific weed and pest problems to get their recommendations on how to best control them organically.
End Of Season Gardening Tips & Tasks
So you’ve successfully made it through the gardening season and have some beautiful plants and produce to show for it. Hooray! Now what?
Well, an obvious first step is to harvest that goodness and enjoy it! There is nothing as satisfying as a homegrown tomato right off the vine:)
Of course, if you have too much produce to use fresh, your best bet is learning to preserve it. You can freeze, dry or can anything out of your garden to preserve it for use all year long.
For some tips and ideas on preserving, check out the Food Preservation section of this blog or invest in the best home canning book there ever was or ever will be (in my humble opinion): The Ball Complete Guide to Home Preserving.
This guide is like my canning bible. I’ve tried at least a couple dozen recipes from this book and every single one has been tasty and easy to follow. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone wanting to learn how to can or expand their home canning repertoire.
You might also want to save some seeds from your biggest, strongest, healthiest plants to replant next year (assuming you chose open-pollinated or heirloom seeds, right?).
Beans, peas, tomatoes and lettuce seeds are some of the easiest seeds to save. Just let the plant go to seed (if it’s a lettuce or kale plant, for example, it will bolt and grow flowers which will eventually dry out and produce seeds), take the seeds from inside the tomatoes, wash and allow them to dry out or allow the bean or pea pods to dry out completely on the vine and then open them up and take out the seeds.
It’s always a good idea to save seeds from your best, highest-yielding plants so that you can grow them again the following year, save money on buying seeds and create your own little seed bank at home to increase your self-reliance that extra step. And the longer you save your seeds, the more likely they are to eventually be passed down through the generations. Maybe you’ll even create an heirloom seed!
Putting Your Garden to Bed for the Winter
While you may or may not decide to grow a fall crop (remember the basics of crop rotation if you do), at some point you will need to put your garden to bed for the winter.
- Be sure to pull all plants out of the garden, mulch and compost the healthy ones and discard any diseased plants (do not compost).
- Add some compost or fertilizer to your soil in the fall so it has time to seep into the soil and add nutrients back in.
- Decide whether to grow a cover crop. Cover crops help to manage soil erosion, control weeds and pests and even aerate and fertilize the soil. You might choose something like alfalfa or clover to sprinkle over your garden over the fall and winter.
- Consider using hoop houses to keep your soil warm (this can allow for early planting in the spring), help keep weeds at bay and possibly even grow a few cold-hardy plants throughout the winter months. Check out the following link for full instructions on How to Build a Quick & Easy DIY Hoop House.
- And remember to put your tools away! Don’t let your garden tools rust or your watering cans break if they fill with water in the rainy season and then freeze and burst in the winter (can you tell this has happened to me?)
Put everything away in your shed, garage or greenhouse and button it up for winter. Then crack a jar of home preserved goodness and eat it with a spoon as you take a well-earned break and dream of garden seasons to come.
After all, once you start dreaming about gardening or get giddy at the arrival of a seed catalogue, that is the true marker that you’ve officially earned your status as a home gardener. All the rest will come with time:)