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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardening: Pat Munts’ primer on ‘organic gardening’

Todd DeWeese uses a loader to scoop up several yards of compost  in 2012 at Action Materials south of Spokane. The best way to improve garden soil is to add compost, Pat Munts writes. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

What does the term “organic gardening” really mean? It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot.

The Rodale Institute, one of the country’s oldest and most respected organic farming and gardening institutions, states organic gardening is a philosophy that “is a vision for working and living in harmony with nature.

The institute continues: “The result is healthy soil, which grows healthy plants, which make for healthy people. By abstaining from synthetic inputs and encouraging natural systems, organic farmers help create a better future for people, animals, and the environment.”

This means that organic gardening is based on working with natural systems that already exist to improve soil, control pests and increase biodiversity in the garden.

When you use conventional pesticides and fertilizers, you force them on the natural system with little regard for the long-term consequences.

Over the next three weeks I will go into depth on what makes a garden organic, starting with the basis of all gardening: healthy soil.

Good organic gardening starts with building a quality soil base. If your soil is healthy, then the plants will be healthy and much less likely to be bothered by pests.

Start with a soil test to determine what the existing nutrient and pH levels are and the amount of organic matter already in the soil. Nutrient levels will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are present and how much you may need to build back into the garden.

The pH level will tell you the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. This determines how available nutrients will be to the plants. Most vegetables like a six to seven pH level, which fortunately is the general range for most of our Inland Northwest soils. Plants like blueberries, however, need closer to a five pH.

Organic matter holds on to the nutrients into the soil and makes them available to the plants in chemical forms they can use. It also acts like a sponge that holds water to help plants weather the heat and dryness between waterings.

So how do you build good soil for an organic garden? It doesn’t matter what kind of soil you already have in your garden, the best way to improve it is to add compost. You can make it yourself or if you need a lot of it to fill raised beds, you can buy it from a local supplier. Most local compost suppliers can tell you where their mixes come from, and some may have chemical analyses for them.

The only composts you want to avoid are those that contain sewer sludge, and these are rare.

Compost doesn’t have to be labeled organic to be usable in an organic garden. In fact, soil amendments like compost used on certified organic farms are labeled by the Washington Department Agriculture’s Organic Program as being “approved for use on organic farms.” The reason for this is if compost is made properly, most of the chemicals in the source material are broken down in the heating and turning process.