Organic gardening and farming are becoming more popular as research describes the environmental problems created by nitrogen fertilizer overuse and pesticide-related health issues. Organic gardening is the oldest form of agriculture on earth, and it is easy to practice at home with a few techniques. Organic vegetables are thought by many people to have more intense flavor than nonorganic produce. Many local city and county recycling programs offer workshops on backyard composting (see Resources). Composting is the backbone of an organic garden and it is easy to learn.
Using a shovel, spread mature compost 1 inch thick over the vegetable garden area. For a 10-by-10-foot area, this will be 8 cubic feet of compost. The amount of compost needed depends on the soil condition in your garden. Good growing soil is neither too sandy nor too clayey. Compost may be left on top of the soil or worked in with a shovel. Its nutrients reach the plant roots either way.
Choose organic seeds with the USDA 100% Organic label. Organic seeds have not been genetically altered or subjected to chemical treatment. Many garden centers carry organic seeds.
Use companion planting designs to create an ecosystem of plants that are mutually beneficial when grown in close proximity. Corn and pole beans; squash and salad greens; tomatoes and onions are examples. Use French marigolds throughout the garden because they exude a chemical called thiopene that repels harmful insects.
Encourage birds, ladybugs and praying mantises to be a part of the garden. They eat harmful insects that can destroy vegetable plants. Lacewings and earwigs are also beneficial insects that eat aphids and cutworms. Preying mantises, birds and cats in the garden keep grasshoppers under control. Spread coffee grounds or Epsom salt around plants as a snail deterrent. Lava rock or nut shells also create a snail barrier.
Use nonchemical methods for insect and disease problems. Chemical sprays kill beneficial insects as well as harmful ones, leaving the garden vulnerable to disease. Use a spray made from weak compost tea as an all-purpose deterrent to harmful insects and disease. Make a spray for spider mites and aphids from garlic, chili pepper and dish soap.
Continue adding compost to the garden regularly. Use it as a side dressing on vegetables that need to be fertilized, such as tomatoes and squash. Add a shovel full of compost to each hole dug for a plant. After harvesting vegetables, allow the plants to wilt and die and then dig them into the ground. This is the "green manure" method of soil conditioning. Use compost as a mulch during hot summer months when water is scarce.