"Organic Gardening 101," by the Whistling Gardener

Ahhh... smells of Easter!  Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Ahhh... smells of Easter! Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Let's flashback to the late 60’s and early 70’s… I was so heavy into the organic gardening movement that I tried to convince my wife to name our first born either Mulch for a boy or Compostina for a girl (I’m sure you can imagine how that went over).

We subscribed to Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine along with Prevention and Mother Earth News. Our favorite cookbook was Diet for a Small Planet and Adelle Davis’s Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit.

I had a fabulous organic garden and a very large compost pile, but my passion was far from mainstream. I am pretty sure my folks thought I was nuts.

Moving on to the mid 90’s, Dr. Elaine Ingham from Oregon State University introduced a new term called the “soil food web” ( Her research validated a lot of the beliefs about the intricate relationships and benefits of soil microorganisms, and helped to further the practice of organic gardening and farming.

Over the last 50 years, the organic gardening movement has slowly taken root, and along with eating healthy, has become much more popular - especially with the younger generation. Here is a quick overview of the essence of what organic gardening is all about…

At the heart of the organic gardening movement is the acknowledgement that a healthy soil will produce a healthy plant - so as long as we focus on keeping our soil healthy we will have far less insect and disease issues to deal with and our crops will actually be more nutritious. Feed the soil and not the plant - that is the holy mantra of organic gardening.

All soils consist of a chemical, physical, and biological component. The chemical part refers to the nutrient content, the physical part refers to the structure and texture (as in sand, silt, clay, and organic material) and the biological part refers to all those microscopic critters that we can’t see, but also can’t live without. It is the biological component that, for the most part, organic gardening is concerned with.

It’s helpful to understand that there is a close association between plants and soil organisms. In the soil we can find fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and arthropods - to name a few. Generally speaking, their relationship with plants is beneficial, here’s how: Mycorrhizal fungi attach themselves to plant roots and increase the absorptive ability of roots by ten to one thousand times, resulting in an increased drought tolerance.

Mycorrhizae also release antibiotics into the soil that immobilize and kill disease organisms. Additionally, they are capable of releasing powerful chemicals into the soil that dissolve hard-to-capture nutrients, like phosphorus and iron. They can also help improve soil structure by supplying humic compounds and organic “glues” that bind soil particles into aggregates, thus improving porosity. Soils with poor porosity tend to become waterlogged and disease prone. As you can see, these little guys do a tremendous job of keeping our plants healthy and thriving.

All soils contain both bacteria and fungi, and both can be either beneficial or pathogenic. It is our job as gardeners to encourage the good guys and we do this through gardening practices like annual applications of compost, crop rotation, minimal applications of pesticides, no-till gardening techniques, and good water management.

The easiest way for gardeners to improve their soil is to add copious amounts of compost every year. The art of making good compost is a subject for a whole other column, but for now know that you can purchase good quality compost in either bulk or bags from many sources in the Puget Sound area. An inch or two is plenty to work into the soil for growing veggies, flowers or for established shrubs and trees. Never apply more than an inch per year and even then don’t pile it up around the trunk of the plant.

In addition to compost, gardeners should also add organic fertilizer to veggie and flowerbeds to replace the nutrients that were consumed the previous season. Don’t get too anal about the numbers on the bag, most organic fertilizers are fairly well balanced and in a pinch interchangeable. I’d rather see you use a tomato food on a rose than do nothing at all.

When we do encounter insects and diseases, natural products are often a better choice - although there are times when a synthetic material will do a better job. Remember that even natural products can be toxic and sometimes simply letting nature take its course is the best way to go.

Gardening organically can be fun and rewarding, and knowing that we are being good stewards of our environment is an extra bonus. Go spread some compost and feel the love from Mother Earth.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at

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