MASTER GARDENER: Organic gardening can be difficult, but has its rewards

lifestyle_homegardenOrganic gardening has in recent years become more popular as gardeners want to garden without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on their plants. Organic gardening is not a new concept; our great grandparents gardened in this manner before the use of chemicals that were developed during World War II.

Think of organic gardening as a mindset that has the gardener connecting with nature by understanding the soil, the plants and the insects that live in their community. Recognize that organic gardening in Mississippi can be difficult due to our long growing season and a climate that includes high humidity, which is an ideal breeding ground for a wide range of insects, pests and diseases.

Organic gardening does pose some possible problem areas: Gardening is more time consuming, controlling weeds without the use of chemicals is more difficult and your output from your garden may be less than a comparable garden that uses chemicals. Remember there are some weeds, pests and diseases that cannot be treated without the use of chemicals.

To begin gardening you should have your soil tested, especially if you are planting a vegetable garden. This can be done through your local county extension office for a nominal fee. A soil test will provide you with the information of which nutrients are low or high so that you can add organic matter to adjust your soil. For example, soils with a low pH (acid) can be corrected by adding limestone, ground oyster shells, Dolomitic limestone or wood ashes. If your soil pH is too high (alkaline) then you will need to add sulfur.

Your next step is picking vegetables that are disease resistant for your area. Also take into account the plant’s need for light, moisture and soil preferences. Organic fertilizers such as compost, manure, and bone meal will aid in adding nitrogen gradually throughout the growing season. Organic fertilizers can be hard to find and more costly due to limited supply.

Vegetable families can be susceptible to similar diseases, so when rotating crops each year this should be taken into consideration. For example, peppers and tomatoes – both popular vegetables to plant – are in the same family.

After planting, use mulch to help retain moisture and reduce the number of weeds that will attempt to grow. Pine needles, oat straw, bark and composted sawdust are good physical barriers for preventing diseases from splashing onto foliage, stems and fruit during the rainy season.

Insect control is difficult but not impossible if you take into account these guidelines from the Mississippi State University Extension Service: Choose your crops and planting times wisely and rely on non-insecticidal management methods, not on insecticide sprays.

Another tool is to choose crops that have relatively few insect pests. Grow crops when the insect pests are least abundant and are resistant to key pests.

Research has shown that metalized reflective plastic mulches reduce early season infestations of thrips, aphids and whiteflies. This method has been especially helpful with the tomato spotted wilt virus.

Organic gardening can be rewarding but may entail more time and effort than gardening with chemicals. The Mississippi State Extension Office has several detailed informational articles on its website, msucares.com, and at its extension offices.

Mona Warlick, a Master Gardener, is a trained volunteer of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. For gardening questions, call the Help Center at (662) 620-8280 in Lee County or (866) 920-4678 outside Lee County and leave a message.