By Barbara Kessler

You’ve decided to grow vegetables in your under-used backyard. It seems like a worthy goal; it’s green; it’s productive and you’d get some tasty treats for your efforts.

But here’s the rub, you feel like a dork poking around the garden center, trying to pick your way around the chemicals to find the natural alternatives. The words “organic gardening” begin to scare you.

It’s a whole new language. Not only do you have to hoe up that hard dead soil next to the deck to make a garden spot, now you’ve got to plow through a knowledge barrier that separates those who do and those who don’t follow organic practices.


John Dromgoole

You have to learn the meaning of compost, “beneficials” and “Mycorrhizal fungi.”

Don’t worry, says John Dromgoole, an Austin, Texas, owner of The Natural Garden Nursery, developer of the Ladybug line of organic products and radio proponent of natural gardening. You will absorb the language of organics by doing, as well as by reading and talking to your local organic nursery supplier. (Note to self: Find local organic nursery.)

And very soon, you’ll be won over because not only will you have a garden that is free of herbicides and pesticides, you’ll have a better and more productive garden, according to Dromgoole, who has served as Austin’s pied piper of organic gardening for 26 years on KLBJ-AM radio.

“I wouldn’t have survived if organics didn’t work, if it were a mediocre technique,” he says. “I have thousands of customers that come to my store and tens of thousands that listen to the radio show. I really don’t remember having anyone call back and saying, ‘That didn’t work.’ And my nursery’s been open for 20 years and grown more and more.”

Dromgoole maintains that if you give organics a proper shot, you’ll find it far superior to bringing home bags of poison for your family, pets and children. Here’s why: Organic gardening uses the logic that nature put in place. It’s that simple.

In nature, falling leaves, dead grass and other organic matter feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants. Well-fed plants resist disease and pests and produce great fruit. So in organic gardening, you follow nature’s lead, you feed the soil. That’s rule number one. Every organic expert says so: Feed the soil, feed the soil. That’s your mantra.

Now here’s the full rundown, a step-by-step guide to building an organic garden:

Step 1: Site the garden in a sunny spot. A summer vegetable garden should receive no less than six hours of full sun a day and preferably eight or more. Gardens don’t thrive in shade. They need lots of sun and also good drainage. A gentle slope is a good spot for a garden if the erosion is under control. Otherwise, you will build in drainage by creating raised beds in rows or squares or even circles where you intend to plant, and then you walk around the beds so the beds remain raised and well aerated.

If you need to kill off sod to create a garden spot, you can cover the sod with plastic sheeting and “bake” the grass over a few weeks. Seal the plastic with bricks or rocks or dig a trench around the area and push the plastic into the trench, cover the top edges with dirt or rocks. The turf should come up easily after this treatment. No chemicals needed.

Size the garden according to your ambitions. A 5 foot by 5 foot garden would make a nice size to grow a couple items with children helping. A 20×20 garden can yield of bounty of diverse produce that will keep the kitchen cooks busy for the summer.

Step 2: Feed the soil by adding a layer of two to three inches of enriching compost to your native earth. Work the compost into the soil using a garden fork or tiller until the amended soil is about 8 inches deep.

Find good compost at your local organic nursery. Also begin your own compost pile in a corner of your own under-used backyard. (More to come on this soon.) Your first rudimentary compost pile can be very simple. Begin by defining a small area where you leave your grass clippings. Cover the clippings with dirt. Add more clippings. Water. Get more ambitious as you learn more. But take comfort that you’ve taken the first step, which is to not send good, usable organic material to the landfill.

If the area you’re working has been chemically treated before you might consider adding a soil tonic or activator to increase the natural microorganisms living and working in the soil. They will break down the chemicals and help purify the area before you plant.

Step 3: Create the beds. Vegetables like a soft spot in well-drained soil. Joe Novak, a horticulture expert and senior lecturer at Texas A&M, advises building raised beds that are 9 to 12 inches deep, using a 50-50 mix of compost and soil. The raised beds do not have to be boxed in, but can be built up in 4-foot wide rows about 10 feet long. But here’s where you can get creative. Nothing dictates that you have to plant your vegetables in a long row, farmer-style. He plants crosswise or horizontally on his long raised rows, making the vegetables reachable from either side of the raised berm.

You can make your raised beds in a variety of shapes, squares about 5 feet by 5 feet with walking paths around them will created a nice compact garden, which some experts say works well because the rows of produce shelter each other. (For example, you might have herbs on an outside row, with vegetables that need protection toward the inner size of the square. For more on this style of garden consult Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardener.)

You could also plant circular beds using the three sisters method which places corn in the center, with green beans around the corn and squash around the outside, says Dromgoole. The beans climb the corn stalks and also enrich the soil for the corn. The squash spreads out at the base. This historic method was used by earlier peoples to produce these needed high protein, high nutrient foods.

Step 4: Plant! While planning beds is a little creative. Planning what you want to grow and gobble later is truly the fun part. Love radishes? Go ahead and try them. Make sure you’ve got the season right. Love peppers? They’re among the easiest vegetables to grow, especially hot peppers in the hot South. For a summer garden, tomatoes are a given. Most gardeners love juicy tomatoes and they’re omnipresent in almost every garden. They’re relatively easy to grow and bring that big reward of a tomato that actually tastes like something you won’t find at most groceries. Beware, they love sun, but they can be done growing and plumping by as early as June in hotter climates.

Novak urges novice gardeners to consult the definitive and gargantuan gardening website Aggie Horticulture for planting advice by zones. There you can also to check “cultivars” so you can get the right variety for your weather. In Texas, that can vary five different ways across the state. Dromgoole agrees. Here’s where you must consult either a nursery expert you trust, a good book or website. Plant for the season and at the right time as best as you can.

A beginner gardener would do well to keep a calendar of activities, to learn from and adjust by next season. Dromgoole says his top veggie picks for an easy summer garden would include tomatoes, peppers, summer squashes, black-eyed peas or cream peas. For underground, onions and potatoes. Young kids, especially, love planting potatoes because they are enjoy the surprise of watching them emerge literally from the dirt.

Step 5: Fertilize organically. You may want to fertilize your garden with another layer of compost alongside the rows of vegetables. But you should not spray for insects, even using organic or natural pesticides, because when you kill the so-called “bad” pests you also drive away the “beneficial insects” that you want in your garden. For example, you may kill off the pests that feed the lacewing larvae and the lady bugs that will eat the aphids off your plants later on.

You are also killing off the food for butterflies and birds that you want in your garden because they cross-pollinate your plants and also eat the “bad” pests – and so the cycle goes.

In order to have beneficial insects you “have to stop using the sprays, even the organic sprays — you don’t want to spray anything,” says Dromgoole.

Step 6: Watch your garden grow. Pull weeds the old fashioned way. And let the rest take it’s course. Pluck tomatoes, even if they’re green, before the hot summer sun takes them. Peppers should come in in abundance. Watch ground vegetables for mildew or rot.

Step 7: Eat and be healthy! Impress yourself and your neighbors with the succulent vegetables you’ve grown without wasting any money on needless chemicals or jeopardizing anyone’s health.