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Organics 101 | Summer 2005 Out Here Magazine

Toss any vegetable matter into your compost pile—leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste—to create rich organic fertilizer.

So what, exactly, does "organic" mean?

By Peter V. Fossel

Photography by Brand X Pictures

When my wife and I sell our produce at the farmer's market, our customers often don't notice that our vegetables are organic; they buy for taste. But the difference is so remarkable that we would grow organically for this reason alone. We've had school groups out to our farm, kids trying and loving things they'd never liked before — beans, broccoli even!

So what, exactly, does "organic" mean? It means growing without chemicals: no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or weed herbicides. The standards are strict for commercial organic farms, but home gardeners can go organic as loosely or strictly as they like.

We choose to feed our soil with leaves, grass clippings, farm manure, and kitchen swill. We also seek out straw, rotten hay, and such. Much of this we compost; much we simply lay atop our soil as garden mulch. It smothers weeds, conserves soil moisture, serves as a welcome mat to earthworms, and then decays into compost. What more could you ask?

The first step is a compost pile. This is a straightforward affair; stack your vegetable matter in a pile to decay into black gold. Keep it simple: Make a pile and let it rot.

The result will be a crumbly and wonderfully "earthy" smelling mixture in about six to 10 months. Meantime, it will have no offensive odors at all. If you wet the mix down and turn it over every week or so to mix things up, your compost will be done much faster, perhaps in two months or so.

If your soil is good, spread compost about 1 inch thick on your garden beds. Poor soil with little organic matter requires more — about 2 to 3 inches. Work the compost into the top 6 inches of newly dug soil.

Your compost will continue to decompose, so add about a half-inch annually to maintain your soil's quality.

We also like to give our seedlings a growth boost by feeding them a good shot of compost tea. To make this, simply fill a bucket about half full with ripe compost or aged manure (or both).

Fill the bucket with water and put it aside for a week, stirring once a day. Then, strain it into an empty bucket or watering can and simply add a few tablespoons to each seedling. You can't use too much.

So what about bugs in an organic garden? Well, this is the good part. Insect pests are predators, and as with any predator they go after the weak and stressed.

Our friend Eliot Coleman, one of America's foremost organic growers, has shown that plants grown in soil rich with organic matter are so strong they're virtually immune to pests. Our own experience bears this out.

Peter V. Fossel is gardens manager at The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Hermitage, TN, and has farmed organically for decades.