The goal of a vegetable garden is to produce fresh food. The goal of an organic vegetable gardener is to use organic products and smart strategies to manage the problems and challenges that are an inevitable part of gardening. A productive organic garden is a thriving ecosystem that supports healthy plants from planting through harvest. Whether your organic vegetable garden is a single pot, a few raised beds, or an in-ground plot, the best defense is a good offense. Here are a few essential products and tools that will encourage your organic garden to flourish and produce.
Excellent Garden Soil
Most experienced gardeners have had years to build up rich, fertile soil that looks and feels like a handful of crumbled chocolate cake. The rest of us can catch up quickly by purchasing organic garden soil to form or supplement our plots, beds, and containers. We need a high-quality product that provides the right amount of organic matter, good structure for water retention and air circulation, and a balance of nutrients that can sustain a thriving ecosystem of beneficial soil life. Everyday dug-up yard dirt can’t fill the bill, but we can improve our beds with Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All Purpose In-Ground Soil and fill our pots with Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All Purpose Container Mix. Investing in soil is the smartest money (and time) a gardener can spend. Healthy soil means healthy plants that are better able to resist pests and disease, reducing the need for harmful insecticides.
Yes, compost happens. It occurs naturally when leaves, grass clippings, animal manure, and other organic matter breaks down into rich, dark, earthy compost that works wonders to hold in moisture and feed both plants and the teeming life that’s the mark of a healthy garden: not only plants, but also microorganisms, beneficial insects, pollinators, and earthworms that naturally aerate the soil and leave behind worm casings. Many gardeners create and maintain their own compost, but if you’re in short supply, you can purchase compost and other organic soil amendments, but make sure it’s intended for use on vegetable gardens.
It not only reduces weeds, it helps hold in vital ground moisture. It’s tempting to pile it on, but a 1- to 2-inch layer is usually enough. For an organic vegetable garden, use mulch made from material that adds organic matter to your garden soil as it breaks down and decomposes over time. Look for mulch designed for vegetable gardens, which is different from the wood chips used in landscaping.
Unless your garden soil is exceptionally rich and robust, your seeds and transplants will likely need extra nutrition when they are planted and perhaps a few more times during their growth cycle. To keep things simple, you can use a well-balanced, all-purpose organic fertilizer that contains the major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, usually designated as NPK on the label) plus micronutrients. Many gardeners advise using a slow-release granular fertilizer before planting, followed up later with a water-soluble liquid fertilizer that gives plants a quick boost as they grow. Read the labels to decide which fertilizers are best for your garden and heed their advice on how much to apply. Take a look at Miracle-Gro Performance Organics, available in granules and in water-soluble form, including an easy-to-use dispenser to thread onto your garden hose.
Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All Purpose Plant Nutrition, $7 at amazon.com
It can be a lot of fun to buy gardening gadgets, but focus on the tools that will actually help you complete tasks safely and efficiently. You might need only a few hand tools to tend pots or small gardens. Think about what you’ll need to loosen soil, dig small holes, and remove weeds, perhaps a trowel, forked cultivator, and twist fork. For larger gardens, you might need to add a few long-handled tools that help protect your back, such as a hoe and rake. Also pick up a sturdy pair of garden shears or snips to tackle tasks such as removing tomato suckers, light pruning, and harvesting. Ordinary household scissors might work in a pinch, but it’s best to keep a dedicated pair of shears or garden snips in the toolbox, and keep them sharpened to minimize plant damage. Invest in well-made, durable basics that will work as hard as you do, and add specialty tools only when (and if) you learn that you need them. Don’t forget great gloves. Our hands are our best gardening tools and they’ll need protection. Choose sturdy gloves that fit well. Bulky or poor-fitting gloves interfere with dexterity and grip, and can either slip off or rub blisters. Longer cuffs protect wrists and forearms, and are less likely to fill with dirt and water. Breathable, water-resistant gloves are often the most comfortable, and some brands are made from high-tech sports fabric, ensuring function, fit, and good looks.
Fiskars Ergo Trowel, $8 at amazon.com
Radius Garden 103 Ergonomic Aluminum Hand Cultivator, $16 at amazon.com
Fiskars Softouch Hand Weeder, $15 at amazon.com
Steel Bypass Pruning Shears, $9 at amazon.com
Latex Coated Work Gloves, $17 at amazon.com
Water Hose and Adjustable Nozzle
You might be able to hand-water a small container garden, but most gardeners rely on at least one hose. Consider the size and shape of your garden, and its need for water, when shopping. Your hose must reach from the spigot to all corners of the garden, so estimate length before you shop. Also consider hose diameter; narrow hoses carry about 9 gallons per minute, while larger hoses can carry up to 25 gallons per minute. (However, the longer the hose, the lower the water pressure since the water must travel farther.) A heavy-duty hose is durable and resists kinking, but they are heavy and can dislodge or knock over delicate plants as you move through your garden. A softer, lighter, self-coiling hose might be easier to handle, even though it might need to be replaced more often. You’ll need an adjustable nozzle that lets you control the pressure and radius of the spray. Compare nozzle triggers, because some styles are more comfortable to hold and easier to squeeze. Long, wand-style nozzles can extend your reach by several feet, both up and out. If you have several raised beds or a larger in-ground plot, consider investing in soaker hoses or drip lines to send water directly to the roots and minimize pooling and run-off.
Heavy Duty 10 Pattern Metal Watering Nozzle, $17 at amazon.com
Some plants will need support as they grow, to keep them from breaking and to corral their roaming ways. Giving plants that vine a place to grow up instead of out is also a smart way to maximize space, and looks pretty too. Depending on which vegetables you’re growing, you might need stakes, garden twine or ties, trellising, cages, or other support structures. Read the plant tags or seed packets to get an idea of what to expect in terms of growth.
Great Pots, Not Just Cute Ones
Select the containers as carefully as the plants themselves, and be sure to match the pots to the plants. While it’s true that almost anything that can hold soil can serve as a planter, some containers are more serviceable and practical than others. Think about capacity and consider the plant’s mature size, including height, weight, and root system. Most vegetables prefer large containers that hold water well and stay moist longer, but fast-growing herbs that like to dry out a bit between waterings can do fine in smaller containers. Terra cotta breathes well, but tiny pots might dry out too quickly. Metal holds water well, but absorbs heat like crazy on blistering days. Plastic also holds water well, but some food gardeners have concerns about the plastic breaking down and leaching into the soil over time, and prefer to use containers with recycling codes 1, 2, 4, or 5 stamped on the bottom (indicating plastic that is approved for food storage) or those made from newer types of compostable material made from renewable sources. Wheeled trolleys and plant stands are a great help when moving heavy, unwieldy pots.
Many insecticides and fungicides aren’t options for organic gardens. If you need help, try neem oil, which is a safe, non-toxic, plant-derived control for many insects, mites, and diseases. It’s safe to use on food. That being said, read the usage instructions on the label.
Neem Oil, $16 at amazon.com
Top-Notch Seeds and Healthy Transplants
Starting with high-quality organic seeds and/or robust transplants that will grow in your garden spot is essential to organic gardening, because you can’t force a healthy plant to grow in the wrong spot (or get a sick plant to grow at all) without tons of chemical invention and support. Look for seeds with a USDA organic certification or purchase seeds from seed-savers and fellow gardeners who adhere to green growing practices. When buying transplants, look them over carefully to ensure they are healthy and ready to grow, with sturdy stems and verdant leaves. Although early blossoms might seem like a promising start, they can be a sign of stress in an immature plant. Try to buy transplants in small pots (4 inches or larger) instead of tiny plastic six packs where the soil is too often skimpy and dry, which can starve the delicate rootlets. Examine the underside of the leaves for signs of disease or pests, because you don’t want to bring any of that back home with you. In addition to plants that grow vegetables, consider adding companion flowering plants that will attract beneficial insects (such as pest eaters) and pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) to your garden. Both are vital to the success of an organic garden, where pests are managed instead of eradicated.