10 Ways to Start Organic Gardening Now

We’ve had so many people joining the ranks of organic gardeners in the past couple of years. Folks are becoming interested in where their food comes from, stretching their budgets, becoming concerned for the environment, or just trying to make the tastiest meals. Unfortunately, not everyone concludes that they’d like to start a garden during the spring. When I first read about organic gardening and local food, it was fall, and it was tough to feel like I had to wait all winter to start on this new venture. Thankfully, if you’ve just decided to start organic gardening, you don’t have to wait. Here are 10 ways you can start an organic gardening right now.

Start a Compost Pile

Compost is one of the best ways to build healthy soil, and you can start a compost pile any time of year. Add fall leaves, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, and more to your pile. Check out our post, Black Gold, for complete instructions.

Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are another great way to build up your soil in preparation for a new garden. While it’s too late to plant most vegetable crops, you can still sow a few fall cover crops. Learn more about how and what to grow with our post, Cover Crops for Beginners.

Build a Raised Bed

Raised beds can be easier to manage for new gardeners and allow you to grow food in areas with poor or even no soil. Getting one set up this fall will save you stress in the spring!

Start a Lasagna Garden or Hugelkultur Mound

Another type of garden you can start is a lasagna garden or hugelkultur mound. Both methods allow you to build up your soil and create beds without tilling. Lasagna gardens are made of just a couple of layers. First, you lay down cardboard to kill the grass, followed by a layer of organic material, usually hay, but leaves, grass clippings, and straw can also be incorporated. Then you cover this with several inches of finished compost or manure. The manure will need to break down longer before you can plant.

Hugelkultur mounds are similar but have an additional layer. You begin by laying down woody material such as sticks, branches, or even logs. The larger and fresher the material, the longer it will take to break down. Then you add a layer of nitrogen-rich material like grass clippings or manure to help encourage the woody material to decay. Follow this with a layer of soil and a layer of mulch. Check out our post, How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed, for more information.

Organic Garden (start organic gardening)Get a Soil Test

A soil test is a great place to start for any new gardener and will help you avoid many issues. Healthy plants start with healthy soil, and a test will tell you critical information, like if your soil is too acidic or missing vital nutrients like phosphorus. 

Do Your Research

There’s a lot of information about organic gardening, and while you’ll still make some mistakes, it can be beneficial to learn as much as possible before starting a garden. Some of our favorite resources include:

Plant Garlic & Onions

I said there weren’t many vegetable crops to plant his time of year, but there are a couple! Fall is when we plant our garlic and onions. You can start garlic, multiplier onions, and shallots from sets. Start bulb onions from seed in a cold frame or hoop house to ensure they get plenty of time to bulb up before next summer gets too hot.

Plant Fall Flowers

You can also plant many flowers during the fall. Fall bulbs like tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and oriental lilies are popular choices. You can also sow cold hardy seeds like coneflowers, sweet peas, violas, and Larkspur. Our post, Spring Flowers: Fall Sowing, discusses overwintering flowers.

Begin Collecting Supplies

While you can start an organic garden with almost nothing, a few tools make it much more manageable. Watch yard sales or thrift shops for basic tools like a shovel, watering can, garden fork, and trowel. You can also watch fall sales on hoses and irrigation supplies.

You can also try to score free organic matter for your garden and compost pile. Ask friends and neighbors to save grass clippings or leaves for you. Be sure that these aren’t from lawns sprayed with herbicides!

Plan your seed list early and order early to ensure you get the varieties you want. Thankfully there are many great small seed companies you can support; we have a few of our favorites listed on the website if you are looking for something we don’t carry. 

Check Your Hardiness Zone

Especially if you plan to add perennials to your garden, you’ll want to check on your hardiness zone. You can use this information to purchase perennials like fruit trees that will thrive in your area. 

Don’t wait until spring to start organic gardening. There are many ways to get started this fall that will help you have a productive summer!


Cover Crops for Beginners

We’ve mentioned cover crops in many articles on the blog before. These humble plants are an integral part of organic farming with many benefits for gardens, big and small. Today, we’ll take a deeper look into cover crops and how to use them for beginners.

Why Should I Grow Cover Crops?

There are many different types of cover crops which are all grown for specific reasons. Cover crops prevent erosion, decrease weed pressure, add organic matter to the soil, add nitrogen, and retain soil moisture. They also help provide food and habitat for beneficial insects and microorganisms. 

Choosing Cover Crops

As I mentioned above, there are many different cover crops. Generally, we can divide them into a few different categories by the primary purpose they serve in your crop planning.

Nitrogen Fixers

Nitrogen fixers are plants with a symbiotic relationship with bacteria known as Rhizobium. These bacteria colonize the nodules on the plants’ roots and allow the plant to take nitrogen from the air and use it. When these plants die or are cut back and added to the soil, they add nitrogen. Some nitrogen fixers include:

  • Red Clover
  • Crimson Clover
  • White Dutch Clover
  • Sunn Hemp
  • Hairy Vetch
  • Austrian Winter Peas
  • Iron and Clay Southern Peas
  • Alfalfa

All of the clovers are excellent for attracting bees to your garden. Perennial white dutch clover is a great choice for permanent garden pathways and can be mowed and used as mulch around plants. 

Austrian winter peas are a great winter option in zone 6 and up. Their shoots are edible and make excellent additions to winter salads. On the other hand, massive sunn hemp plants are day-length sensitive and do best as a summer cover crop. It thrives even during drought and is excellent for suppressing nematodes. 

Deep Rooted Cover Crops

Cover crops with large or deep roots are essential in areas with heavy clay or compacted soils. These large rooted crops help break up hard pans, add pockets for air and water, and add organic matter. A couple of our favorites are:

  • Deep-Till Radishes
  • Alfalfa

Deep-Till radishes produce large, fast-growing roots for aeration and breaking up compacted soils. They also have biofumigant properties, which are excellent for suppressing diseases and pests. They winter-kill in areas where temperatures reach below 20°F. 

Alfalfa is a nitrogen fixer with deep roots and is good at gathering water and nutrients from deep in the soil. It will add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Plus, it’s very cold-hardy, making it perfect for early spring or late fall plantings. 

Buckwheat (cover crops)Grasses & Mulchers

The main job of these cover crops is to produce a lot of organic matter. They form a ground cover that helps prevent soil erosion and gathers nutrients from the soil. They make excellent mulch in no-till systems and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil as they decompose. Some great options include:

  • Hulless Oats
  • Winter Rye
  • Wheat
  • Buckwheat

Rye is a good choice if you’re looking for a winter cover crop. It has an extensive root system for improving soil structure, suppressing weeds, and enhancing soil life. It’s also able to stabilize excess nitrogen from heavy manure applications. A combination of rye and vetch is a favored cover crop for no-till tomato planting. 

Buckwheat is the best choice when you want something fast, producing a green manure crop in 30 to 45 days! It’s great for out-competing weeds and providing mulch for fall crops when planted in midsummer. The little white flowers attract beneficial insects, including parasitic wasps. 

Growing Cover Crops

Cover crops can be grown year-round. It’s a good idea to plan to leave your soil bare as little as possible. Sow cover crops in beds as soon as others are finished, whether that’s the middle of summer or fall. You can also use cover crops to provide sections of your garden with a needed boost of nutrients or organic matter or to suppress pests and diseases.

Knowing when you want to plant will help you determine which cover crop is appropriate for your situation. Some cover crops like winter rye, hairy vetch, and Austrian winter peas make excellent winter cover crops when planted in the fall. Other crops like buckwheat or sunn hemp will perform much better for summer crops. 

Once you’ve decided on a variety, you should follow the seeding instructions. It’s essential to follow the recommended seeding rates. Seeding your crops too thinly won’t achieve the desired benefits. 

Terminating Cover Crops

This step may sound scary, but it just means you’re ending the cover crop’s cycle so that you can plant something else. This process is typically done by mowing, weed whacking, scything, or tilling. In a no-till system, you can often use the material as a mulch and transplant it right into it or rake some back for direct seeding.

Typically, you should terminate cover crops before they go to seed. However, sometimes you may decide to let a quick-growing crop like buckwheat go to seed and grow again. Remember that you may have to continue to weed it out for a while after this; cover crops are good at suppressing weeds because they’re a bit weedy in nature themselves!

Winter Kill 

Nature also lends a helping hand for certain fall-planted cover crops. Those crops that are sensitive to frost or cold temperatures will winter kill and begin decomposing into the soil on their own. Some no-till farmers will plant directly into this crop residue in the spring.

Growing cover crops is quite simple and has many benefits. This fall, try growing cover crops in your garden to add nutrients and organic matter, reduce erosion, and encourage beneficial insects and soil organisms. 



10 Tips for Root Crops

Root crops are a valuable part of the fall garden. They thrive in cool autumn weather and provide fresh vegetables when there’s no tomato or cucumber in sight. Although many are easy to grow vegetables, root crops can have issues like any other crop. Here are a few tips to help you succeed with root crops this fall or next spring.

Tips for All Root Crops

There’s an incredible variety of root crops, but there are still some tips that will help you have success with all of them. Whether you’re growing carrots, radishes, or rutabagas, try to follow these recommendations for the best results.

Improve your soil.

As root crops grow underground, they perform best in areas with loose, friable soil. While there certainly are some varieties, like Chatenay Red Core Carrots, that handle heavy clay soils better than others, improving your soil as much as possible will make a big difference. 

Use a garden fork or broad fork to lift and loosen the soil each time you plant. You should also add a couple of inches of finished compost, and if you have heavy clay soil, it’s advisable to work in some leaf mold or peat moss.

Keep the soil moist during germination.

Root crops seeds will germinate much better when the soil is consistently moist. Use a watering can or hose attachment with a fine spray to prevent disturbing tiny seeds. 

Thin crops as needed.

It may seem like a waste, but root crops generally perform much better when they’ve got room to grow. Avoid ending up with just the tops because you were too sentimental to pull the extras.Salsify (root crops)

Tips for Specific Root Crops

Root crops all have specific requirements. Here’s a tip or two for each type.

Use cardboard or boards for germinating carrots.

Carrots germinate best in cool, moist soil. If it’s still hot and you’re sowing carrots for fall, try using the board or cardboard trick. After planting, water in your rows and cover them with boards or cardboard. Check the carrots each day and immediately remove the boards when they begin to sprout. 

Spread wood ashes or lime before sowing beets.

Beets grow best when the soil pH is between 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime or wood ashes to your bed before planting for the best harvest.

Add radish seeds to lines of parsnips.

Parsnip seeds may take 2 to 3 weeks to germinate. To prevent soil crusting and mark the location, add a few radish seeds, which germinate quickly.

Use diatomaceous earth on your turnips.

Flea beetles and aphids can be an issue with turnip crops. If you’re noticing either of these pests, try dusting the row with diatomaceous earth (DE), an organic pesticide made from the fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms. 

Thin rutabagas within a month.

While some root crops will tolerate minor crowding when young, rutabagas won’t. Thin your rutabagas within a month of sowing, or they won’t bulb properly. 

Avoid planting fall radishes in the spring.

Not all radishes are the same. There are spring (salad) radishes like Cherry Belles and Easter Eggs and fall radishes like Black Spanish and Misato Rose. Don’t plant fall radishes in the spring because they’re day-length sensitive. 

Harvest salsify and parsnips after a frost.

Both salsify and parsnips will do just fine with a bit of frost and can be kept in the ground through winter in many areas. Both of these roots will have better flavor after the frost, so it’s best to harvest late.

Using these tips can help improve the yield of your root crops. Use these when planting your fall garden, or keep them in mind next spring. 

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