November 12, 2010

by Roy Cook, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt

Naturally-enriched soil with straw mulch has produced these daylilies in Master Gardener Roy Cook's organic garden.
ABOVE:  These healthy, caged tomato plants are surrounded by leaf mulch, which will help prevent weeds from sprouting, flowering, and setting seed around them.

LEFT:Organic soil amendments from natural raw ingredients, including plant wastes, such as grass clippings, fallen leaves and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, are ideal organic matter for making your own compost to be added to your soil.
Many cooks today want to ensure that their vegetables are "all natural." If that is your goal, then growing them organically may help you achieve that.

Officially, organic gardening is the growing of vegetables, fruits and other plants without using synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, genetic engineering or a few other systems. This does not mean that you cannot control pests, weeds or diseases or fertilize your soil. There are natural ways to maintain your gardens and lawns that may be safer and more in harmony with nature. Organic gardening is more than what you don't do. Gardening organically is about stewardship. It's a give-and-take situation.

Give the soil rich organic nutrients; the soil gives you the best, freshest vegetables, fruits and the biggest, prettiest flowers.


Gardening organically starts with attention to the soil. Different soils require different products for proper nutrient and pH levels. The best way to find out what your soil needs is to run a soil test. Texas AgriLife Extension Service - Victoria County can provide you with soil sample kits and instructions for your soil test.

Once soil components are determined with the test, start amending deficiencies and replenishing nutrients accordingly. Add organic matter to your soil using local resources if available. Most everyone has access to the raw ingredients that are the start of compost. Plant wastes, such as grass clippings, fallen leaves and vegetable scraps from the kitchen are the ideal organic matter for making your own compost. By adding compost to your soil, you are on your way to raising a healthy, beautiful garden organically.


Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants. Plants get air, water and nutrients from the soil. Clay soil is higher in nutrients than sandy soil. Clay soil holds water better than sandy soil, sometimes too much, and the plants can't get enough air. Sandy soil drains well but needs amendments such as organic matter to make it good garden soil. Organic matter improves any soil's texture and attracts soil organisms that release nutrients in the soil.

The aim of gardening organically is to increase soil fertility to a level that provides all the nutrients your plants need. An average garden soil should contain one to three percent organic matter. The more organic matter that is present, the more insect, earthworm and micro-organism activity there will be. See side box for organic fertilizers that can be used.


In organic gardening, containment, not complete eradication, is the key to pest control. A certain number of pests must be tolerated as they are food for the good guys (predators). Kill all the pests and there is nothing for the predators to eat. With nothing to eat, they will leave and go to the neighbor's yard. See side box for ways of controlling pests.


The saying goes, "One year's seed is seven year's of weeds." The best thing an organic gardener (and non-organic gardener) can do is prevent weeds from flowering and setting seed. Mulching is one of the best ways of stopping weeds. A 1- to 2-inch layer of well-rotted compost or bark chips stops weeds by providing a barrier, which light can not pass through. Put down the mulch before the first weeds emerge in the spring.

Besides mulching, hoeing is the best way to control annual weeds and needs to be done on a regular basis. Hoe when the weather is warm and dry so the weeds will die and any seeds brought to the surface do not germinate. Digging or pulling is the best way to remove perennial weeds making sure to remove all the root system.


Without listing all the diseases and their control, my best advice is that prevention is better than cure. Keep your plants growing strong and healthy as possible allowing them to fight off infections naturally. Be alert. Spot diseases in their early stage and act at once. Diseases are much easier to deal with if caught in the early stages. Crop rotation also plays a big part in preventing disease.

If you haven't gardened organically before, it can be challenging, but it is rewarding. Here's a great site to brush up on organic gardening concepts:
This corn and bean crop is proof that rich, organic nutrients added to the soil result in a healthy, beautiful garden.
Animal waste - Animal manure, mixed with straw or hay, needs to be composted for six months. It should be brown and sweet smelling before use.
Timber waste - Composted bark is ideal for enriching the soil each spring and fall. Make sure it has been thoroughly composted.
Garden waste - Well-rotted material from a compost bin or compost heap. Composting leaves into leaf mulch is ideal as a soil amendment or mulch.
·Green manure crop - Planting legumes, such as clover, cowpeas and vetch, adds nitrogen to the soil.
·Mushroom compost - Could contain pesticide and fertilizer residues, so is not suitable for devout organic gardeners.
Nutrients can also be purchase in these forms - Colloidal, soft and hard rock phosphate, mined granite, greensand, basalt, feldspar, langbeinite and potassium sulfate, kelp and sea weed extracts and powders, dolomite, gypsum, keiserite, limestone, and oyster, clam and crab shells.

Scout regularly for insect pests and beneficials.
Hand pick and destroy pests.
Use barriers, traps and trap crops.
Use biological control - includes resistant plant varieties plus beneficial forms of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, insects and nematodes.
Use organic insecticides - includes soaps, oils, diatomaceous earth, microbial insecticides such as Bt, insect repellents such as garlic oil or capsaicin (hot pepper), rotenone, etc.


For more information or to place orders, call:
Charlie Boren, 361-582-0421
Barbara Schmidt, 361-573-3806
Doris Martinak, 361-575-4953
Linda Denker, 361-575-7203
Cost: $15; by parcel post: $18.25
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at