A Beginner's Guide
to Organic Gardening

by Julie Clay

ONE OF THE HOTTEST TRENDS in healthy eating these days is the influx of organics. Once relegated to specialty markets or tiny sections of the supermarket, organic products are popping up all over the place thanks to more health-conscious consumers and much more publicity touting the benefits of a pesticide-free diet. Of course, you pay the price, and by that I mean simply that organic produce is just more expensive than the conventional, mass-grown version. This is where those who have a green thumb (or simply the desire) and some space outside can take to the soil and grow their own garden of delicious, healthy organic herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables.

Of course, gardening in southwest Florida can pose significant challenges. You’ve got a soil that is pretty much just sand, a climate that for six months is bone dry without regular watering, and pretty soaked the other six, and then there’s all those species of garden pests. But keeping a Florida garden organic and productive is entirely possible, and it all starts with how close you put it to the house.

Horticulturalist Elan Brown advises to have your garden close to the house, where you walk by it every day. It also needs to have 6-8 hours of direct sunlight and a good watering system, such as drip irrigation. Also known as trickle irrigation or microirrigation, Wikipedia.com defines it as “an irrigation method which minimizes the use of water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone, through a network of valves, pipes, tubing, and emitters.”

So much for the old “drag the hose over with a nice spray attachment to give the garden a good soaking” method! “You create more chances for disease that way,” says Brown, a master gardener with an MS in Environmental Horticulture from the University of Florida School of Agriculture, adding, “If you’re irrigating and you have water that stays on the leaves a long time that’s a perfect place for all types of fungi to develop. Use drip irrigation, micro irrigation to put the water where it needs to be: the roots.” Watering the garden has gone high-tech and is a major factor in successful organic gardens.

If you have the right conditions then you’re not going to even need pesticides. Gardening comes down to the basics, Brown says. “Your plants need a raised bed and a beautiful medium that you’re growing them in (aka the right soil), with good drainage, good sunshine, and integrated pest management, which is simply looking at your garden every day, examining the growth and looking for pests.” Again, we emphasize that putting the garden by the house tip. “If you have some outbreak either you can squash a bug or use ladybugs,” she adds. Brown also highly recommends the square foot gardening method pioneered by retired engineer Mel Bartholemew in his book, Square Foot Gardening. Bartholomew developed this method of gardening to reduce the cost and time of gardening, and to get better quality plants.

Master gardeners for years have been growing vegetables in raised beds at the University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Horticulture Learning Center,” Brown says. “What they had learned from vegetable growers in the state is that to grow vegetables in the ground here was a challenge due to nematodes (caterpillars) and the quality of soil, which is actually sand. They started to build raised beds.” Bartholemew’s companion website—www.squarefootgardening.com—has a wealth of information on this gardening technique.

The beds themselves are built up, not out, and are split into square grids instead of rows for easy maintenance Since you never step on the garden itself, weeding is easy. Portions of the garden also feature trellises where certain produce that grow on vines can attach and be allowed to spread out without sitting on the ground. A friend of Brown’s, Frank Oakes, owner of 100% organic market Food & Thought in Naples, cultivates strawberries this way. Brown muses, “He must have a thousand strawberry towers!”

Oakes is helping Brown take her education and love of gardening to another level at the Village School in Naples where her oldest daughter attends school. Here, she is cultivating a hands-on organic gardening experience for students with ‘teaching gardens’. Brown approached the school just last year with an idea to plant a raised-bed garden that students could call their own, tend to on a weekly basis and get to see firsthand the results of their hard work.

“I noticed in the schools there was not a lot of emphasis on science, gardening, or horticulture,” she says. “More and more, our kids are being removed from it. I thought this needs to be a part of this generation, I felt this drive to make this garden happen for our kids. How can they learn this if not being out there, touching it, harvesting it, being in touch with it?” Together with friends from North Naples United Methodist Church (home of Village School), Brown assembled a program to teach kids how to cultivate the earth and grow an organic garden.

“The grand plan is to involve the whole community,” Brown says. “Each class gets an hour a week, and has a box to grow their plants. I’ve been hands in the dirt learning. I wanted to teach the kids where it all comes from. It’s all tied in with what we’ve been given. Kids have no clue where their food’s coming from. It’s about being in touch with God’s creation on a daily basis. It feeds the soul and it feeds your body and nurtures all the parts of ourselves. We grew out of a garden.” So far, so good. Brown shares that next year the third grade class will have their own 3 ft. x 3 ft. box to tend, and get certified as junior master gardeners.

As for the rest of us, Brown points to what she says is a vastly underutilized source, a series of fact sheets put together by UF extension specialists. A land grant at the school provides research which in turn is documented on these fact sheets. Extension agents make the information easy to understand for everyday growers. Thousands of them are available free of charge on the web at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/. Several extensions are located throughout Florida, including both Lee and Collier counties. Their companion websites are also great informational tools for would-be organic gardeners.

So put on those gloves and get to it! A world of healthy eating awaits just outside your door, in a box sitting oh, about a foot high in the air. And another one next to it, and one a little higher up. •

from the March-April 2008 issue

Keeping a garden organic and productive is entirely possible, and it all starts with how close you put it to the house.