"HOW On Earth" – Published in Pink Magazine – April 2010


“To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.”…Wendell Berry

One of my favorite and life transforming classes at Temple University was entomology. This came as quite a surprise to me because if truth be told, up until this point, I had a phobia about “bugs”. I would scream at the sight of spiders and Japanese beetles really freaked me out. I thought this class was going to be a living nightmare. What I discovered was that the study of insects truly fascinated me. I became intrigued with their life cycles and adaptability. My real interest though developed during learning about pesticides, their development, and effects, not only on the intended insect but on us and our environment. As my knowledge increased, so did the size of my soap box. I became appalled at the discovery of what we were doing to our food supply and our waterways. By the end of the semester, I became an advocate and supporter of organic gardening. This was 25 years ago, and things have changed during this time. Today with everything going “Green”, organic products are widely available and a welcome alternative. I invite you this month to explore not only this method of gardening but also of living. I am passionate about nature and protecting its beauty and diversification. I believe organic gardening is an important step in achieving this dream.

What is organic gardening?

“ORGANIC GARDENING – the science and art of gardening by incorporating the entire landscape design and environment to improve and maximize the garden soil’s health, structure, texture, as well as maximize the production and health of developing plants without using synthethic commercial fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides.” Garden web

How do I incorporate organic gardening practices in my own garden?

This is where I think things really get exciting because it’s where knowledge of soils, plants, and pests provide tools to growing a healthy, vibrant, and thriving garden.

1. The key to successful gardening is in our soil.

It provides plants with nutrients, water and oxygen. Improving our soil structure increases water retention, supplies nutrients, reduces certain diseases and raises the population of beneficial microbes. We want a soil rich in organic matter and to achieve this I always add compost either in the form of mushroom or plant based composts and or animal manures. Animal manures need to be aged at least 4 months prior to being placed around plants or they may burn them. Soil is to plants what food is to our bodies. There is a vast difference if we live solely on nutrient devoid foods or consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.

2. Prevention is the next step.

Select Healthy Plants: I like to inspect my plants prior to purchasing, looking for any signs of stress, disease or pest problems. There is no sense bringing in a stressed plant into our garden even if it’s free.  Choose plants and varieties that are naturally pest and disease resistant. For example, the white flowering Hawthorns are not as prone to leaf spot as the pink blooming varieties.  Plant a diverse palette of material. This encourages beneficial insects to our gardens as well as reducing potential wide spread diseases.  Please remove unhealthy plants. I know this can be hard, letting go of a cherished living memory, but stressed plants attract more pests and diseases which can then spread to our healthy friends.  Proper cultural practices are essential. Knowing whether our plants want sun or shade, water requirements, salt tolerance, and growth habits are keys to growing a healthy plant.  Yes, cleanliness in a garden does help. Clean up any spent blossoms, magnolia leaves, or scale infested material. Remove debris from the base of plants as this can encourage rot and is a favorite place for insects to lay eggs. Also, let’s remember to clean our tools as they are a means to transport of disease from one plant to the next.  In our vegetable gardens, crop rotation is essential in discouraging certain diseases from taking hold. I also am a strong opponent of companion planting. I plant dill around my squash, marigolds around my tomatoes and allow self sowing plants such as borage, fennel and tithonia to live where they choose.

3. Okay, we have eaten right, taken preventative measures, but we have a problem. Now what?

The most important step we can now take is to first determine exactly what the problem is. If we were to fall and fracture our leg, taking a cold remedy would be of no help and taking 3 times the recommended dosage could be toxic. The same is true for treating our plants problems. I suggest taking a cutting to your local nursery, county extension agent, or landscape professional to identify the problem. It is not always easy. I myself enlist help on occasion to ensure I am treating the plant for the right ailment. Timing is also crucial and this is where an understanding of insect life cycles is helpful. We might see chewed leaves on our plants only to discover that the caterpillar has already left, on to his next stage in eventually becoming a butterfly. Lastly, how bad is the problem and what is the likelihood that it will worsen? When we do need a control, I like to start with the least toxic product and go from there. If available, try a product that targets the specific pest in question. Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) is an example of this with strains specifically aimed at controlling caterpillars or mosquitoes only. Pyrethrums, insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils are products that will control a wide range of insects specifically aphids, white fly and scale.

I have weeds everywhere, what can I do?

Mulching with a hardwood mulch at least 2-3 inches will greatly reduce weeds, help conserve water, and add nutrients to your soil as it decomposes. I prefer this to pinestraw because I believe it does a better job at weed control. Removing the palm fruits before they are allowed to mature into berries will greatly reduce those little palms from coming up everywhere in your yard. Organic herbicides include vinegar, citric acid and corn gluten.

What can I use to treat plant diseases?

Copper sulphate or when mixed with lime, Bordeaux mixture, is commonly used, but please use sparingly, it is toxic to our fish and it will build up in our soil over time. Baking soda and hydrogen peroxide may also help.

Is there a difference in fertilizers?

Synthetic fertilizers are high in salt content which not only dehydrates our plants but also is detrimental to earthworms. They can harm our waterways by increasing algae growth. Think of these as steroids. They do give you that instant green growth but in the long term the health of the plant is compromised. Organic fertilizers will provide slow released nutrients, encouraging strong root development and an overall healthier plant, much more capable of resisting pests and diseases. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen which is great for our coastal areas which are naturally devoid in this nutrient. Fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, and seaweed kelp are wonderful additives to the organic garden.0

A simple compost tea recipe (use as a fertilizer)

*One small shovel of compost (about 3 big handfulls)
*2 tablespoons of molasses because molasses contains several different kinds of sugars,
*2 tablespoons of seaweed emulsion or fish emulsion for the micronutrients (they’ll each give slightly different results)
*1 teaspoon of citric acid for the bacteria (you can toss in a couple of 500 mg. Vitamin C tablets instead or several tablespoons of lemon juice)

sources and products:

organic gardening magazine


espoma products: complete line of products and educational information

seeds of change