Kick the chemicals out of your backyard shed and go organic! Making the switch to organic gardening is one of the many pledges you can make for this year’s Community Resilience Challenge, so we want to help you get started. If you’re new to the trade or just wary of pesticide-free gardening, it can be difficult to know where you should start. Truthfully, it takes years of trial and error to master the perfect formula for organic gardening in your yard, but we’ve put together a quick list of things you can do to get started down the path to a healthier, livelier garden.
Though permaculture is not the same thing as organic gardening, it is a timeless and extremely useful tool for anyone looking to more easily maintain an organic garden. It is simply a practice that aims to help anyone create a garden that sustains itself naturally.
The ultimate self-sustaining garden is one that supports the natural environment and works with it rather than against it. In his book The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture, Bay Area resident and teacher Christopher Shein states:
“Instead of relying on backbreaking work, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, the permaculture gardener uses methods that build healthy soil, smother weeds, and promote plant life, while recycling waste products from the garden.”
Gardeners that abide by permaculture principles follow the suggestions offered later in this article, and they do it all with a focus on caring not only for the health of their food, but also for the health of the Earth and for the people in their community. Many share excess bounty with neighbors.
As an example, permaculturists in California might plant more native varieties in and around their garden. California native plants are often more drought tolerant, which helps to reduce the amount of water needed to support a healthy ecosystem in which your vegetables can grow. They also attract local pollinators to your garden, which promotes the health of the greater environment. When you create a garden that conserves resources and supports local wildlife, you are helping to create a better environment for your neighbors to live in as well. Permaculture is truly a full-circle concept!
If you are new to permaculture and would like to learn more, check out Shein’s book mentioned above. He explains key permaculture principles in an easy-to-follow layout with beautiful pictures and diagrams. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden is also a popular permaculture guide, but with a bit more grit and hard facts.
If you are looking to plant more drought-tolerant plants in your garden, please consider native plants. The Markham Arboretum in Concord (native section of nursery pictured to the left) offers a huge variety of native plants as well as many other plants that do well in our Mediterranean climate. Their knowledgeable, passionate staff will gladly help you get the right information. To find out where else you can purchase native plants in the county, please visit the Bringing Back the Natives plant sales page for more information.
Improve Your Soil: Create a Healthier Home for Your Food
In order to go organic in your garden, you must know the health and makeup of your soil. First, become familiar with your soil type. Many local gardeners in the county notice a high concentration of tiny clay particles in their soil. To learn more about the minerals that make up your soil and how to conduct a soil composition test, check out this page.
The page linked above also goes on to explain that it’s important to know the pH of your soil. pH has an indirect effect on the health of your plants. It changes the form of different nutrients in the soil, therefore affecting the availability of important nutrients your plants need to grow and ultimately become healthier for you to eat. You can purchase a testing kit from your local nursery, or you can try doing it with common household items like vinegar and baking soda. Preparedness Mama offers two different strategies in her blog post.
As you test your soil for its mineral makeup and pH levels, make sure your soil is looking alive! Dark, loamy soil is ideal, because it usually indicates that there is a healthy level of humus, or organic material, in your soil. Organic matter is so important to soil health, because it helps retain a nice level of moisture and also absorbs and stores nutrients.
A great way to produce organic matter for your garden is by composting. Food waste makes up the majority of total waste in the country (KQED said in 2013 that California throws away a whopping 40 percent of its food), so by composting your own food scraps, you’ll truly be filling two needs with one deed. Here’s a great guide for beginners; it includes detailed instructions as well as a list of items you can put into your bin.
There are many different ways you can compost at home, and it often doesn’t require a ton of money or time to set up. Check out this page for a list of six methods. Vermicomposting is very popular in the Sustainable Contra Costa team, because it doesn’t require a ton of work, and worms are effective decomposers. Here’s a guide on vermicomposting.
Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority’s RecycleSmart provides a variety of reliable composting workshops and information to residents in its service areas (check their page for a list of cities). This month on the 20th, they are holding a composting class in Walnut Creek. Check their workshop page for a list of future events.
Ditch the Pesticides & Make Your Own!
Slowly work pesticides, rodenticides, insecticides, and other synthetic chemicals out of your garden. Though they can be effective, there are plenty of alternatives that work well to protect your vegetables without harming your soil or harming wildlife. Remember: what you spray on the ground does not necessarily stay in that spot! Check out the diagram below to see how pesticides cycle through our environment.
PETA provides a great list of DIY pest-free alternatives on their website. Whether or not protecting wildlife is a priority for you, it’s not a bad idea to run with the cruelty-free idea. If you are looking to employ permaculture principles into your gardening design, you’ll notice with some research that permaculture is all about working with the environment - which includes animals - rather than against it.
You also have the option to make your own ‘organic pesticides’ at home with ingredients you already have in your cupboard. SFGate shared a list of four simple DIY solutions. You can find a long list of other recipes on this page, which includes information on what pests are specifically being targeted. Before you make any of the solutions with soaps in them, make sure to check the back of the bottle or package first to make sure there are no ingredients that you wouldn’t want getting on your food. Castile soap can be pricey, but it’s an effective natural soap that comes in both liquid and bar forms.
If you are looking for more resources, we suggest you check out Parents for a Safer Environment. They are a Contra Costa-based group that advocates for a safe environment free of pesticides and other unsafe chemicals. Click around for information on pesticide use in the county, fact sheets, and more.
If you are looking to visit any of the native gardens and nurseries listed on the Bringing Back the Natives webpage, you can often find a well-informed staff member that can offer you more specific pesticides alternatives for the plants in your garden.
We hope this lists about smart and safe design, soil health, and pesticide alternatives will help you start making the transition to organic gardening. Remember: gardening is a process that takes time. Nobody masters it right away (even seasoned gardeners often face issues that have difficulties solving!) What steps are you looking to make this growing season?