I have been gardening off and on for the past twenty-five years. In most of those attempts I used organic gardening techniques for dealing with problems. I usually resorted to picking bugs off of plants and using naturally derived products such as insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrum dust and Bt (Bacillus thuringieniensis) spores to combat pests. That was as far as my understanding of "organic gardening" went.
In the past six months I have been re-educating myself about organic gardening. I have been reading books and websites as time permits, as well as attending seminars and classes. Last week I added another chapter to this educational process by attending two organic gardening classes taught by our local Michigan State University Extension Agent.
Our local agent is an interesting character. I was already a little familiar with her from her regular column in the county newspaper and my brief visit with her a few months back to discuss chicken coop design. She is very easy to talk to and very direct in her answers. The classroom was absolutely packed each night as her colorful and anecdotal delivery had everyone in stitches.
In general the classes reinforced what has already become apparent to me. Organic gardening is far more than the acceptance of ascetic limitations on what chemicals can be used to combat pests. The techniques center around building the health of the soil and paying attention to the ecosystem of the farm as a whole. It harks back to the best sustainable methods of agriculture from the days before the "Green Revolution" after World War II when agriculture began depending on industrial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to wrest the maximum possible yield per acre with little regard to the impact to the ecosystem.
A few particular items that I learned will be helpful in the years ahead. I learned that ambient soil temperature should be measured in the morning before the sun has a chance to heat it up. I learned the importance of getting a soil test every three years to learn what organic amendments may need to be added (it's on my to-do list). I learned that mulching is the best solution for keeping down weeds (we need to get a riding mower with a bagger!). I learned that mulching is not advisable in Michigan for hot weather plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Lastly, I learned that I need to use a rain gage to insure that the garden gets at least one inch of water per week.
The gardening plans thus far this year are a shambles. The late arrival of the tractor, the business trip to Mexico and the labor-hogging chicken coop project have meant that everything is late in getting done. I keep reminding myself that it is early yet and there is still time to put the train back on the tracks. If nothing else, next year will surely go more smoothly in comparison!