One way to get more chemical-free food into your diet is to grow it yourself. Early spring is the perfect time to consider adding fruits or vegetables to your backyard garden. It’s also an opportunity to begin — or get better at — gardening organically.
As a backyard grower, you may not achieve the standard of “certified organic.” But you can take incremental steps toward that ideal each year. Here are a few to consider.
1. Test your soil. A basic soil kit will test your soil’s fertility, helping you select fertilizers and any necessary soil additives. You can also get soil tested for various toxins, such as heavy metals. This can be important if you live in an older home that may once have been painted with lead paint. Basic soil testing kits are available in garden stores, online and at agricultural extension services. For information about other tests, contact Penn State University’s lab ( www.aasl.psu.edu ) or the Rutgers Cooperative Extension (http://njaes.rutgers.edu/soiltestinglab/howto.asp).
2. Start with seeds. Organic, non-GMO seeds are widely available at local nursuries, large home supply chains and online, from specialty seed suppliers and even larger companies, such as Burpee. Some seeds can be sown directly into the ground. Check planting dates on seed packages. If you’re starting indoors, you’ll need to place your potted seeds on a table by a sunny window. Seeds do not need fertilizer; just place a few in each small container and keep moist. Once seedlings appear, you’ll need to separate and transplant them. At this point, you can add organic fertilizer. When tthe young plants are hardy enough, consider climatizing them by giving them a little time outside on warmer days. Follow seed package directions concerning the best time to transplant into the ground.
3. Use organic seeding soil. Your organic seeds should be planted in this light, grainy soil, which is easy to find at garden stores.
4. Plant organic starts (if possible). Seeds are tricky. You may get all you need from your seed starts. Or you may need to supplement with young plants started by a local farm or nursury. As demand for organic vegetable starts has grown, more local suppliers have caught on and started offering them. But many local suppliers will tell you that while their starts are not “certified organic,” they grow the plants themselves and don’t use pesticides. If you want to purchase ONLY organic starts, you may have to shop around a bit. Otherwise, use your judgement when buying. Be sure to let stores know that you prefer organic so they can consider demand when planning for next year.
5. Avoid tilling. While it somehow seems natural to turn over crusty soil each spring, tilling can actually do more harm than good. This age-old practice is known to stir up dormant weed seeds, giving gardeners a lot of work later in the season. It also can cause problems such as soil erosion and run off. So, rather than rigorously turning over your soil this year, just rake it gently, as needed.
5. Use organic soil additives and compost. Depending on what type of soil you have, you may need to consider various additives. Your soil can also benefit from the rich organic matter contained in compost. If you’re already composting kitchen scraps, this is your chance to put them to work. You can also buy organic compost at garden stores.
6. Use organic fertilier. Once plants are ready to get tucked into garden beds, it’s time to fertilze. There are numerous organic ferrilizers available . We’re partial to fish emulsion, but you may want to try others, depending on what your soil and veggies need.
7. Plan to weed. Yes, organic gardening can be labor-intensive. Some of the wooded areas on the Bucks County side of the river seem to attract particularly hardy weeds — and lots of them. Then again, weeding is time spent in the garden, something most gardeners look forward to each year.
If there were a number 8 to this list, it would be “enjoy the chemical-free, healthy, local, tasty food that you have worked so hard to grow yourself.” Number nine would be “keep learning.” There’s no shortage of great gardening informaton out there in books, online and from members of your community.