Green Gardening Refers to More Than the Leaves

If you’re searching for the secret to lusher lawns and healthier gardens, look no farther than your kitchen cabinets. It turns out what’s good for you is good for your plants, too.

The Dirt Doctor is dishing up recipes using molasses, coffee and vinegar as part of an organic gardening program. His main message: stop force feeding plants with synthetic chemical fertilizers and start building healthy soil.

Howard Garrett, the man behind the Dirt Doctor, is one of the country’s leading experts on natural and organic gardening. He’s a Texas-based landscape architect, columnist and host of a nationally-syndicated radio talk show on organic living.

  corn-gluten-meal

Corn gluten meal is a natural organic fertilizer that’s safe to use around people and pets.
Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey © 2008

For more than 20 years he’s encouraged gardeners to adopt a healthier approach to caring for their lawns and gardens. “People need to take a step back and think about what we’re fertilizing and how,” he says.

Lawns and gardens that live on a diet of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides may look green and healthy, but chemicals don’t help the soil or the beneficial organisms that live there.

His book, The Organic Manual: Natural Organic Gardening and Living for Your Family, Plants and Pets, is a complete guide to eco-friendly gardening and green living.

New methods from the 1950s:

Organic gardening is gaining ground with a new crop of growers who understand that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have a negative impact on the environment.

“There’s an evolution happening right now,” says Addy Elliott, co-coordinator for the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in Organic Agriculture at CSU.

The program provides students with a scientific curriculum focused on organic production in horticulture and soil and crop science. It was one of the first university-based organic programs in the country and it’s the only one in the Intermountain West.

Elliott says even though organic standards continue to evolve, many agricultural practices from the 1950s are being substantiated by science today.

“I think organic gardeners are aware that organic matter management is the most important part of organic gardening,” she says. But one misconception is the idea that if a little manure or compost is good, more is better.

“That’s not necessarily the case. Organic gardeners should take soil samples and apply materials based on what the soil needs. Too much of a good thing is toxic to the plants.”

Clearing up confusion:

There are more organic fertilizers, soil amendments and organic pesticides on the market now than ever before. However, if these products aren’t used correctly, the results can be disappointing.

According to the Dirt Doctor, gardeners need to adapt more than just their thinking when using organic products.

“When switching from a synthetic program to an organic program, one mistake is to think the products can be used one-to-one. People shouldn’t try to continue their same program with different products.”

Another mistake is not adjusting to new watering practices. Because healthier soil holds more water, there’s about a 50 percent water savings, he says.

Some organic practices, like composting, will turn out fine even if done incorrectly because microscopic organisms do most of the work. But other organic methods need to be applied correctly and at the right times to be most effective.

Lawn Care:

The goal of an organic lawn care program is to build up nutrients and organisms in the soil. Natural organic fertilizers, like corn gluten meal, add nitrogen and perform best when applied in early spring and summer.

Corn gluten meal is safe to use around pets and people. It may be more expensive than synthetic fertilizers, but fewer applications are needed during the growing season. The fertilizer is applied with a drop spreader, but shouldn’t be used when over seeding the lawn.

Because corn gluten meal is a pre-emergent weed control, it needs to be applied before weed seeds germinate or it makes a fine weed fertilizer.

Soil Amendments:

Compost is one of the best organic soil amendments and the Dirt Doctor believes all gardeners should make their own. Instead of worrying about the ratio of brown to green materials, he recommends learning how microbes turn household waste into a rich soil amendment.

Recycled coffee grounds are another good soil amendment. The grounds have a balance of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as trace minerals and carbon. The grounds can be dug into flower beds or soaked in water to make a fertilizer tea that can replace the popular blue-green water soluble plant food.

Insect Pests:

Insect pests can also be controlled with organics, if used properly. “There’s never an insect or disease we can’t control with an organic tool,” says the Dirt Doctor.

His Garrett Juice plant food formula combines compost tea, liquid molasses, liquid seaweed and apple cider vinegar. Add garlic tea or orange oil and it makes an effective control for insect pests and diseases. (The recipe is found on DirtDoctor.com).

Beneficial insects are another natural method for getting rid of pests. The key is to encourage the good guys, like lady bugs, to prey on the bad guys like aphids.

To use lady bugs for controlling aphids, wet the plants first and then release the lady bugs in the morning. Some may stay around after the job is done.

“What works better are beneficial nematodes that go into the soil,” Garrett says. These tiny wormlike creatures kill soil borne pests from the inside out. Nematodes are mixed with water and sprayed where needed in the spring and fall.

It’s easy for some gardeners to give up too soon when using organic methods to attack an insect problem. The Dirt Doctor says to have patience before going to the next organic tool. For example, other organic pest controls, like applying orange oil or diatomaceous earth, also kill beneficial insects.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a substance made from the remains of fossilized microorganisms. The powdery substance is usually dusted around the base of plants to control slugs, snails, grubs and other insects.

Weeds:

Pulling weeds and pouring vinegar on them are natural weed control methods. Environmentally-friendly herbicidal soaps can also take the place of synthetic herbicides. They’re effective, but they aren’t selective. They should be used only for spot treatments and most won’t kill perennial weeds.

Changing the status quo:

The Dirt Doctor says he often hears from gardeners who have a difficult time finding some of natural and organic products he recommends. “I can tell people how to do it, but they have to go out and demand the products. The public has to push it from the bottom up.”

Copyright © 2008 Jodi Torpey
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