Growing plants organically basically means using organic methods to grow plants. It’s a practice that’s simple to learn and practice. Using organic methods to grow healthy organic plants isn’t rocket science but it is a science… and an art.
Personally, I think successful organic gardening also requires mindful gardening, or being mindful whilst in the garden. Organic gardening is more than a collection of methods. However, by identifying and implementing some key methods our gardens will tend to flourish
Is fresh compost the best?
First of all, if we want healthy organic plants, we need healthy soil microbes. They thrive in an environment suited to them. This is usually organic matter in the form of a compost. They types of microbes we have will depend on the food quality and quantity of compost.
The best compost usually comes from recycling our own plant material and manure from some healthy animals. However, I’ve seen a lot of compost heaps and most of them aren’t really healthy.
Regarding fresh store bought compost: It’s going to take quite a bit of time to get healthy soil microbes in large numbers using clean and fresh compost.
We can do it, but it’s not an immediate, out of the packet product.
Just yesterday I was at new clients place and looking for some compost. We found some in their shed. It was bagged and labelled ‘organic compost’.
It was black in colour, dry to the touch and really light in terms of weight. To the touch I notice it’s uniform structure. It resembled tiny bits of black timber. What’s more my hand and fingers moved freely through it. So the particles weren’t forming aggregates, there was almost zero cohesion.
Some composts have been sterilised and some have been irradiated. What that does is kill the bacteria, fungi and other essential microbes in the compost. What good is compost without the microbes? Can it really be called compost or is it really just dirt?
Killing all the microbes may be a public health issue but it’s the exact opposite of what we’re looking for in our healthy organic garden. It’s not until our compost has worms all through it that even starts to be ready for plants.
Seek compost diversity
Soil and compost lacking diversity is likely to be deficient in microbes and nutrients. Diversity leads to healthy organic soil. Think diversity and difference and you start thinking organically.
I make my own compost. Because I have access to a lot of raw materials, I make hot compost. However I also have a cold compost pile. I’ll cover composting in another blog.
I make my own potting mix. When I’m working with seeds, cuttings and seedlings my potting mix is mostly compost based on a mix of 5 ingredients. This includes a manure based compost, mushroom compost, rock minerals and pellet or crushed organic fertiliser full of macro nutrients.
When I work with purchased compost I’m aware that it’s young and lacks a diversity of healthy soil microbes. Creating a community of healthy soil microbes takes a bit of time… first we need to build their homes.
I’ve written about how to make healthy soil in the blog called: How to make healthy soil: transforming dirt into soil.
Are modern hybrids suited to organic methods?
When I think of growing plants organically I think of nature and working with nature. When we think about modern hybrids we might think about how they tend to be developed in nurseries (that tend to use synthetic fertilisers).
We may think about how some are developed by chemical companies that also manufacture fertilisers and pesticides. Given the culture and use of synthetic fertilisers we can see that modern hybrids may to be bred for NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) conditions.
There are some exceptions. But generally, a plant bred to be high performing on a number of performance indicators tends to be a plant bred for fertiliser and artificial conditions. If follows perhaps that those plants will tend to do less well in organic conditions.
Organic methods provide a soil environment full of all nutrients. Microbes interacting with plants deliver the nutrients a plant needs as they need it. It’s a dynamic process full of intelligence. Some types of plants, such as heirloom varieties are particularly suited to organic gardens.
Are heirloom plants more suited to organic soils?
The heirloom varieties, native species and older species of plants tend to do best in organic gardens simply because that is how they have adapted over time. They’ve adapted to growing in natural soil conditions with healthy soil microbes and worms. They don’t care about NPK.
In organic gardening most of those nutrients are found in the bodies of microbes. This is partially why organic soil tends to leach fewer nutrients into waterways and into the atmosphere. Nutrients are released for the plant when microbes consume each other, when they excrete and when they die. Microbes make nutrients available for the plant.
Microbes include things like bacteria, fungi and nematodes. They’ve been evolving with plants for eons. Our heirlooms, natives and older plant stock have likewise evolved with microbes. It therefore stands to reason that we should put plants adapted to specific soils into those soils.
Match the plant to the macro conditions
Now, taking a broader perspective and zooming out for a moment… We need to match the plant with the macro conditions. Things like light and shade, rainfall, temperature requirements etc will have an impact irrespective of the quality of the soil and the heritage of the plant.
Even the best horticulturalist will fail if they put a full sun plant in the shade, or a shade plant in a sunny position. I tend to think of sunlight as a nutrient, shade too, as a nutrient.
A desert plant will attract fungi in a humid climate. The fungi isn’t the problem, yet so often we see a leaf fungus and seek to eliminate it.
I touched on compost above and the need for diversity. Compost impacts soil texture and structure. It can modify soil type but it can’t absolutely change it. We can make a compacted clay soil a clay loam by altering the texture. But the clay remains clay and it won’t turn into a sandy soil. Therefore, we need to match the plants with soil type.
Some organic soil is inappropriate for the plant species
Here’s an example that may make you giggle! Until recently I propagated and sold organic seedlings at the markets. One sunny day a customer came up to me with her friend and asked when her cauliflower should be forming a head.
She said it was about 2 months old and really tall with few leaves.
“Sounds leggy” I murmured… “What’s the soil like?”
“Organic” she replied sounding quite proud of herself. With that her friend leant forward and said “Amber, she planted it in the cactus garden!”
Typically, cacti have sandy soils… they need the drainage. According to both of them, the cactus were doing really well: the cauliflower? Not so well.
Lesson: The sandy soil and nutrient requirements for cactus are very different from those of brassicas like cauliflower. The cauliflower was leggy because it was starving. You can have cauliflower in a sandy soil but that soil needs organic matter and a lot of transforming before a plant like cauliflower will flourish.
I’ve lost Eremophila’s (pronounced: air-o-moff-la’s) because I’ve planted them in a clay soil. Eremophila’s are an Australian native plant known for their hardiness and endemic to Western Australia… where it’s dry and hot and there’s an abundance of sandy soil.
The eastern seaboard of Queensland, Australia is humid and has a different soil. So after weeks of rain the poor Eremophila’s drowned, fungi’s took hold and they died of root rot. The soil was far too heavy for the plants even though I had added a heap of sand to the soil and raised them up into a mound in an effort circumvent a drainage issue. Some plants just shouldn’t be planted in some places.