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Basic principles of organic gardening

Bobolink (Dolichonyx orizyvorus)
Photo: Raymond Belhumeur
  • Bobolink
  • Fireweed
  • Climbing bittersweet
  • White breasted nuthatch
  • Joe-Pye weed
  • Danaus plexippus

How do I plant an environmentally friendly garden?

Here you’re at the core of the garden: working in harmony with nature to take care of living things – yourself included!

These recommendations apply to all garden themes in the My Space for Life Garden program.

Choose the right location for the right plant

Gardening “with” nature is gratifying, and generally it requires less effort if you work with existing conditions and not against them. Be a smart gardener, and choose simplicity.

What does that involve? Knowing the natural strengths and weaknesses of the key players: sunlight, soil type, hardiness zone, potential pests and other physical conditions.

During your preparations, carefully observe and analyze the characteristics of your garden in order to select your plants and their location. One example: a plant that, by nature, requires shade and moist soil will be more resistant to disease and pests if it’s planted in these conditions. According to the same logic, a tomato plant will be more productive in full sun and in rich soil.

Consider the amount of sunlight, the soil characteristics of the site, the hardiness zone of your area and the space that plants will require when they reach maturity. Favor plants that are more resistant to pests, disease and drought: these will require less maintenance.

Also take care to plan the scope of your project based on the time and energy available. You’ll end up with more of a sense of pleasure and discovery without feeling overwhelmed by the job. A garden can be a list of obligations or a setting for delightful exploration, all depending on the preparation that goes into it...

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Nourishing the soil

Contrary to common beliefs, soil is life (also)! The best way of meeting the nutritional needs of plants is to nourish the earth and its living organisms, which in turn will nourish the plants. To do that, opt for compost, the gardener’s true black gold. Ideally you’ll make your own compost or prepare a “lasagna” of compost in the fall. Of course, you can buy commercial compost as well. Use it in preparing flowerbeds or a kitchen garden, or when putting your plants in the ground. Do you garden in containers? Choose a potting soil designed for container growing that already contains compost.

Ideally, you’ll make your own compost and make the most of your green waste.

Have you thought about building a ‘’lasagna’’ garden or practicing chop and drop by recycling directly your garden residues on the surface of your garden? This way of gardening reproduces natural cycles of decomposition found in nature.

Nourish your curiosity:

Covering the soil

Organic mulches such as shredded dead leaves or RCW (ramial chipped wood) maintain soil moisture during the summer, nourish the soil, and limit weed growth. They also constitute a plant cover that is home to a host of organisms that are helpful in the garden, in addition to reducing the watering needs of your plants. All that for so little!

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Natural fertilizers as needed

First you have to know that not all plants need fertilizing. Use fertilizers when needed, as complements to compost, especially to correct a mineral deficiency or to meet the needs of the hungriest plants. Opt for natural fertilizers (e.g., liquid seaweed, chicken manure, crab meal). To free up their nutritional elements, most natural fertilizers have to be broken down by the organisms living in the soil. Thus, in addition to feeding the plants, they stimulate the biological life of the soil, which is not the case with chemical fertilizers.

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Using water wisely

In open ground, water the plants only when required, and thoroughly. Preferably do your watering in the morning or the early evening. Avoid watering the foliage to prevent the development of fungal diseases. At all times, respect your municipal by-laws on water use.

Whenever possible, collect rainwater in barrels or pots. Make sure to cover these containers with a fine screen to prevent the proliferation of mosquitoes.

Taking it a step further:

Autumn laziness welcome

In the great majority of cases, autumn housekeeping of beds is not necessary, or even desirable. So don’t remove dead leaves and dried stems: these will provide a home for a multitude of beneficial organisms over the winter.

The seeds and fruit that remain on plants at the end of the season are also an important food source for birds. Sometimes doing less is the right thing to do.

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Growing in harmony

In attracting more helpful organisms to your garden (predator mites, predator or parasitoid insects, birds, and so on) and in protecting the ones already present, you’re promoting biological control of pests.

In a garden, diversity allows for multiple and beneficial interactions, notably between plants and insects. With a great diversity of plants, we get closer to the balance found in natural ecosystems. A diversified garden is a resilient garden, because it favors insects. Some might be undesired, but most of them contribute to creating a balance in the vegetable garden. 

Should a problem involving harmful insects, disease or weeds require an intervention, apply cultural, physical, mechanical or biological methods. To learn more:

Accepting imperfection

Not your average garden – less perfect, more alive? And why not! Gardening for biodiversity sets off a change in perspective as compared to the “traditional” garden esthetic.

The presence of these new guests may upset your perception of the ideal garden a little bit. The leaves on your plants risk being chewed on by caterpillars, but later you’ll be able to observe butterflies. Bees, like other pollinators, will gather pollen from your flowers. Birds will probe your flowerbeds in search of worms and insects.

This type of gardening also makes it possible to cultivate… patience, because plants and animals won’t be taking up residence overnight.

When you adopt a curious and tolerant attitude, those observations become the precious growing medium of your explorations, because each of them is proof that you’ve done your work well: your garden’s becoming a space for life!

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