Magazine article Sunset

Grow a Garden Naturally: Creating an Organic Kitchen Garden Is Easier Than You Think

Magazine article Sunset

Grow a Garden Naturally: Creating an Organic Kitchen Garden Is Easier Than You Think

Article excerpt

These days, the buzz about organic gardening comes mostly from the garden itself. Every day at Sunset's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, bees, hummingbirds, chickadees, and frogs add to the quiet music of trickling water as the creatures flit among healthy, pesticide-free plants, looking for sustenance. Visitors think such abundance comes from our magic touch. It doesn't. In fact, nothing could be easier--or more natural--than growing an organic kitchen garden.

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Last year, when we planted the one pictured at left, visitors were surprised to find out just how much can grow in a small space. We raised several kinds of tomatoes, peppers, and squash, as well as beans, corn, tomatillos, watermelons, and an assortment of herbs and flowers, all in about 400 square feet.

How to prepare the soil

Successful organic gardening starts with good soil. By tilling and mixing in amendments such as compost, you make the soil crumbly enough for roots to penetrate. Excess water can drain through it, yet the moisture, nutrients, and oxygen that plants need are retained. Enriched soil also supports beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms, which help guarantee plant health.

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Bud Stuckey, Sunset's test garden coordinator, achieves this perfect soil by using a combination of soil amendments and cover crops. If you're just starting your garden this spring, turn the top 8 to 12 inches of the soil using a rotary tiller (available at toolrental yards). Pick out any rocks larger than a small plum, spread a 3-inch layer of compost over the plot, and till again. After sprinkling the plot with water, let the soil settle for a couple of days before planting.

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Our kitchen garden

Sunset's test garden is designed around a zigzag split-rail fence that runs east to west. Tall plants like corn and sunflowers grow on the north side of the fence so they won't shade shorter plants, while tomatoes grow against the fence for support. On the south side of the fence, triangular-shaped planting beds hold low-growing crops, such as melons, peppers, and squash; herbs; and flowers, such as bee balm and scabiosa, that attract beneficial insects. On the opposite side of the pathway, zinnias and shorter varieties of sunflowers--great for cutting--grow in an informal row. Pole beans climb a trellis at the west end of the row.

Stuckey started with seeds of easy plants like corn, and set out seedlings of annual vegetables, flowers, and perennial herbs. He spaced plants close together to minimize weeds and planted vegetables and flowers together to keep pollinators circulating.

RELATED ARTICLE: Add nutrition each season

THIS SPRING AND SUMMER: Compost tea, a rich brew made by steeping a burlap bag of compost in water, adds nutrients to the soil and increases the amount of microbial life the soil contains. That in turn reduces the load of pathogens in the soil and keeps plants healthier. Apply the tea several times during the growing season. You can buy the materials you need to make compost tea from companies such as EPM (www.composttea.com or 800/779-1709), Growing Solutions (www.growingsolutions.com or 888/600-9558), and SoilSoup (www.soilsoup.com or 877/711-7687).

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IN FALL: Plant cover crops (also known as green manure) such as fava beans, peas, and vetch. They not only add nitrogen to the soil but also improve soil texture and water penetration, and encourage earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. While growing they provide habitat, nectar, and pollen for beneficial insects. …

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