|By Suzanne Labry
Well-adapted plants, planted in healthy soil, in the right place at the right time — those are the main components for a successful organic garden, no matter where you live,” said John Dromgoole, owner of the Natural Gardener garden center in Austin (acknowledged as one of the top five garden centers in the U.S. and number one in the Southwest by Today’s Garden Center Magazine).
Dromgoole should know. Recognized nationwide as an organic-gardening pioneer and named by the State of Texas as “Texas’ Legendary Promoter of Organics,” he has been spreading the gospel of organic gardening for more than three decades. He is the host of America’s longest continuously running organic gardening radio talk show (“Gardening Naturally” weekends on KLBJ 590am; podcasts available online at newsradioklbj.com); he originated the first-ever national organic gardening television series, “The New Garden,” on PBS; he regularly appears on other gardening TV shows; he is an in-demand speaker for gardening groups throughout the country; and he has won enough awards to fill a wheelbarrow for his efforts to encourage non-chemical, environmentally sustainable gardening practices.
Dromgoole’s mentor is Malcolm Beck, widely known as “the father of organic gardening,” who began his career in sustainable agriculture on his family farm near San Antonio in the 1950s and who founded the Garden-Ville brand of organic-gardening and landscaping products. Dromgoole learned from Malcolm Beck to focus on the health of the soil as the foundation for success as a gardener.
It’s About the Soil
“Healthy soil is the basis of everything,” said Dromgoole. “Whether you’re developing an existing plot of land, working with raised beds or growing in containers, it all comes down to the soil.”
To figure out what kind of soil you have, take a small handful of moist soil and squeeze it into a ball. If you can press your thumb into the ball and it leaves an indentation, then you likely have clay soil. Clay soils are heavy and dense with small soil particles tightly bound together, which means they don’t drain well and also prevent air circulation around roots. If your soil ball shatters when pressed, you likely have sandy soil. A garden with sandy soil has little water and nutrient retention. The goal is to have well-structured soil — not too dense or too coarse — alive with balanced microbial activity, which means it has a crumbly texture, drains well but retains some moisture, and is easy to turn over.
To reach that goal of healthy soil, you first need to know what you already have, and the way to do that is through a soil test. A soil test provides a road map, guiding you from the point of “you are here” to where you want to be and it tells you two important things: 1) what macro- and micronutrients are already in the soil and 2) what the pH levels are.
Having too much or too little of macro- and micronutrients can interfere with healthy plant growth. Macronutrients are the elements that plants uptake the most: nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and sulfur (S). The remaining essential nutrients derived from the soil are referred to as micronutrients because they are needed in small amounts. They are boron (B), chloride (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni) and zinc (Zn). Micronutrients are also important for plant growth because plants require a proper balance of all the essential nutrients for normal growth and optimum yield.
The soil pH number is a way of telling whether your soil is alkaline or acidic. Garden plants typically grow best in neutral or slightly acid soil (pH 7 or slightly below). A higher pH soil, say one that is 7.9, indicates that your soil is more alkaline, which means that phosphorous is going to become much less available to roots. If the pH is too low, nutrients may be taken up so rapidly that the excess cannot be processed fast enough, thereby overloading a plant’s system.
A soil test is the only way to accurately identify the nutrient status and pH level of your soil so that you’re not guessing what kind of amendments you need to obtain the desired results. It takes the guesswork out of organic gardening, which saves you money, time and effort. Instructions on how and where to submit a soil test can be found at http://soiltesting.tamu.edu/
Regardless of soil type, adding organic matter to it in the form of compost will make it better by balancing out the nutrient makeup and pH level, and by encouraging microbial activity. “Compost is the source of healthy soil,” said Dromgoole. “And homemade compost is better than anything you can buy because you control what goes into it. I recommend starting a compost pile with all your leaves, lawn clippings, coffee grounds and vegetable waste even before you start a garden. Be patient, because compost is an ongoing process and it can take time. Building soil takes baby steps; it doesn’t happen in giant leaps. You may need some commercial compost to get started.
“In my experience, it takes three years to develop good soil, even if you are starting with a blended mix,” he continued. “It is the nature of organic material to change. If you bought a bag of soil last month, it may not be the same next month. You need to occasionally add compost to ensure that the soil remains alive and well. Think of it as a progressive dinner party where the microbes in the upper four inches of the soil eat first. They then convert what they eat into an available form that plants can readily consume. If everyone gets fed and nourished, then everyone is happy and healthy.
“A lot of beginning gardeners think they can make a garden bed on Saturday, plant some seeds on Sunday and be done with it. A better way is to make the garden bed, add plenty of compost and wait for one or two weeks for the soil to mellow before planting.”
In addition to compost, Dromgoole is a big proponent of compost tea, which is made by steeping compost in water. The resulting solution can be used either as a foliar spray or as a soil drench. Compost tea helps suppress foliar pathogens, increases the amount of nutrients available to the plant, works as a natural fungicide and speeds the breakdown of toxins. “Because the beneficial elements of compost are already in suspension in compost tea, plants can access them more directly,” he said. “It really shortens the time it takes to get your garden going.”
In addition to healthy soil, a successful organic garden needs to be located in a place that receives enough light for plants to grow properly. Full sun all day is best, but a minimum of six to eight hours of direct light is necessary. Place your garden in an area where trees, shrubs, fences or walls won’t interrupt sun exposure. A south-facing garden will receive the most even distribution of sunlight. As Dromgoole is fond of saying, “There are no farms in the shade.” Also, your garden should be located close to a source of water.
Right Plants, Season
Knowing what crops are capable of growing in your area and at what time of year they do best is crucial to getting the garden results you want, so if you’re just starting out as an organic gardener, take the time to do some research. Those who move to Texas from some other place or even from one part of the state to another may encounter a completely different reality when it comes to what-will-grow-when.
If you plant spinach in Central Texas in August, it is going to die, guaranteed; okra will not germinate if you plant it in February in the Panhandle; rhubarb may never ever grow on the Gulf Coast; and on it goes — gardening is like anything else: the more you know, the better you’ll do. Luckily, a tremendous amount of information is available to you at the click of a mouse or at the library, and gardeners are famously generous in sharing their knowledge with anyone who wants to learn. The AgriLife extension agent in your area is an excellent source of planting guides and other information, as are Master Gardener groups, garden clubs, community gardens and this magazine. “Somebody like me has already made all the mistakes possible,” laughed Dromgoole. “You can save yourself a lot of time and money by learning from what others have done wrong!”
It’s Worth the Effort
Gardening organically is different from gardening with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. It requires more knowledge, more time and more work than just spraying something on your plants and soil, and then expecting the synthetics to take care of whatever problem you might have. While chemical solutions may provide fast results, they will do more harm than good over the long term because they work against nature rather than with it.
As John Dromgoole says: “Gardening and farming organically isn’t just important because it is better for people — it is better for the planet. Chemicals harm the life in the soil; organic matter promotes life in the soil. It is critical that we try to leave the earth a better place than we found it, and if we all do our part to build healthy soil, then we’ll leave healthy soil for future generations. I believe sustainability is possible, but we have to fight for it. Gardening organically is one important way to do that.”