13 Mar Organic Terraces and Sustainable Balconies
Zachary Turck, Horticulture Instructor
Going organic is not just for farmers and health food junkies—it’s a choice many environmentally-conscious home gardeners make. Maybe your own consciousness is growing, and you’re wondering how you can wean your patch of greenery off of its chemical dependency. So what does the transition to organic look like in the home garden? Let’s go ahead and take a peek.
Gardeners of nearly every persuasion have a few elementary considerations:
1. Soil Management (Preparing and maintaining your plants’ growing medium)
2. Fertilization (Assuring necessary nutrients are accessible)
3. “Weed” Management (Limiting unwanted plants in competition with your choice plants)
4. “Pest” Management (Protecting your plants from harmful animals, insects, and diseases)
So, how might the urban lay gardener address these aspects of gardening from an organic approach?
Many urbanites lack a true yard space and therefore resort to a terrace, balcony, rooftop, or even fire escape full of containerized plants. One huge benefit of containers is a much greater ability to manage the soil conditions for your plants.
If you’re starting with fresh or empty containers, then you need not worry about testing, amending, or excavating existing soil. You can choose to start with quality soil and compost. Look for containers that are made of recyclable, natural materials. If ordering lumber for raised beds, specify that you need untreated wood.
If you’re already working with containers that have soil, do you know what kind of soil is in there? Do you know what’s been added to it? If you need a strictly organic growing medium, then you should get that soil tested (contact your local extension agency). Otherwise, depending on the quality of the soil and the size of the container, you’ll now either amend or completely substitute that existing soil with organic compost and quality potting mix.
Watch out for labeling—do your research on soil brands. The “OMRI Listed” label indicates an independent review of the product, qualifying it for use in organic production; this however does not always prove a higher quality soil compared to those who choose not to pay the extra fees associated
with exclusive labels. Quality soil, compost, manure, or mulch should have an earthy, slightly sweet smell—if it smells bad, it is bad.
What in-ground gardens will require in the transition to organic depends on the gardener’s needs.
For certified organic plant and food production, applications to the USDA must be made and their specifications followed rigidly. A USDA inspector will make sure you’re meeting the requirements.
Those who aren’t looking to take such drastic measures can start their organic garden by amending the existing soil with organic compost, manures, and topping off with an organic mulch (avoid dyed mulches) after planting a diverse arrangement of sustainably grown plants. Continue this process of soil amendment with organic matter season to season, year to year.
Testing the soil can be beneficial even for those who aren’t seeking organic certification. The soil test will show, among other things, which nutrients the soil has an abundance of, and which nutrients it’s lacking. A heavy metals test could also be beneficial and is an absolute must for edible gardeners.
OUR CHEMICAL ADDICTION
Most of us want lush, lavish plants. And so we tend to over-fertilize in general, thinking that this will make our foliage, flowers, and fruits as happy as they can be. When the plant is not looking quite as vibrant as it did during the summer, we fertilize. When a plant has a few yellow leaves, we fertilize. This can actually backfire on that well-intentioned gardener, causing much pain and suffering for them and their cherished plants. Over-fertilizing your plants, especially with a chemical fertilizer, can severely damage their health, causing the same symptoms you thought you were alleviating. Continuing this practice can indeed kill your plants—certain plants may overdose off of even one application of bad fertilizer.
SOIL TEST RESULTS AND FERTILIZER PACKAGES
Remember, a soil test will tell you your soil’s nutrient levels. Plants need a few basic nutrients— chiefly Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K). This is what the 3 numbers refer to
on your fertilizer package; it may read 10-10-10, 4-2-2, 5-10-10, etc. Read your test results and research what nutrients your plants need, then fertilize accordingly with an organic fertilizer.
WHEN TO FERTILIZE
As an organic gardener, you’ll be consistently adding organic matter to your soil. Compost, manures, organic mulches, and good ground covers will break down into the soil, replenishing nutrients continually and creating a healthy living environment for plants and other living organisms.
If you choose to use a concentrated organic fertilizer, then you should temper your applications a bit. Fertilize your annuals consistently throughout the summer; every 2-4 weeks is optimal. Your perennials don’t need as much. Fertilize them twice a year at most—once in the spring and another in fall is plenty. Do not fertilize your herbs, as over-fertilization may actually result in a less aromatic herb. Fertilize fruits and veggies liberally— fruits and fruiting veggies with a high phosphorous fertilizer, leafy vegetables with a high nitrogen fertilizer.
Organic gardeners look at weeds not as weeds; at worst, they are uninvited competitors, at best, they are soil indicators. Yes, observing which weeds prosper in your garden can tell you about the condition of your soil. See dandelions popping up everywhere? That can be an indication of an acidic soil. Plantain weed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Thistle all thrive in low fertility soil.
Sometimes these competitors come to bring a balance to your garden. Dandelion’s roots are strong and deep, which can help to aerate compacted soils. Some weeds attract beneficial insects, keeping pests in check. The various clover weeds all help to fix nitrogen in the soil.
Consider what purpose the weeds in your garden may be serving. Then look at which course of action will be most beneficial to your garden as a whole, and go forth! Should you pull that clover right away or let it stay for awhile? One way to cut down on the amount of weeds you’re pulling is mulch. Applying a thick layer of mulch around your plants a few times per year will
save your back from much bending. Cover crops are also a great way to eliminate unwanted competition. Chemical herbicides are obviously prohibited in organic gardening— let’s get more creative than that!
At least two mentality adjustments need to be made regarding pest management for those transitioning to organic principles:
1. Looking at all fungi, insects, and animals as pests; and
2. Going to your silver bullet insecticidal spray whenever you see an insect on your plant.
NATURE’S CHECKS AND BALANCES
The diversity of wildlife you observe in your garden are part of a larger ecosystem with checks and balances. Microorganisms feed larger organisms, which feed larger organisms, and so on. Deciding to drop a pesticide bomb (in the form of a spray, powder, etc) is going to disrupt this ecosystem severely, and in the long run will have negative effects on your garden and surrounding environment.
There are proactive things you can do when your plant is combating a pest or disease that don’t include the use of dangerous chemicals. If caught early enough, many insect infestations can be thwarted by handpicking or strategically spraying strong streams of water. For a more intense effort, there are also organic soaps and oils available. True organic geeks will even pick up beneficial insects to release on to an infested plant. For example, there are companies that breed Phytoseiulus persimilis, a predatory mite used in many greenhouses for the control of spider mites.
Now, Don’t Look Back
Organic gardening takes a ‘less is more’ approach, making the transition a fairly simple process. The most difficult, but most essential step necessary, will be the firm decision to boycott unnatural, synthetic inputs to the garden no matter what miracle they may purport to perform. Some gardeners choose to go organic 99% of the time, and only turn to inorganic weapons as a last resort. Still other gardeners go further than just organic gardening, with methods developed for further sustainability such as permaculture or biodynamic farming. Observe your garden and understand its needs. Talk to the experts here at Chelsea Garden Center and do any necessary research. It won’t be long before you’re tending your very own organic garden in the city!