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Organic : Grow Your Own


These days, no matter where you live, it's rare that you can draw breath or take a sip or a bite without ingesting some chemical you wish weren't going into your body. My feeling is that so much that's harmful is being forced upon us unwittingly, we'd be fools to knowingly add more to the food we grow. That's why I began gardening organically--that is, without chemicals--out of self-defense.

Slow and steady wins the day with an organic garden, but be prepared to work hard. It starts with double-dug soil.

Unless you've inherited an old organic garden or a site where chickens or horses or rabbits were raised, you'll need to amend the soil with what will end up as humus. Humus is decomposed organic matter that is the quintessential ingredient when soil is called rich. Humus makes clay soils friable and sandy soils moisture-retentive, while promoting the health of microscopic creatures that promote the health of plants.

When starting an organic garden, test the soil with a kit from the nursery. That will give you an idea of what it needs.

For my garden, it began with manure. The soil was virgin decomposed granite. Not a weed grew in it. Every week for a spring, I'd go to the boarding school stables nearby and fill the station wagon with eight garbage bags full of old manure, which I dug into the soil.

Then I found a source of aged rabbit manure--incomparable stuff. My husband and I filled a pickup truck with the manure several times each spring and dug it in. Now, with our constant supply of compost and a few sacks of steer manure, redwood-soil amendment and mulch dug in each year, the soil is luscious.

Mulch is a thick layer you spread around plants when they're growing to keep down weeds, conserve moisture and add nutrients. Mulch can be compost or ground bark or spoiled straw or the black-and-white pages of newspaper. Dug into the soil at season's end, mulch adds humus.

Compost, of course, is humus you make yourself. Keep a big cookie jar at the sink, and instead of sending coffee grounds, tea leaves, egg shells and vegetable and fruit grunge from the refrigerator down the disposal, chop them up and drop them into the jar.

Every day or two, take the jar outside and spread the contents on what has become your compost heap--probably somewhere out of sight. Cover it well with earth to keep it from attracting flies and critters. As they become available, add layers of manure (fresh or aged), and everything soft and green from your garden except weeds (they may bear seeds that could produce more weeds).

You can water the heap or not (ideally keep it the consistency of a wrung-out sponge), and turn it or not (exposing materials to air helps them decompose faster). When it's three to four feet high, start another pile. In a few months, the old one will have sunk into a wealth of rich dark sweet-smelling crumbs.

Spread your compost over the soil as mulch, sift it (with a quarter-inch screen) and use it as a nursery bed for germinating seeds, and mix it into the planting holes of fruiting plants--squashes, tomatoes, peppers and such.

And don't forget worms. Every spring, buy cartons of small red and big brown worms at a fishing store and, in the evening, sprinkle them over your beds. Earthworms are the ne plus ultra of soil builders.

Although roots of some plants reach down four feet, if you create humus-y well-draining soil in the top 12 inches of your garden, that should be sufficient.

Should you have poor drainage-when you water (if it puddles for half an hour), while you're waiting for your soil to improve, consider the quick fix of raised beds. Build a box of redwood or cedar that's at least six inches above the ground. Fill it with a mix of soil and whatever amendments it takes to get good drainage (your county agricultural adviser can help you). If the soil is mounded in the bed, drainage is even better.

Or use containers, the ultimate instant garden. They're especially useful if you don't have soil in full sun and you're ravenous for, say, Hmong bitter orange eggplants. Or if you'd love to grow watercress, sow seeds in a pot and set it on a saucer under a barely dripping faucet in the shade. Everything you want can grow in a container.

Now, while you're getting the soil ready, plan your garden. Some people are happiest with a traditional patch, everything in rows, off in a corner. Some love the geometry of an Italian garden with brick paths and stately urns. Here in the mountains, ours is a melange of vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers chockablock in beds around a tiny lawn (my husband's pride) and up and down the hillside.

To make it easiest on yourself, choose plants that are naturally inclined to grow in your part of the world. Observe nearby plots and read books, gardening magazines and seed catalogues. If you live in the low desert, for example, you'll grow lettuces that stand up to heat; stifle daydreams of blueberries, and glory in the Temple tangors only you can grow well.

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