Starting an Organic Garden

Hosta Garden 02The philosophy of an organic garden is to mimic natural processes to create a healthy, productive garden that is free of toxins. Organic gardening depends on a diverse assortment and healthy populations of beneficial insects, microorganisms and plants, nutrient-rich soil, and non-toxic methods of weed control. Fertility and pest problems are solved with natural biological processes.

Each garden and gardener is unique and faces different challenges. The techniques listed below will help you avoid common problems.

Start with a Plan

Get the most out of your garden by preparing and planning ahead. Determine what your goals are. Create a map of your garden and list what you would like to change or improve. Your garden map should include the dimensions of your garden, existing plantings, and soil conditions. Research what improvements you would like to make or conditions you would like to change so that you know what tools you will need, what plants are best suited to your goals, and what gardening methods will be most productive.

Check out a few sites online, such as Free Garden Plans, for examples of existing plans you can use or adapt to your site and situation.

Create a ScheduleSchedule 01

Create a schedule for what you want to do and when you need to do it. Be realistic! Most gardeners cannot completely transform their gardens in a few weekends so stagger the work.  It is likely you will not be able to do everything that you would like in a single season. Determine what tasks need to be accomplished and in what order. Do this not only for the coming growing season, but for two or three years into the future, to lay a solid foundation on which to advance toward your gardening objectives.

Take an Inventory

Create a list of tools and supplies that you already have, and compare it to the list you made during the planning stage of what you will need. Buy what you need in advance so that you have it in hand when you begin working.

In our next post, we will discuss how to make organic compost and improving your soil. Following that, we will discuss organic garden supplies, record keeping, pest management, disease prevention, and weed control.


Chemical-Free Yard & Garden: The Ultimate Authority on Successful Organic Gardening, Fern Marshall Bradley, Editor

Shade Gardens with Hostas and Heucheras

Shade Garden Do you have a shaded trouble spot in your yard? Do you lack vegetation beneath your mature trees? Brighten up this neglected area of your lawn with plants that do well in shade, such as hostas and heucheras.


Soil QualitySoil

First, check the soil to determine if it needs improvement. The best soil is well-drained and moist. Test your soil by wetting it thoroughly with your garden hose. Wait for 24 hours and then squeeze a handful in your hand. If the soil forms a ball that maintains its shape, but breaks easily when poked, your soil is ideal as it is and does not need improvement. If the ball of soil collapses rather than maintaining its shape, it likely contains too much sand. If the ball of soil maintains its shape even after poking it, refusing to break up, then the soil likely contains too much clay. Whether your soil has too much sand or too much clay, adding organic matter such as peat moss or compost will improve it.

pH Level

Next, check your soil’s pH level and fertility. pH is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity. A measurement of 7 is neutral. Measurements lower than 7 indicate that your soil is acidic, with zero being the most acidic, while measurements higher than 7 indicate your soil is alkaline, with 14 being the most alkaline.


Each plant species has an ideal pH range for optimal growth. Generally, a neutral pH of 7 is ideal as this is the range at which bacteria are able to decompose organic matter in the soil, releasing nutrients that are then available for your plants, and the ideal range in which microorganisms are able to convert free nitrogen in the atmosphere into a mineral form available to plants. If your soil is acidic, add lime, which is readily available at your local garden store. Bear in mind that hostas like acidic soil. If your soil is alkaline, add compost or manure. You can get a pH testing kit at your local garden store. Make this part of your annual gardening preparations as pH levels can change over time.

Determining the Shape and Size of Your Shade Garden

Use a garden hose as a flexible means of laying out the edges of your shade garden. Once you have determined a satisfying shape, use flour as a non-toxic means of laying out a “chalk” outline of your garden bed. Use a sharp spade to dig along this outline.

If the bed is currently covered in turf, soak the area thoroughly and strip the turf using a straight-edged shovel. Once the soil is exposed, use the shovel or a power tiller to loosen it. If your shade garden bed is large, you can also use a power till to the turf into the soil, using that organic matter to improve the soil. Whichever method you chose, use the opportunity to add amendments to improve the soil. Loosen the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches, or up to 12 inches if you are able.

Next, soak the bed thoroughly and wait 7 days to allow weed seeds to germinate and sprout. Remove these seedlings or till them back into the soil.


Keep grass and other vegetation from encroaching on your shade garden with edging. There are a variety of options to choose from, including stone, brick, metal and plastic. If your shade garden is bordered by grass, consider including a mowing strip to your edging consisting of 6- 12-inches of brick or stone laid into the ground even with the soil level.


Working with potted plants enables you to lay them out within your garden bed and experiment with their placement until you find an arrangement that pleases you the most. Read the tags that accompany the plants to ensure correct spacing and placement by height, with the plants that will be tallest when full grown placed at the back of the bed. The bed may appear sparse at first, but will fill in when the plants reach maturity.

When you have settled on an arrangement, start planting with the largest containers and continue by size to the smallest. For hostas and heucheras, set them in your garden bed at the same level they were in the pot. Use your hands to firm the soil around each plant and then soak thoroughly.


Mulch conserves moisture, prevents soil erosion during rainfall, and keeps plant roots cool. Organic mulches such as wood chips or shredded bark will decompose over time, adding organic matter to the soil, and thus require occasional replenishment. Gravel or crushed stone are more permanent but do not amend the soil. A thick layer of mulch will prevent weeds from becoming established.

Maintaining Your Shade GardenShade Garden

During the first two weeks, water your shade garden thoroughly every other day, and then twice a week for the rest of the first growing season. Thereafter you may water as needed. Weed regularly during the first growing season. Once the plants mature, there will be less space for weeds to encroach.



Plant a Bee Garden

Tired of mowing? Rethink outdated notions of what your yard should be!

  • Replace sections of your yard with flower beds or completely eliminate turf with native wildflowers, to which native bee species are best adapted.
  • Choose plants with single flowers, such as daisies, rather than double flowers, like double impatiens. Double headed flowers may be more pleasing aesthetically, but they produce significantly less nectar and are more difficult for bees to harvest.
  • Skip the most highly hybridized plants as they produce very little pollen.
  • Bees prefer gardens with ten or more species of the types of flowers that they prefer.
  • Plant individual species in clusters.
  • Choose a variety of plants that will bloom throughout the growing season, providing a continuous source of pollen and nectar for bees, but place slight emphasis on early-blooming species to supply food for bees when it is difficult to find in spring, and late-blooming species for when bees prepare for winter.

Crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths are early-blooming species that will provide food for bees after the long, cold winter.

For late spring and into summer, plant tulips, forget-me-nots, catmint, fuchsia, cornflowers, goldenrod, bee balm, campanula and hostas.

Zinnias, asters and goldenrod are late bloomers for autumn.

Your bee garden can serve a dual purpose as a culinary herb garden. Many species of herbs are attractive to bees, including sage, thyme, basil, rosemary and lavender. These species are well-suited to container gardens on small patios, balconies and windowsills.

Bees also harvest from trees and shrubs. Hazels, alders and poplars will be frequented by bees in the spring.  Raspberry, blackberry, and gooseberry bushes also supply nectar to bees, and in the case of thin-skinned raspberries, bees have been known to collect juice from the berries.

Avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides in not just your flower beds, but also your lawn, to avoid cross-contamination.

Bees are essential pollinators. Habitat loss and pesticides are decimating colonies nationwide. Accommodate bees in your garden and yard care to ensure their continued survival.


Bees in Your Back Yard

What can you do to help native bee species and honey bees? Protect bees from pesticides and provide bee habitat.

Bees and other pollinators depend on natural habitat. Urban sprawl consumes the landscapes that bees rely on and degrades what remains. Urge land use planners and policy makers to protect and restore native habitat.

Homeowners and gardeners can take simple steps to protect bees and other pollinators from pesticides.

  • Changes in the method of pesticide application can contribute significantly.
  • Avoid the application of pesticides near blooming plants and areas where bees are nesting.
  • Apply pesticides in the evening, as this is the time of day when bees are less active. More importantly, realize when insect damage is truly only cosmetic, and eliminate the use of pesticides completely.

Agricultural landscapes dominated by monocultures of a single plant species provide food for perhaps only a few weeks.

  • In your yard and garden, provide blooming plants, including hostas, throughout the growing season as food sources for bees.
  • Ensure that at least 3 different plant species are blooming in the spring, fall, and summer.
  • Plant single species in groups for easier foraging, and plant blooming species near nests or hives to increase foraging efficiency.
  • Don’t deadhead your flowers until the blossoms have truly begun to die in order to preserve any remaining pollen or nectar for as long as possible.
  • Provide water for bees and other pollinators. Yes, insects do drink water! Put a quarter inch of sand in a large clay saucer, such as those used beneath clay flower pots, and then add water until the water level is roughly one-quarter of an inch above the sand. Add several stones or pebbles so that some are above the surface of the water and some are just at the water level to allow bees to drink without drowning. Change the water at least twice a week to prevent mosquitos from breeding in the water.

Most native bee species nest in the ground, in snags, brush piles, or bare earth. Protect these potential nest sites from disturbance or burning, especially if they are in a sunny location.

See Plant a Bee Garden for suggestions on how to create and maintain a bee garden.



Plight of the Bumble Bee

Bees fill a vital niche in the natural world, but are also essential to humans for the pollination of crops. Plants produce nectar to entice bees and other pollinators. Bees pursue the nectar of multiple plants and multiple species as food for themselves, while also gathering large quantities of pollen to feed their larvae. Bees carry the pollen from one plant to many others and thus cross-pollinate them.

Up to one third of crops grown for human consumption, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices, are dependent upon pollinators such as bees. Nearly 70% of all flowering plants are dependent on pollinators for reproduction. Pollinators are responsible for increasing the output of 87 of the most important food crops worldwide, a service valued at nearly $20 billion annually in North America alone.

Under normal conditions, beekeepers expect up to a 20% loss of bees over the winter season, but losses are now between 30% and 60% on the west coast, and nearly 70% in Texas. While there has been a worldwide increase of 45% in managed honey bee hives, there has simultaneously been a 300% increase in the production of crops that rely on bee pollination.

Colony collapse disorder involves the disappearance of entire hives of honey bees. Thousands, even tens of thousands, of individual bees fly in pursuit of nectar and pollen, never to return to their hives. The factors most likely contributing to colony collapse disorder are habitat loss, pesticides, and diseases and parasites.

Following World War II, new farming methods resulted in a change from small family farms interspersed within a natural landscape that included woodlands, meadows and wetlands, to large-scale monocultures of wind-pollinated cereal crops.  Crop rotations that included alfalfa and clover, which had both been reliable sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators, were replaced with inexpensive petroleum-based fertilizers.

Monocultures are much more susceptible to disease and pests, so newly-developed pesticides and herbicides began to see wide-spread application. Not only do pesticides and herbicides eliminate pest insect species and competitive agricultural weeds, but also other insect species, including bees, and flowering sources of nectar and pollen on the edges of fields, road sides, and other rural lands.

Where bee-pollinated crops remain, they provide a source of pollen and nectar for only a few short weeks, while the flowering plants that bees once relied on throughout the growing season have been eliminated.

Several Asian mites have been introduced to the United States. One species, Varroa destructor, can destroy a honey bee colony with 6 months to 2 years. Varroa destructor also transmits several deadly viruses among bees. As if that were not enough, a fungal parasite, also from Asia, known as Nosema ceranae, is also contributing to the decimation of bee colonies.

Colony collapse disorder is a combination of all these factors. Bees already weakened by disease or parasites are less able to survive poor nutrition from inadequate food sources and exposure to pesticides, and vice versa. Even sub-lethal doses of pesticides can decimate a colony.

Common pesticides effect learning, foraging and the ability to navigate.  The flowers, nesting sites and nesting materials within most rural as well as urban landscapes are contaminated with toxic pesticides.

Changes in agricultural practices and an increasingly urbanized landscape have resulted in a severe reduction in the diversity of flowering plants, with not enough flowers blooming over the entire course of the growing season to sustain bee colonies.

Honey bees and native bee species populations have declined drastically. Read our next post, Bees in Your Back Yard, to learn what individuals can do to help.




Stacy Arland