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

Gardening: Growing techniques can curb problems

This is the second in a three-part series on organic gardening. Last week I talked about the importance of building your soil. This week I will talk about growing techniques that minimize weeds and disease and pest issues. Next week I’ll talk about selecting organic gardening products.

Growing a thriving organic garden requires using integrated steps that take advantage of naturally occurring beneficial insects, plant and seed variety selection, crop rotation, weed management and cover cropping.

Beneficial insects and pollinators are critical in an organic garden. Incorporating annual and perennial plants in your garden and surrounding beds that provide food, shelter and breeding space from early spring until early fall will help keep the insects around your vegetables all through the season. Place shallow pans with gently sloping sides in the garden to hold water for the insects. If possible, run a drip head into the pans to keep them filled, especially during our hot weather.

Buy good quality seed and transplants. Cheap seed often has reduced germination rates or lower growing quality. Organic seeds are grown using organic standards so are free of conventional chemicals. Buy transplants that are stocky, have healthy-looking leaves and are not root-bound. Root-bound plants can’t recover fast enough in our short season.

Select vegetable varieties that match our climate and are naturally disease resistant. Plants suited to our short seasons won’t need to be babied along. Plants naturally resistant to diseases will mean less work in the long run. Keep in mind that heirloom varieties are often more susceptible to disease. That’s why hybrids were developed.

Rotate crops each year to a different area of the garden. This breaks up pest and disease cycles that might overwinter in the soil. Plant nitrogen-fixing legumes such as peas and beans after crops of corn and peppers that are heavy nitrogen users.

Because our growing season is so short, it is often necessary to warm the soil with plastic mulch prior to planting warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers and then cover them with floating row cover until the weather warms. Plastic mulch and floating row cover are both acceptable in organic gardening. Another benefit of plastic mulch is that it will help control weeds around the plants.

Weeds are the bane of any gardener’s existence, so mulching around plants is important to keep them from sprouting in the first place. Mulches can be plastic, heavy paper, newspaper mats and organics like shredded leaves and pine needles and clean lawn clippings. A trick I use is to cover my garden boxes with 3 inches of organic mulch before I plant and then just clear a space to plant in.

Cover crops can serve as both a weed mulch and a source of organic matter when turned under. If you have empty beds, plant a buckwheat crop during the summer or a cereal rye and Austrian field pea mix late in the summer. They will die back and can be turned under in the spring.