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Grow your garden green

by Maryjane Butters
| April 25, 2010 9:00 PM

It's getting to be that time again, isn't it? Suddenly, gardening is no longer a far-off winter fantasy. It's here, it's now. Time to get growing! As you know, I am a firm believer in growing anything - and everything - organically. No synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic farming is all about creating balanced soil that supports good bugs, worms and microbes. The idea is that healthy soil leads to healthy, productive plants. And healthier plants produce the best food imaginable.

Fertilizer facts

So what's wrong with the synthetic fertilizers? There are a couple of different ways in which chemical growth-boosters do more harm than good. First of all, they often contain ammonium and unbalanced levels of other minerals, all of which are toxic to beneficial soil organisms. Such fertilizers also tend to leach away and pollute water systems.

What's more, synthetic mixes leave out nutrients and trace elements that plants need for optimal growth. High levels of nitrogen and low levels of trace minerals force fast growth that results in weak plants. Ultimately, the weak structure of the synthetically fertilized plant and the imbalance of the soil invite no-good insects and disease.

A fertilizer is supposed to enrich the soil and, in turn, stimulate plant growth. Organic fertilizers mimic natural fertilizers (like decaying vegetation). These fertilizers release nutrients more slowly, so plants won't suddenly grow like gangbusters and weaken in the process. Since organic fertilizers provide food for soil organisms that recycle and hold nutrients, plants grow steadily and produce fruits and veggies that are more naturally resistant to pests.

Nurture your garden naturally

A simple way to fertilize organically is to gather up grass clippings from an unsprayed lawn and scatter them in a layer about 1-inch thick throughout your garden. Allow clippings to dry before adding more layers. In addition to feeding the soil as it decomposes, the grass will prevent weed growth and help preserve moisture within the soil.

Another option in "green" fertilizing is a concoction called manure tea. It's liquid fertilizer at its finest, guaranteed to delight your garden. You can buy ready-to-brew manure "tea bags" from Haven Natural Brew (www.ahavenbrand.com), but if you're a frugal do-it-yourselfer, you can easily brew your own. Here's how:

Fertilizer tea recipe

Ingredients:

3 to 4 gallons of composted manure. If you don't have your own supply, you can buy organic composted manure like Sup'r Green Chicken Manure (www.stutzman-environmental.com).

30-gallon garbage can

Rake or broom

Pillowcase

Directions:

1. Place compost in the pillowcase.

2. Tie the pillowcase to a rake or broom handle, and lay the handle across the mouth of the 30-gallon trash can so the pillowcase hangs inside. Fill the can with water.

3. Let it sit for seven days. When the water is a dark brown color, your "tea" is finished.

4. Pour a cup of compost tea around the base of your plants every two weeks and put the leftover manure from your pillowcase "tea bag" into your compost heap or spread it around the base of a tree.

Note: When you're shopping for any kind of fertilizer or soil amendment, make sure to read the labels carefully. In the realm of fertilizers, there are more and more companies claiming their fertilizer is organic, but they contain ingredients like urea and bio-solids that are prohibited from use in organic farming. If an organic farmer were to use a fertilizer claiming to be organic and found out later it wasn't, their certification for organic food would be jeopardized. That's why organic farmers read labels carefully, but gardeners should also read fertilizer labels. To assure you're getting a product suitable for organic production, look for labels that list approval by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or National Organic Program (NOP).

Pesticide prevention

Because a naturally fertilized garden is heartier, it's more resistant to bugs, but no garden is pest-proof. Don't let the first sign of insect damage scare you into running for a bottle of pesticide, though. Common chemical pesticides like Carbaryl are nerve toxins that can be absorbed through the skin. Carbaryl has also been shown to have adverse effects on the reproductive system, kidneys, liver and lungs. Yes, there are toxins everywhere we turn, but why would anybody willingly handle such blatantly nasty stuff? Bugs aren't fun to battle, but then again, neither are the harmful results of chemicals.

The most natural solution is to become a vigilant gardener, patrolling your rows daily and plucking pests by hand. (They can be squashed on site or dropped into a bucket of soapy water.) Make sure to familiarize yourself with which insects are beneficial to your plants so that you only attack the offenders. A great resource for garden insect identification is "The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control" by Barbara W. Ellis and Fern Bradley.

But if hand picking isn't a viable option for you, refer to the "Buyer's Guide for Organic Pest Control" at www.cleanairgardening.com/organicbuyers.html to find the best organic option for your particular crop.

Copyright 2010, MaryJane Butters. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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