How to grow vegetables and herbs the organic way
To prepare your organic growing area – whether it is a pot, single bed or a large allotment – see Managing your soil and Home composting. It will help you to create the perfect soil - that has nutrients and texture to provide life for your plants.
The best place to start is The Principles of Organic Gardening. These explain the thought behind organic growing. Designed with a helpful traffic light system, they help you on your organic growing journey - whether you are a complete beginner, or want to convert to organic, or be reminded of good organic practice.
It's wise to plan your planting - making a note of what veg will grow where. This means you can keep yourself in vegetables all year round, as well as rotating where you plant your crops from year to year, to avoid disease and to maximise your soil's fertility.
Our How to Grow cards cover a selection of vegetables, fruit and herbs – from artichokes to apples and turnips and thyme. See also weed management, and how to cope with pests and diseases the organic way.
Preparing your organic growing area
Your first battle might be with weeds. These compete with other plants for light, nutrition and water, so you need to clear them before you start growing. If your plot is small, you can dig the weeds out, making sure you remove the whole plant, plus root.
However, if your growing area is large, don’t try clear it all before planting. Hours of digging will only lead to back ache and the depressing sight of weeds returning. And if you resort to a blast of weed killer (glyphosate formulations), you are using toxic chemicals on the very area you want to grow your healthy fruit and veg.
Instead, divide the plot in half. Dig one half, in the other you will feed the soil by using a thick organic mulch that covers the soil to exclude light. Here's how:
1 For the mulched half, cut down the larger weed foliage to just above soil level using a satisfying slash technique (you can use much of the foliage on your new compost heap, so long as there are no seeds). Then cover the area with a mulch that will exclude light. You can use a variety of materials to do this – a layer of compost or well rotted manure is ideal, recommended 1 wheelbarrow full per 5 sqm, topped by cardboard (weighed down by bricks or another thin layer of compost so it doesn’t blow away), or a black plastic membrane, also pinned down. (Don’t use carpet – many of the dyes have toxic chemicals that can leach into your precious soil.)
Leave this for at least 6 - 12 months. It’s that simple. You don’t have to do a thing, as the weeds will weaken in the dark and the earthworms do their work to enrich the soil.
2 Now dig the area where you want to start growing. Take out tough and woody weeds like docks, thistles, nettles and brambles, removing all the roots. Put the foliage on the compost heap, drown the roots in a bucket of water for a couple of months - then add to the compost heap. See FAQs for how to deal with bindweed or brambles.
Then add compost or manure - one big wheelbarrow, or 5 large buckets, for every 5 square metres of ground. Dig this compost into the top 10 cms of soil, and your bed is ready for planting. If you want to sow seeds, use a rake to break down and gently flatten the topsoil into a fine texture (known as tilth) so the seeds can access soil and water to germinate.
Now you are ready to grow!
Garden Organic is offering an introductory course focusing on how to start planning your organic garden - looking at crop rotation, ground preparation and more. Courses are held at Ryton Gardens on Wed 8 February, Thursday 15 June, and Thursday 14 September. There are also courses on growing Exotic Vegetables (22 August), Winter Vegetables (3 August), Successful Potatoes (21 January), Unusual Brassicas (2 March). Further details and how to book here.
The following pages will help you get started, to care for your soil, to manage your allotment, to make your own compost and feeds, manage your weeds, deal with pests and diseases, save your seeds and harvest your crops. All done the organic way - saving money and the environment. We hope you enjoy the organic way. Not only are you safe from chemicals, but you are encouraging a healthy life for you, the plants and the planet.