Organic endeavor: Don’t get overwhelmed in your natural efforts in your garden

Courtesy photo/ Intercropping can confuse pests and lessen insect damage in some cases.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Having a biology or botany degree might be helpful to go organic in your backyard garden. But for those who don’t have science educations, don’t get overwhelmed in your quest to use natural products and methods when growing vegetables, local experts say.

“It’s never easy growing things organically,” said Tom Ford, a senior Penn State University extension agent for the area. “But it’s easier than it was 10 to 15 years ago.”

A growing interest in organic gardening prompted the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Monastery Community Gardens to host a community class led by Ford earlier this week.

“Start small. Don’t get overwhelmed,” said Jim Yeager, who manages food production at the Monastery Gardens that supplies fresh produce for local food banks. “And keep a journal of everything, including the weather.”

Yeager noted that the Monastery Gardens is not certified organic — that requires a lot of paperwork and expense as required by the National Organic Standard adopted in 2002. But he said using organic principles helps make growing food sustainable by working with nature as much as possible.

Ford said many conventional garden techniques are important steps in organic gardening, and the first is simply figuring out the best place for your patch.

A good site receives at least six hours of full sun every day and has good drainage. Don’t plant too close to your neighbor’s manicured, weed-free lawn, an indication that he uses synthetic herbicides. And test the quality of the soil to determine whether it is too acidic or is lacking in certain nutrients; the Blair County Extension Office at the Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg has a basic soil kit for $9, Yeager said.

Even if you get the soil right, it can be hard to maintain because plants use up nutrients. And then there are disease and pests to contend with. But there are techniques that naturally replenish nutrients and combat problems, Ford said.

Rotate, rotate, rotate

Crop rotation is one of the oldest tools in a farmer’s shed, with George Washington Carver teaching farmers in the mid-19th century the benefits of the systematic approach that helps manage soil fertility and helps avoid or reduce problems with soil-borne diseases and soil-dwelling insects.

Ford said this philosophy applies to the smallest backyard garden today.

For example, crops that require high nitrogen levels are leafy vegetables, tomatoes and corn; high phosphorous crops include pod and fruit crops; and high potassium crops are root crops. Legumes, such as peas and beans, actually add nitrogen to the soil, but need more phosphorous. So if you plant the same crop — or one in the crop’s “family” — in the same plot year after year, you will use up particular nutrients, Ford said.

Supplementing crop rotation by planting cover crops in the off-growing season can be beneficial, he said.

Cover crops

Ford said legumes make great cover crops because they are heavy in nitrogen.

“You can spend 33 cents to $55 for a chemical nitrogen,” he said, noting that the popular Miracle Gro runs about $5 a pound. But “if you use legumes, … you may be able to produce all the nitrogen you need for your crop. It’s called nutrient budgeting.”

Ford said winter rye and clover are other examples of good cover crops. Besides preventing erosion — and the washing or blowing away of valuable top soil — they can enrich the soil’s organic matter.

“You never, ever, ever want to leave a field uncovered over the winter,” he stressed.

Ford said a lot of pumpkin farmers plant rye in their fields, but instead of harvesting it, they roll it over to one side and plant pumpkins in the middle. The rye helps smother weeds.

Cover crops provide other side benefits, such as hay, which can be fed to animals, straw that makes a great mulch, and crimson clover, which is simply beautiful, he said.

Yellow mustard is a popular cover crop among Amish farmers in the area, in part, because it has an organic compound that naturally controls certain nematodes, according to Ford. It’s also a quick grower, but if you don’t want weeds in your garden later, it should be harvested before the flowers bloom. Or, like the Amish, let them bloom to attract bees and beneficial insects to your garden, Ford said.

A budget hint: Ford said many area Amish produce farmers sow fields of pickling spice because it’s cheaper than a bag of mustard seeds.

Ideally, crops are rotated every fourth planting, he said. Here is one example: Plant beans, cabbage and broccoli first, followed by sweet corn and then tomatoes, peppers and cantaloupes, and small grains on the fourth rotation.

Planting complementary plants next to each other in narrow strips also takes advantage of the predator-parasite relationship. For example, buckwheat attracts parasitic wasps whose larvae consume aphids, spiders and other pests.

“Most bugs are not bad, maybe 1 percent,” Ford said. So indiscriminate pesticide spraying kills the beneficial insects.

There are some insect soaps and oils that are natural repellents to some bugs, and “If nothing else, hit it with a hose,” Ford said.

Feeding the food

Ford said the use of manure as a natural fertilizer can be scary due to food safety concerns, such as salmonella and E. coli. It should be applied 120 days prior to a crop harvest, and some experts think it should be 270 days.

“That is nine months,” he said. “You have to scrutinize the use (of manure) for food safety.”

Additionally, the long-time use of manure can lead to a buildup of excess phosphorous.

“The pH is critical, regardless of whether you’re gardening organically or traditionally,” Ford said.

Composting is becoming a more popular organic fertilizer than manure, Ford said, but from a food-safety issue, compost that hasn’t been turned regularly can be as risky as manure.

Ford said there are many natural ways to deal with weeds, including heat and barriers, such as a row cover, sticky traps and, today, Mylar mulch covers, which are a double-whammy: They also disorient aphids, he said.

Disease prevention

In dealing with diseases in produce, it’s a matter of prevention, Ford said.

“Select disease-resistant plants and know that a lot of heirloom varieties don’t have the best disease resistance,” he said.

Other tips: Space plants as wide apart as possible for better air movement; always water in the morning; only water tomato plants at their base; get plants off the ground with a trellis or stake; and use good weed control.

Organic products

Ford said there are lot of organic fertilizers and pesticides on the market, just not locally.

“They should should be widely available but mass merchandisers in Blair County don’t carry them,” he said. “The higher the educational attainment, the higher the likelihood that someone demands organic. You have a better chance of finding these in State College, but it’s difficult in Blair County.”

But he still thinks that by using basic natural principles, “You can be pretty successful.”


Resources: The Penn State Extension Service has a number of online resources at