Knowing the basics behind organic gardening can put you on the right path to creating your own Eden. All you need is patience, a willingness to get muddy -- and these 10 quick tips.
Before planting anything, first determine the measure of acidity or alkalinity (known as pH) of your soil with a home testing kit. For most vegetables, the magic number is 6.5. Too acidic (on the low end of the 0-to-14 scale) or too alkaline (on the high end) and your plants won't be able to access the soil's nutrients. Boost your pH with a line spread, found at garden stores, or lower it with powdered sulfur. Seedlings can then be planted straight in the ground.
If you lack a backyard, stick to containers. With the exception of some root crops and asparagus, most vegetables grow just fine in them. Tomatoes, green onions, peppers, beans, lettuce, and squash all fare particularly well.
Look for varieties bred to grow in confined spaces, such as Patio tomatoes, Topcrop green beans, and Bibb lettuce. As for what size container you need, Michael Guerra, permaculture expert and author of "The Edible Container Garden", suggests using large ones (think whiskey barrel), which allow for companion planting (more on that in a moment) and greater reserves of food and water. Small pots dry out quickly and don't allow space for roots to grow. Whatever size you choose, make sure the container has holes at its base to allow for drainage.
A raised bed is the way to go if your existing soil isn't up to snuff. Construct your bed in any shape you like, using materials like brick, untreated wood, or stone as a border. Don't make the bed too wide (you need to reach the middle), and be sure the border -- and therefore the depth -- is 16 inches high to allow roots to grow. Fill the bed with soil and compost.
When placed in proximity, some plant actually help their neighbors grow by enriching the soil and repelling pests, which helps you avoid fertilizers and pesticides.
Legumes, such as peas and beans, convert atmospheric nitrogen (one of the chemical elements necessary for plant growth) into a form that nearby crops can use. Culinary herbs (chives, basil, mint) and vegetables like onions emit a heavy fragrance that can distract or repel pests away from your veggies. Other flowering plants, such as marigolds, can be toxic to unwanted insects. Companion plants, especially the nectar-rich kind such as sunflowers, can attract beneficial insects as well. These "good bugs," which include ladybugs, lacewings, and ground beetles, feast on the "bad bugs" (slugs, aphids, mites) that can destroy your plants.
While you want to plant a little more than you'll need -- garden pests, disease, or poor germination may cut into your harvest -- overdo it and you'll have too much on your plate. A zucchini plant, for instance, can produce 3 to 9 pounds of fruit in a single season, and while this vegetable is indeed delicious, there's only so much of it you (or your family and neighbors) can eat.
Of course, if you're the plan-ahead type, you'll want to freeze or can your produce so it will last through the winter.
A soaker hose, which has small pores that allow water to gently seep out, provides an effective, eco-friendly way to satisfy thirsty plants. It conserves water (which goes directly in the dirt rather than evaporates into the air) and keeps plant leaves dry, making them less susceptible to fungus. If you use a regular garden hose, be sure to soak the soil thoroughly, aiming for the ground, not the foliage. Water in the morning or late afternoon instead of midday, when the sun is highest, as most of that water will evaporate.
Reuse rainwater with these barrels made from trash cans. Placed underneath your home's downspout, a rain barrel can help conserve water (and money) by capturing rain runoff from the roof. You can then use that water for the garden. You'll find a variety of barrels available online; look for ones that have a spigot. Or, make your own from large plastic trash containers. You can purchase a pump to help deliver the water through your hose, or a tap to fill your watering can.