This guide to organic gardening for beginners provides a simple, easy-to-follow framework for learning to garden. A healthy organic garden is all about making an effective plan, creating healthy organic garden soil, and observing your gardens to produce thriving organic plants. Start your first vegetable garden with this Gardening 101 Guide!
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- Organic Gardening
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Organic gardening is different than conventional gardening because it does not rely on synthetically manufactured chemicals. Gardeners who grow organic gardens use supplies and techniques from nature to enrich the health of the garden ecosystem rather than factory-produced chemicals.
Ready to start planning your own organic garden? Here’s a little bit of info about organic gardening, including what makes a garden organic, the importance of healthy garden soil, and how to find fertilizers and pesticides that are safe for organic gardening.
Organic gardening is a method of gardening which uses naturally-occurring materials to support the complex relationships between living organisms and plants. This is in stark contrast to conventional gardening where plants are often grown in sterile mediums with the help of industrial chemicals. Organic gardening is based on enriching the existing soil rather than depleting it in the name of production.
The soil in an organic garden houses a thriving ecosystem. The plants that grow in the soil provide food and habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and other creatures. These creatures contribute to the garden by aerating the soil, pollinating crops, or chasing away pests. The different parts of the organic garden work together to create a balanced, productive ecosystem.
Further Reading: What is Organic Gardening (and Why is it Important?)
Organic Gardening Clubs
Garden clubs are a great way to connect with other gardeners. Local clubs often hold wonderful plant sales and garden tours each year. You can also learn to garden online in an online gardening club.
If you’re not already a member, come join the Organic Gardening Community group on Facebook! It’s an online garden club for anyone wanting to chat, ask questions and share garden photos with other gardeners. You’re very welcome to join!
Healthy organic garden soil is key to a thriving organic garden. Rich, organic soil provides a foundation and nutrient source for plant roots. Garden soil also provides the habitat for soil organisms like earthworms and beneficial fungi.
Natural garden soil is made up of mineral grains (tiny rocks) like sand, silt, and clay, as well as organic matter like humus or peat (decayed plants and animals). Most gardeners love a nice mix of different sized mineral grains. This type of soil with a nice mix of mineral particle sizes is referred to as loam. A great garden loam will also contain an abundance of organic matter, which helps the soil matrix retain nutrients and moisture.
Organic compost is a great way to enrich outdoor garden soil. Organic compost can be made in bulk from fallen leaves and coffee grounds. This rich organic compost can be worked into garden soil to increase the organic matter in the soil.
Organic Soil for Container Gardening
The garden soil for container gardens is generally a little more controlled than natural outdoor soils. Container potting mix is a type of organic soil that often contains peat moss and/or coconut coir for bulk volume, perlite to add air and drainage space, and an organic source of nutrients such as compost. It is common for container gardening soil mixes not to contain any small mineral soil grains (sand, silt, clay).
Some organic potting mixes also contain organic fertilizer or beneficial fungi to help boost plant health. This is particularly true of high-quality, specialty potting mixes. I use Pro-Mix potting soils ever since learning about them in my Permaculture Design Certification course. It really is worth it to invest in your garden soil. Soil is the foundation for your whole garden! Your organic plants deserve great soil. You can also try making your own DIY potting soil.
Further Reading: Types of Soil: What’s in Your Garden?
Organic plant food is naturally-sourced and have been approved for use in organic gardening. These materials are applied to plants or soil to provide essential nutrients to organic plants. They’re like multivitamins for your plants. Fertilizer packaging lists a ratio of three essential plant nutrients. This is referred to as the N-P-K ratio (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium).
To know which NPK ratio you’re looking for in an organic fertilizer, it’s nice to know the NPK ratio of your garden soil by doing a soil test. Note that organic fertilizers generally show lower numbers in their NPK ratios when compared to synthetic chemical fertilizers. This is not a bad thing! You’re not necessarily getting less plant growth for your money with an organic fertilizer, but you are getting a safer product. The excess nutrient in chemical fertilizers can actually burn plants. It then quickly drains away, polluting groundwater. Stick to organic fertilizer!
List of Organic Fertilizers
Here is a brief summary of some common natural fertilizers that you can DIY yourself or find at the local garden center. If purchasing a fertilizer, check for the OMRI-listed logo or look the product up in the OMRI database (from the Organic Materials Review Institute).
DIY Organic Plant Food Options
- Organic Compost & Compost Tea – make nutrient-dense plant food from leaves
- Grass Clippings – feed your lawn with nitrogen from it’s mulched clippings
- Worm Farm Castings – a great way to turn kitchen scraps into plant food
- Seaweed – full of micronutrients, you’re lucky if it’s available in your area
- Well-Composted Herbivore Manure – if you’re lucky enough to have it!
- Eggshells – a plant food that’s full of calcium for your tomatoes
Generic Organic Plant Food
- Earthworm Castings 1-0-0
- Rock Dust 0-0-0.2
- Liquid Seaweed 0-0-1
- Kelp Meal 1-0-2
- Fish Fertilizer 2-4-1
- Composted Cow Manure 0.5-0.5-0.5
- Composted Chicken Manure 2-2-2
General Purpose Ready-Mixed Organic Fertilizers
- Espoma Garden Tone Organic Fertilizer 3-4-4 (USA)
- Dr. Earth Throw & Go Organic Fertilizer 5-5-5 (USA)
- Neptune Liquid Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer 2-3-1 (USA)
- Pro-Mix Granular Multi-Purpose Organic Fertilizer 7-3-3 (Canada)
- Gaia Green Organic All-Purpose Fertilizer 4-4-4 (Canada)
Organic Herbicides, Pesticides, & Fungicides
- Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth – kills some crawling pest insects without synthetic chemicals
- Horticultural Corn Meal (Corn Gluten Meal) – fights fungal disease in soil/roots
- Spinosad – general pest insect killer produced by bacterial fermentation
- Neem Oil – general insecticide and fungicide
- Crushed Eggshells – deters ground-dwelling pests
Proper garden planning is an important part of organic gardening for both new and experienced gardeners. If you’re planning your first garden this year, and have never really gardened before, you probably have a few questions! That’s what this section is for.
Planning a garden can seem like a huge process when you consider all the decisions to be made. To simply the process, I’ve separated the garden planning process into eight basic steps.
Go through each of these eight steps in order. Chances of success are far higher with a thoughtful plan than if you simply throw a few seeds in the ground and hope for the best!
Here are the eight steps to planning a successful garden. Check out each step to learn more:
- Set Your Garden Goals
- Find Your Garden Mentor
- Discover Your Growing Zone
- Pick Your Type of Garden
- Choose Crops You’ll Love
- Determine the Right Number of Plants
- Draw Your Garden Map
- Create Your Planting Calendar
To guide you through these steps, I’ve created a garden planner which includes a workbook section for each step. The planner is completely free and will guide you through the basic steps of planning out an annual garden. It’s the perfect companion to help you plan out your vegetable, herb, or flower garden. You can grab your free copy by entering your first name and email in the form below:
Get your free Garden Planner!
Enter your info in this form to subscribe and download the free Garden Planner!
Read more about the free printable planner on the Garden Planner Page.
Gardening 101: Gardening Zones
Unfortunately not all plants can be grown everywhere. Plants are classified by hardiness zones, which dictate the coldest temperature that a given plant can withstand. Plants have a range of zones in which they will survive. This range is generally printed on the seed packet or plant label. If no zone is printed, look it up online prior to buying.
- Canada: Canadian USDA Plant Hardiness Gardening Zone Map.
- USA: American USDA Plant Hardiness Gardening Zone Map.
Pick plants you love, and just go with it. Maybe wait a few years for things that say “expert level” on the seed packet. But otherwise, you’ll be fine. It might take a few tries, but you’ve got this.
Gardening 101: Garden Site
Picking the right spot for your garden can be tricky. In temperate Canada or the USA, the south side of your yard is probably a good place to start looking. You’ll want lots of sun for most plants. Full sun generally means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day.
Observe your yard for a few days and check out the sunny areas. Check out this Solar Aspect Map to see where the sun hits your yard at various times of the year. See my complete list of online organic gardening tools for more helpful online tools.
You’ll also want to look for good organic garden soil. If you’re not sure what type of soil is in your garden, check this article. If you’d rather not garden in the soil that’s already there, choose a high quality organic garden soil or potting mix that is free of contaminants.
Gardening 101: Types of Gardens
There are several different types of outdoor garden structures. In addition to just finding a bare patch of soil in your yard, or removing existing grass, consider the following options before you start construction.
The easiest way to start a garden is to start a small container garden. There are a few crops that are quite easy to grow in a container garden. You can grow them on your apartment patio. You can even make your own potting soil for your containers.
Containers have the benefit of being portable. This is really nice if you’re new to gardening, because you can move them around your space to experiment with different light and precipitation amounts. You can also bring your container gardens inside in the winter if you live in a cold climate. They’re incredibly versatile too…you’d be surprised what you can grow in a container! (Blueberries anyone?)
Raised Bed Gardening
Raised bed gardens are like giant container gardens. Beds are generally 4′ wide and usually about 8′ long. They’re often made of wood planks which hold in the garden soil. Most gardeners prefer gardening in raised beds to gardening directly in the ground.
Because these beds are raised up off the ground, the soil warms up earlier in the spring, allowing you to start growing veggies earlier in the season. It also allows you to garden if you have less-than-perfect natural soil in your yard such as heavy clay or potentially contaminated soil. Fill your raised beds with lovely organic garden soil and enjoy gardening without dealing with heavy clay!
Community gardens are neighbourhood organizations that rent out individual garden plots to individuals or families. Most community gardens have raised garden beds with pathways between them to access your plants. Some even have built in irrigation such as drip lines or wicking features.
You can rent out a raised bed for a season and try your hand at gardening. Joining a community garden is a nice way to learn about gardening in the company of other, more experienced gardeners. If you’re considering a community garden, check out this post on joining a community garden.
Organic Gardening Books
There are so many wonderful organic gardening books! My favourites are included here on this list of gardening books that I frequently update.
Here are a couple of my favourites:
- The Zero-Mile Diet, by Carolyn Harriot. This book is great for beginner gardeners learning to grow vegetables. The book provides a nice overview of general gardening skills, as well as reference sections on individual vegetables.
- Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. This book is the perfect introduction to turning your yard into an edible oasis. This book is the perfect introduction to home-scale sustainability, including edible landscape design, rainwater harvesting, forest gardening, and the creation of wildlife habitat.
- Landscaping with Fruit, by Lee Reich. This book is the perfect introduction to growing fruit in an urban lot setting. Lee Reich is an expert fruit grower and horticulturalist. This book is split into two sections: a section on garden design, and a reference section dedicated to individual plants. This book was a great read and remains a great reference for individual plants.
Check the current prices of these titles and other top-rated gardening books on Amazon.
To guide you through the eight garden planning steps, I’ve created a free garden planner which includes a workbook section for each step. It’s the perfect companion to help you plan out your vegetable, herb, or flower garden. Grab your free copy by entering your first name and email in the form below:
Get your free Garden Planner!
Enter your info in this form to subscribe and download the free Garden Planner!
You can read more about the free printable planner on the Garden Planner Page.
Garden design is all about finding the right inspiration to create your own dream outdoor oasis. Before you start the garden design process, collect some inspirational images. I love saving images to my Garden Design Pinterest Board. Check the board out and start saving to your own garden design board!
Once you have an idea of the style of garden you’d like, it’s a lot easier to start putting together a design. Fitting individual elements into an overall design can be challenging but so rewarding. Find garden design books on Amazon for specific types of garden design or check your local library.
Here’s the basics of how to start a garden. For even more details, check out this detailed post about starting your first garden.
There are 4 basic phases to starting a garden:
- Planning the Garden
- Planting Seeds and Seedlings
- Care and Maintenance
- Garden Harvest
Phase 1, Planning the Garden, involves completing the eight garden planner steps listed in the previous section. Creating a solid plan for your garden before you start planting is key to success.
Phase 2, Planting Seeds and Seedlings, is to plant the garden. Either start seeds indoors, plant seeds directly in the garden, and/or plant seedlings directly outdoors.
Phase 3, Care and Maintenance, involves observing and tending to your new garden. Daily observation is wonderful but not always realistic. Just do what you can to keep weeds down and ensure the plants are receiving enough sunlight and water.
Phase 4, Harvest, is when you finally get to enjoy all the plants your garden has produced! My favourite part of the garden harvest is enjoying fresh heirloom tomatoes on toast.
Tips For Starting Your First Garden
- Start slow/start small!
- pick only a few select crops
- create a small, manageable area in which to work
- Build raised beds
- Start with only one or two beds
- build structures before the gardening season begins
- place a barrier of cardboard in the beds to keep weeds down.
- Fill with high quality compost, pro-mix, or other light mediums
- install drip irrigation
- Know your region
- pick plants that grow well where you live
- mulch with shredded leaves or homemade leaf compost
- choose organic garden soil and mulches (read the ingredients!)
- buy starter seedlings for tropical plants like tomatoes and peppers.
- direct sow other crops like leafy greens and root veggies straight into the garden by pulling back mulch and placing seeds directly in the soil
- Have fun! Stop and smell the roses :)
Further Reading: How to Start a Garden
Watering Your Organic Plants
Getting irrigation right can minimize water used by your organic plants. Rainwater harvesting can minimize use of potable water. Xeriscape gardening techniques can minimize the amount of water your garden requires to thrive.
My favourite way to water the garden is with permanent drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is very efficient, and is considered one of the most water-wise methods of watering your garden. Only small areas are irrigated, and those areas are irrigated very slowly to allow the soil to properly absorb the water.
Drip irrigation can be expensive if you hire a landscaping company to install it for you. Fortunately, it is completely reasonable to install drip irrigation yourself, even if you have no experience with it. The materials are available at the hardware store or a specialty landscaping store. It’s exactly the same gear the pros would use. Check out this tutorial on installing your own DIY drip irrigation and get started watering your organic plants automatically!
More About Organic Gardening
Find all organic gardening articles in the Organic Gardening Article Library. Find more general articles about growing organic plants in the Gardening Article Library. You can also check out Garden Harvest DIY Ideas and Great Gardening Tools!
Looking for more? Are you already taking advantage of these 10 Ways to Create an Eco-Friendly Garden? For an in-depth sustainable gardening experience, consider taking a Permaculture Design Certificate. This course is perfect for organic gardeners who are ready to take sustainable gardening to the next level. Check out What is Permaculture? …And Can it Make You A Better Gardener?
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