Planting an organic garden

A man walking behind a little blonde girl in a garden
Hazel Oster, Doug’s granddaughter, eats a Shiraz Purple snow pea in the organic garden. Doug’s son Matt was a little younger when Doug’s “organic epiphany” happened more than three decades ago. Photo by Cindy Oster


t is often an epiphany that leads gardeners down the path towards an organic landscape.

That was my case, in a story I’ve told and written about countless times.

As a young gardener, my cabbage plants were under siege by little green worms, which were turning the leaves into Swiss cheese. I called a gardening friend who told me to get something called Sevin and my problems would be solved. As soon as the white dust was spread everywhere, the cabbage worms were dead.

As I rejoiced at saving those plants, I turned to see my youngest son, a toddler, walking barefoot through the garden in search of snow peas. “That can’t be good,” I said to myself. As I read the back of the bag of pesticide I was horrified, realizing this stuff was a neurotoxin.

That was the last day I used chemicals in the yard.

Fast forward nearly 35 years as I walked through the garden with my young granddaughter, Hazel, who was in search for purple-podded snow peas called Shiraz Purple. This time there were no worries about what she might find in the garden as she gleefully picked the pretty pods off the plant, enjoying them right in the spring garden just like her dad did so many years ago.

Organic gardening is nothing new—everyone was an organic gardener before WWII, as there were no chemical pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. That was something I discovered in my library research back in the day. I was trying to figure out how to garden without all the things my parents and grandparents had taught me.

When making the switch to organic gardening, some gardeners may worry that there will be an explosion of pests and diseases, but I did not experience that. Nature does a pretty good job of creating a balance rather quickly.

A honey bee on a group of purple flowers
Honeybees and other pollinators are in decline—an organic garden can help bring them back.

A great example is out at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in a pond located at the Asian Woodland. For years acid mine drainage filled the pond, and with a pH close to vinegar, supported no life. After installing a passive system using limestone to remediate the AMD, the pH and water quality was quickly back to normal and within weeks started to see life return in the water.

The key to any great organic garden is at the soil level. Organic matter like compost and well-aged animal manure are the building blocks for any garden, organic or not. Using those soil amendments gives the plants everything they need—when they have that, they are much better at fighting off diseases and pests.

Roses infested with spotted lanterfly nymphs will shake off the damage when growing strong in compost. Tomatoes grown in compost naturally resist fungal diseases. The list goes on.

lanternfly nymphs on a thorny rose bush stem
Plants like this rose, growing in compost, will do a better job at fighting off pests like these spotted lanterfly nymphs.

Every time you plant something in an organic garden, fill the planting hole with compost and mix it in with the backfill. The organic matter drains well, but also holds moisture and is filled with nutrients plants crave.

You can buy compost or make your own. Many municipalities offer free compost made from decomposed leaves. It’s called leaf mold and don’t let the name scare you—it’s great stuff for the garden. Commercially produced compost is strictly managed and reaches a certain prescribed temperature to kill pathogens. Compost is also great for container gardening.

An organic container filled with compost and marigolds growing out of it.
Super Hero Spry marigolds enjoy growing organically in a container filled with compost.

Making your own compost is easy. Anything that once was living will become compost eventually. Most compost bins or areas are filled with organic matter from the garden and/or kitchen. Don’t add meat, creamy dairy or oils to the pile as they can attract rodents. Use materials such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, unbleached paper towels and much more that are saved and then taken out to the bin.

You can add garden waste to your compost pile, but avoid weeds, especially if they have gone to seed for obvious reasons. For higher quality compost, which also decomposes faster, add the same amount of shredded leaves, straw or other carbon-rich ingredients with the material from the kitchen and garden.

This layering system lets the pile “breathe” and will break down quicker.

Rarely do compost piles have an odor. If they do, it’s similar to an overripe melon, indicating anaerobic instead of aerobic composting. This just means the pile is too wet and compacted. A garden fork and some straw or the aforementioned leaves will straighten things out in a couple of days.

The safety of our families is one reason to go organic, but there are more positives. The worst thing any gardener can do for pollinators is use chemicals. Not only are honeybees in decline, but many of our native pollinators are in trouble, too. By giving them a safe place to work, they help us garden. More pollinators means more vegetables and flowers in the garden.

There’s an entire web of life underground which also helps the garden. By keeping the soil chemical-free, everything from microbes up to earthworms are able to help us garden. Birds are a gardener’s friend as they will feed thousands of caterpillars to their young. If an insect ingests a chemical pesticide, it’s not something birds should be feeding to their young.

Organic gardeners have the same problems other gardeners have, but deal with them differently. Instead of nuking the garden with chemicals when there’s a pest problem, organic gardeners use controls that specifically target the pest, leaving the good bugs and soil life unharmed.

Free your garden of aphids, whiteflies, spider mites and many other soft-bodied insects with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Control caterpillars and other chewing insects with Capt. Jack’s Dead Bug Brew. Organic fungicides like Revitalize from Bonide, which is a biological control, attacks the spores themselves and is a safe way to keep plants healthy. Heading down the path to an organic landscape provides a safe environment for people, pets, pollinators and wildlife, that feels wonderful.


Tips for an organic lawn

a man mowing a lawn near a planted garden

Nothing can outgrow grass when it’s happy. That’s why we try so hard to keep it out of our flower beds and vegetable gardens. Making the grass happy provides the right environment to grow strong.

This can be quite a task when trying to convert 5,000 or 25,000 square feet of lawn. It’s not going to happen overnight, but an organic lawn looks great and is safe for the family and everyone who lives downstream.

A quilted lawn is filled with many different species and is easier to care for than one which grows a monoculture of just grass.

For a great example of an organic, quilted lawn, check out the front of Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens.

The first step is to get a soil test from the Penn State Cooperative Extension. The results will include pH and fertility levels along with recommendations to correct any of those numbers which are askew. Usually, this means adding lime and a balanced organic fertilizer.

Keeping the grass at three and a half inches or higher during the growing season will help reduce weeds by shading them out.

Cut the lawn often, only trimming about a third of the grass blades and use a sharp mower blade. If you’ve never removed a lawn mower blade, safety is critical. Be sure there’s no way the mower could start while removing the blade. Take it to the hardware store at the beginning of the season to be sharpened. This assures the grass is being cut, not ripped when that blade hits the tips.

Like the rest of the garden, water in the morning and soak the lawn. Morning watering gives the plants time to dry off, reducing the chance of fungal diseases.

Renting an aeration machine every few years and running it over the lawn in the fall will help reduce compaction. Aerating removes plugs of soil as thick as a thumb and about three inches long. Leave them on the lawn to decompose, then fertilize. The holes you create will get water and the fertilizer down to the root zone.

Photos by Doug Oster