The dirt on organic gardening

Swiss chard seedlings at a Middletown Nursery greenhouse. — File photo by Susan Safford

We’re all aware by this time of the importance of eating local – and what could be more local than your own backyard? Growing your own vegetables is one way to guarantee that you’re putting something as pure and fresh as possible on your table, but there’s a lot to be aware of to ensure the health of your garden, family, and environment.

“I always tell people the place to start is with the soil,” says Paul Mahoney, owner of Jardin Mahoney in Oak Bluffs. “You will not get the results if you don’t prepare the soil well.” He recommends using a combination of compost and cow manure since, as he notes, “Typically the nutrients you get in the cow manure are different than what you get in most other compost mixes.” He adds that if your soil is heavy, you want to add peat moss for aeration and you may need something to bring the ph level of the soil up if it has never been limed.

“There are some things that are really just as safe as any organic product but they cannot be labeled organic because of the way they are derived. Lime is mined as a mineral but it’s still natural.”

Chris Henrikson, owner of Going Native Nursery in Vineyard Haven, focuses on organic growing. “It’s a lot easier than people think. Going organic is better and easier than using chemicals once you get your organic management set up.” She notes that products like Miracle Grow need to be continually replenished while an organic product like Pro Grow is a combination of water-soluble fertilizer for immediate results, and chelated minerals that will last three to five years.

The risks of using chemicals are two-fold, according to Ms. Henrikson. Not only are you ingesting toxins, you are also imperiling the environment. “The Island is basically a big pile of sand and everything just drains through it,” she says. “It doesn’t take long for chemicals to reach the water table. We’re essentially poisoning our neighbors.”

According to Barbara Smith, propagator for Middletown Nursery, many vegetables can be planted outdoors right now, but cucumbers and tomatoes need to be started indoors unless you have a greenhouse. A makeshift mini-greenhouse — known as a cold frame — can be fashioned out of a box with a window sash.

Although last year’s crops suffered due to too much rain and tomato blight, vegetables usually do well on the Island. “Out here everything grows well,” Ms. Smith says. “You just have to amend your soil. We have strong sunlight and we have great air conditions.”

“This is the perfect time for planting lettuce and peas, all the cool weather lovers,” says Lauren Crosbie of Vineyard Gardens. She adds that you can also put in carrots and other root vegetables right now since they won’t come up until they’re ready. If there’s a threat of frost, you can always throw a dishtowel over plants at night. “You just want to protect from moisture right now. At night the moisture drops and freezes and that’s where you get your frost.”

If you bring seedlings home from a greenhouse you need to “harden them off” for a couple of days before planting, according to Ms. Crosbie. Leave them outside during the day and bring them onto a porch or into a garage at night to gradually acclimate plants that have been raised in the heat of a greenhouse.

Organic seeds are available at a number of places on the Island, including SBS. “The big thing to look for in seeds is non-GMO (genetically modified),” says Liz Packer, manager. She explains that because organic seeds are grown in soils not treated with chemical fertilizers and without the benefit of chemical pesticides and herbicides, they adapt well to organic gardening. “They were developed without the crutch of chemical influence.” She adds that organic seeds are typically heirloom or non-hybrid varieties, which are hardier stock.

Mr. Mahoney offers one more word of caution for amateur organic gardeners, concerning pest control. “There are some organic products out there are far more toxic than synthetics.” He often recommends the bio-pesticide neem oil, made from the seeds of an evergreen tree. “It’s a good overall pest and fungus control.” He warns that just because something is labeled organic doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe. There are so many products on the market for organic gardening that it may be difficult to determine what’s really healthy.

Ms. Packer says that people tend to be very savvy about reading the backs of packages when it comes to the food they eat. She suggests that they adopt the same practice with gardening products. “Be sure to read the bag and know what you’re putting into your soil,” she says. “You are what you eat.”