By Barbara Kessler

Mary Bakatsa is “organic all the way” in her sprawling Austin garden. But that doesn’t mean she simply avoids pesticides and blithely sits back to watch. Organicmary-bakatsa.JPG gardening is more proactive and veteran gardener Bakatsa runs dozens of schemes to nudge nature in the right direction. She places certain plants near others so they can exercise their natural symbiotic relationship. She leaves some “weeds” alone until the butterfly larvae have eaten their fill and removes others before they seed and choke out vegetables nearby.

Her overarching guideline is that she listens and learns from nature. Here are Mary’s six tips for successful organic gardening:

  1. Buy local or regionally targeted garden books. She follows the advice of Howard Garrett, an organic gardening expert known as the “Dirt Doctor” in his native Texas, who’s written The Organic Manual and several other books. However, Mary says, if you’re in Idaho, “find a book by someone in Idaho” because the timing for planting and the varieties that work will be unique to that area. Other books she recommends: The Art of French Vegetable Gardening by Louisa Jones; Feast Your Eyes: The Unexpected Beauty of Vegetable Gardens by Susan J. Pennington; Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway and John Todd.
  2. Pay attention to the soil. “If you don’t have good soil, go get some,” from a reputable nursery that makes their own and amend it with native soil, she says. Bakatsa filled her raised beds with soil from the “Natural Gardener” (John Dromgoole) near her home and was satisfied that it was rich, organic and alive with micro-organisms. She’s known other gardeners who would up with sterile soil that had been treated or was not organic, which affected the germination of their seeds. “Before you buy a plant or seed or anything, your investment should be in your soil. I can’t stress that enough. I’ve heard way too many sad stories.”
  3. Plan Your Water System. Decide if you are going to use soaker hoses or an installed water system. She uses a water-conserving two-zone drip line irrigation system that has resulted in a water bill of just $25 a month, compared to about $200 a month nine years ago when they moved into their house, which was surrounded by turf requiring 14 watering zones. She recommends putting a timer on the water system as another way to control water usage. Hers is set to water early in the morning when less evaporation occurs.
  4. Interplant. Experiment, read and let nature guide you and you will discover how to help the plants protect each other. Once you’ve achieved “what feels like a balance,” you won’t have to work as hard in the garden because so much of the garden will be cruising harmoniously forward. Weeds? “I love them actually they are the first things to flower and attract beneficials.”
  5. Be Patient with Bugs – “People go, “What do you do about the insects?’ Well I encourage them…If you see an insect and think it’s bothersome, give it a week and see if you really need to do something or not…Some bugs come in to finish off a decaying plant,’’ Bakatsa says. “I let the insects tell me or the plants tell me, it’s time to do this,’’ she says. “And if I don’t do it, all hell will not break loose either…If you want the beneficial predators (insects that eat insects that eat your plants) you have to have that balance…” As for critters, she has found natural ways, such as spreading citrus peels, to repel incursions by skunks, raccoons and cats, though her garden has been designated a Wildlife Habitat property.
  6. Let Some Accidents Happen – Following this rule of thumb has yielded some big rewards, like a large Eucalyptus tree and a hyper-productive grapefruit tree at the Bakatsa mini-farm, though Mary says she tries to be sensitive to her neighbors, who don’t want to see an “untamed wilderness” in the suburbs. So she watches her front yard closely and keeps plants that show well, like herbs and artichokes in prime visual areas. Happy accidents-in-the -making work best in the backyard.

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