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Master Gardener: Digging in to organic gardening

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Organic gardening

Since soil is the key to growing anything, improving your soil is a great way to start organic growing.

“I’ve been growing my own vegetables for a couple of years now, and it seems to be going pretty well. But next year I would like to shift to more organic practices. Any suggestions?” — S.S.

The term “organic” on produce and other edible products can be a little confusing. But there are pretty specific rules one must follow before considering your own produce to be grown “organically.”

In this week's episode, Grace Wood, James Watts and Jimmie Tramel discuss Thanksgiving traditions and sides. So what about green bean casserole anyway? Also, a national touring production of the musical "Six" is coming to town, plus Daddy B's BBQ is open for business in south Tulsa.

To better understand, here’s the official defining statement from the USDA on the topic. “Organic products must be produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials and conserve biodiversity.” That ought to clear it up…

The definition sounds pretty straightforward, but the process to get certified as an official organic grower takes about three years. During this three-year period, you will need to follow all the rules concerning organic gardening, but certification will not happen until after this three-year period.

The good news is that if you aren’t trying to sell your vegetables at a farmers market or some such thing, you don’t really need to get certified. You can just follow organic practices and enjoy your garden.

Since soil is the key to growing anything (organic or not), improving your soil is a great way to start. But how you make those improvements matters if you are wanting to use organic practices. Organic matter in soil contributes to a healthy soil profile. Organic matter is essentially anything that used to be alive. Not only does it help improve soil quality, but, as a bonus, it comes packed with major and micro-nutrients.

Just for reference, soil in our area typically has an organic content level of about 1%. The organic matter content goal for our soil is about 3% to 5%. If you are wondering why this matters, for every 1% increase in organic matter in your soil, you can typically expect about a 10% increase in production. That’s a pretty significant increase. Adding composted manure or your own home-grown compost to your garden is a great natural way to increase organic content in your soil.

Another way to accomplish an increase in organic matter is by planting a cover crop. Cover crops are planted during the off season with a purpose to add nutrients back to the soil. Appropriate cover crops include annual ryegrass, winter rye, winter peas, clovers or hairy vetch. A cover crop will be tilled into the soil in the spring before you plant your vegetables.

As you continue down this organic growing path, you’ll want to begin using organic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers include blood meal, bone meal or even feather meal. One of the benefits of organic fertilizers is that they not only add the major nutrients we need in our soil, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but also add a bunch of micronutrients.

Managing pests such as insects and disease is where organic practices separate from more traditional practices. When we utilize Integrated Pest Management techniques, the key to pest and disease management is prevention.

A good first step in this process is to use disease-resistant varieties of vegetables. In tomatoes, for example, some varieties have been cross-pollinated to increase resistance to fungal diseases. If your plant is resistant to a disease, the likelihood of having to use a pesticide to counter that disease is greatly reduced.

If you prefer to purchase transplants, you can help reduce disease in your garden by inspecting the roots before purchasing. In healthy plants, the roots are white or lighter in color and do not wrap around the inside of the container. Plants with dark roots or that are root-bound should be avoided. There’s no reason to bring a diseased plant back to your garden. Now, some of you like to purchase “rescue plants” from the bargain shelf. There’s nothing wrong with this, but just realize, these plants are likely “rescue plants” for a reason more than a lack of water.

We’ve talked about crop rotation before, but crop rotation is another great way to minimize disease. The challenge occurs when we plant the same crop in the same location year after year. Doing this creates a fertile breeding ground for diseases that affect that particular plant. Over time, these diseases can build up until it’s a big problem. Rotating crops helps to minimize this buildup, and, once again, with less disease in your garden, you are not going to have to intervene as often with pesticides, organic or not. We have a good explanation of the crop families to consider when rotating on our website in the Vegetable portion of the Lawn and Garden Help section at

We often talk about the importance of garden mulch, but here is another instance where a good layer of mulch helps minimize disease. There are a variety of fungal diseases that exist in the soil that become a problem when they are splashed up on the plant’s leaves. When you have a good layer of mulch, this helps minimize splashing, which thereby helps decrease the opportunity for that disease to migrate to your plant. This is a simple solution that pays huge dividends.

And finally, you will need to stick to organic pesticides such as insecticidal soap, neem oil or a variety of others. Organic pesticides will help you eliminate pest and disease problems with a minimum of collateral damage when used appropriately.

See you in the garden!

You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St. or by emailing us at

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