(from Texas Gardening the Natural Way by Howard Garrett)
Organic gardening techniques and products improve and support natural ecosystems. They work with nature's laws and systems and don't contaminate the soil, water, and air. Toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, on the other hand, do contaminate the soil, water, and air. Organic products improve the soil and the environment in general, with every application.
Organic fertilizing and soil building creates nutrient-rich soil by increasing the carbon and mineral content, reduces or eliminates erosion and soil compaction, and increases the quality of the plant growth year after year.
Organic food tastes better. Chefs and homeowners across the country are converting to organically grown ingredients because clean plants from healthy soils produce more flavorful and more nutritious fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Organic foods allow true flavors to come through.
It is more fun to garden organically. There's no worry about spilling products on yourself or concern about having sprays drift onto you, the kids, the pets, or the wrong plants. The best part is it gets better every year. As the soil health improves, so do plant roots and the plants' overall immune systems, foliage, flavor, and fruit productivity, as well as the beauty of your garden.
Landscape design is the thoughtful arrangement of structures, paving, and plants for the use of people. Whether you hire a landscape architect or design your garden yourself, the process is the same. Arrange the elements in your mind, then on paper to be functional, fun, flexible, and fitting for your family. Be open-minded, continue to learn and make changes where improvement is needed, and don't be limited by your first ideas.
Creativity is much more important than following a pattern or set of rules established by someone else. It's your home. The only rules are those that are self-inflicted. Learn from the experience of others, but don't let their input control what you do.
Instead of rules, set goals for yourself, your family, and your property. What's more important? Decoration or function? If a budget is limited or has to be cut, cut anything but the trees. A simple landscape of graceful trees, grass, a little native ground cover, and a few tough perennials is hard to beat. Don't waste money on unnecessary improvements, such as an expensive fence, when you plan to cover it with plants.
Consider the long-term maintenance during the planning stage. Choose native and well-adapted plants. Maintenance problems are built in from the beginning when unadapted plants are used.
Don't be concerned about having to make changes. Thinning your landscape or removing certain plants allows other materials more room to breathe and grow. Don't fret about moving plants or replacing them if you've goofed, or if you simply changed your mind, or if the growth of the garden dictates changes. Landscape design is a continual learning experience. Those who think they have figured it all out are doomed to mediocrity. Homeowners should continue to experiment with alternate possibilities and new ideas. Gardens are dynamic and ever changing, as are true designers and gardeners. Successful landscaping is more of a journey than a destination.
The design stage is very simple: sketch something on paper as quickly as possible. Then, no matter whether the sketch is good or bad, the editing and refining process can begin. Most rough drafts should end up in the trash can. Get something down on paper, assume it's wrong, and try again. If it really is good, you'll come back to it. Don't be afraid to admit an idea doesn't work. On the other hand, don't be afraid to use your good ideas. While you're testing new ideas, you're learning. Massage the good ideas into better ones, and then groom and improve the details of the plan.
Successful landscape design is pleasing to the eye, is comfortable, functions as needed, requires moderate care, and costs only a little more than you had planned. A garden has at least two lives—the first when it is installed, the second when the trees mature and shade the ground. When the trees are young, the majority of the shrubs, ground covers, and grasses must be those that thrive in the full sun. Later, as the trees grow and mature, the situation changes. Shade becomes the order of the day, and the low plants and understory trees must be shade tolerant. Natives and introduced plants can and should be used together. Biodiversity is an important aspect of proper design and proper horticulture.
Trees are the first consideration. Statistics show that landscaping is the only home improvement that can return 200 percent or more of the original investment. The most important single element of that investment is the trees. In addition to adding beauty, trees create the atmosphere or feel of a garden. They invite us, shade us, surprise us, house wildlife, create backgrounds and niches, inspire and humble us. Trees increase in value as they grow and save energy and money by shading our houses in the summer and by letting the sunshine through for warmth in the winter.
Choosing the correct tree for a specific spot is not just an aesthetic decision but an important investment decision as well. The critical consideration in selecting a tree for a particular site is not how pretty you think the tree will look growing in that particular spot, but rather how the tree will like that particular spot. Understanding the horticultural needs of a tree is essential. Plant hardiness and adaptability are major considerations here. Plant selection and arrangement are only successful if the plants are happy in their new locations.
There are two categories of trees: shade and ornamental. Shade trees are the large structural trees that form the skeleton of the planting plan and grow to be 40' to 100' tall. They are used to create the outdoor spaces, block undesirable views, and provide shade. This category includes the oaks, elms, ashes, pecans, and other long-lived trees.
Trees, if used properly and not simply scattered all over the site, function as the walls and roofs of our outdoor rooms. Of all the plants, shade trees provide the greatest long-term value, so their use should be carefully considered and given a large percentage of the landscape budget.
Ornamental trees are those used for aesthetics, to create focal points, and that grow to be 8' to 30' tall. Trees such as crabapple, hawthorn, and crape myrtle are used primarily for their spring or summer flower color. Others, such as yaupon or wax myrtle, are used for their evergreen color or berries. Some, such as Japanese maple and witch hazel, are used for their distinctive foliage color and interesting branching characteristics.
Shrubs should be selected on the basis of what variety will grow best in the space provided. If more than one variety will work, this decision becomes subjective based on the desire for flowers, interesting foliage, fall color, and so on. However, horticultural requirements should be the prerequisite and have priority over aesthetic considerations. Tall-growing varieties are used for background plantings and screens. Medium-height shrubs are used for flower display or evergreen color. Dwarf varieties are used for masses and interesting bed shapes or as a transition between ground covers and medium-height shrubs.
Ground-cover plants are low-growing, vinelike, and grasslike materials that are primarily used to cover large areas of ground. They are best used where grass won't grow and for creating interesting bed shapes. Ground covers are usually the best choice in heavily shaded areas. Often the ground covers become the last phase of the permanent garden installation and are planted after the trees have matured to shade the ground. Ground covers can also be used to reduce the area of grass. Once established, these plants will be less time consuming and less costly to maintain.
Vines are usually fast-growing plants that twine or cling to climb vertically on walls, fences, posts, or overhead structures. They are used for quick shade; vertical softening of walls, fences, and other surfaces; or colorful flower display. Vines are an inexpensive way to have lots of greenery and color in a hurry. They are also quite good in smaller spaces where wide-growing shrubs and trees would be a problem.
Herbs make wonderful landscape plants and should be used more in ornamental gardens even if gourmet cooking or herbal medicine is not in the plans. The traditional definition of herb is a herbaceous plant that is used to flavor foods, provide medicinal properties, or offer up fragrances. My definition of a herb is a plant that has a use other than landscaping and looking pretty. In other words, most plants are also herbs.
Flowers are an important finishing touch to any fine garden. Everyone loves flowers. Annuals are useful for that dramatic splash of one-season color, and the perennials are valuable because of their faithful return to bloom year after year. Since replacing annual color each year is expensive, annuals should be concentrated to one or a few spots rather than scattering them all about. The perennial flowers can be used more randomly throughout the garden.
Grass plantings should be kept to a minimum. They should be selected based on proposed use. Grasses should also be selected based on horticultural requirements. For example, large sunny areas that will have active use should use common Bermudagrass or buffalograss. Shady, less-used areas should use St. Augustine. Areas that will not have much water should use buffalograss.
Xeriscaping, a term that comes from the Greek word xeros for "dry," is a landscaping concept that uses less water than traditional landscaping by choosing plants that are drought tolerant and by using horticultural techniques that use water most efficiently. The basic points are as follows:
Understanding soils is a critical part of successful plantings. Soils in Texas are as varied as the people, with a huge range of terrain, soil types, and climate. Texas has seashore, wetlands, swamps, forests, deserts, grasslands, hills, and mountains. Although the state can be divided into various geological and climatic areas, there is a common basis for organic gardening. The sandy soils of East Texas have certain advantages and deficiencies, and the black clay soils of North Texas do as well. Both can be converted into balanced healthy soil.
Basically, the black and white soils, black clay on top of white limestone rock, are deficient in two things—air and organic matter. Bringing these soils into a healthy condition is relatively easy. It is done by stimulating biological activity with a variety of techniques and products, depending on the budget. These include physical aeration, deep-rooted plants, manure, humates, compost and other organic fertilizers, volcanic rock sands and powders, sugars such as molasses, and natural mulches.
Sandy soils, on the other hand, are usually deficient in everything but sand. They have greater porosity and a higher water-percolation rate. The same approach and the same tools are used, just more and more often until the sand can hold organic matter and nutrients.
Some people consider pH to be an important factor in soil preparation, watering, and plant selection. The truth is that pH is more an indicator than a controlling factor. Some plants, like azaleas, gardenias, blueberries, and pin oaks, like low pH soils of 5.5 6.2. Many others can stand high pH soils of 6.5 and higher.
Raised beds are often used to improve drainage, for aesthetic reasons, or for ease of maintenance. Wood should not be used for the walls. If there are enough toxic chemicals in the wood to keep it from rotting, it will be far too toxic to be around plants, especially food crops. If there are not enough toxic chemicals in the wood, the wood will rot away quickly. Either way, wood is a bad investment.
Acceptable materials for walls include natural stone, concrete wall systems, poured concrete, or cinder blocks. Cinder blocks are the most economical and easiest to install. If placed with the holes up, the blocks can be filled with paramagnetic sand, such as lava, to help hold the blocks in place and improve plant growth.
If your soil has been contaminated with petroleum products, pesticides, treated lumber, or other toxins, it can be cleaned up. After removal of the unwanted material, drench the area with NORIT activated carbon. Next, drench the area with Garrett Juice plus 2 oz. of orange oil or d-limonene per gallon. Then, for beds, add about 4 inches compost, lava sand at 80 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft., Texas greensand at 40 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft., and horticultural cornmeal at 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Organic fertilizer should also be added at 10 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Specialty crops like roses, gardenias, and camellias need even greater quantities of the same ingredients. Poorly adapted plants like azaleas and rhododendrons need even more soil improvements. If you are thinking about trying to grow those, create raised beds of 50 percent compost and 50 percent shredded hardwood bark or shredded native cedar. Mix in about 10 lbs. of Texas greensand per cubic yard of material. Mix it thoroughly and moisten completely before placing in the bed. For grass areas, the improvements aren't as important. Light applications of dry molasses and volcanic rock are usually enough.
In general, the ideal time to plant trees, shrubs, and spring-blooming perennials is fall; second best is anytime in the winter; third is the spring; last is the heat of summer. Planting in the fall or winter offers roots a chance to start growing before the foliage emerges in the spring. Most plants can be planted any month of the year. They will usually be more happy in the soil than in the black plastic pots sitting above ground in the nursery.
Hot part of summer: When transporting plants in an open vehicle, cover to protect the foliage from the sun and wind and keep the root ball moist. Always dampen the planting beds prior to planting.
Freezing weather: Don't leave plants out of the ground during extreme cold without protecting the roots from possible freeze damage. Store plants in sunny areas prior to planting. Always keep the plants moist and mulched during freezing weather. Once in the ground, plants will normally survive a freeze.
Mild weather: The mild weather can make you forget to keep containers or newly planted material moist, so check often but do not overwater.
Seeds should be broadcast at the proper spacing, and the soil should be firmed by using the back of a hoe or a board, giving the seeds good soil contact. Seeds can then be covered with a very thin layer of earthworm castings or screened compost.
The seedbed should be watered gently and kept moist until the small seedlings come up. The watering should then be cut back to the proper watering schedule and amount for each particular plant species. For small gardens, an effective technique to improve germination is to cover the seeded area with moist burlap, which serves to shade and keep the seed-bed evenly moist. Remove the burlap to save and reuse after the seeds have sprouted. Gentle watering is essential to minimize displaced or washed-away seed.
Thinning is a controversial subject With wide spacing, the roots will go deeper. Thinning can be done by pulling a rake through the seed-bed when the seedlings are about an inch tall. Thinning can also be done by hand by clipping the seedlings with scissors. Edible seedlings or sprouts can be used in salads.
Most seeds need a constant warm temperature, about room temperature (not of the garage but of the living room), to germinate. Most seeds don't need light to germinate and can be put on top of the refrigerator or in other out-of-the-way places. Newspaper or plastic sheets or lids can be put over the flats or pots to help maintain the constant temperature and moisture level. The windowsill is a poor place to germinate seeds because of temperature fluctuations. Windowsills are hot places on sunny days and often too cold at night.
Seed flats should be checked daily. After sprouts emerge, remove the covering. To prevent seedlings from leaning toward the light, turn the pots or flats around at least every two days. If the seedlings don't get enough light, they'll stretch and get weak and spindly. Very few species can recover from legginess.
Water the seedlings gently. If you cover your flats and trays, the soil will stay moist until you remove the covering. After that, check the soil several times a day with your fingers. If it is dry, add water. Plants near heaters, vents, or on top of the refrigerator will dry out quickly and may need water more than once a day. Seedlings are delicate and shouldn't be over- or harshly watered. They can easily collapse under the weight of the water. Water gently around the edge of the container or at the base of each plant.
Some gardeners prefer bottom watering. Fill a sink or other container with 2 inches of water and put your flats or pots in water until it seeps up into the surface of the soil. Some gardeners oppose this method because it tends to keep the soil too wet and pushes out the oxygen. We prefer watering from above.
Organic fertilizer can be added to the soil after seedlings are about an inch tall. Earthworm castings and compost are very gentle and may be the best choices for young plants. Garrett Juice can be added to the watering at 2 oz. per gallon. Even though it is primarily a foliar-feeding material, it is also an excellent mild fertilizer for the soil.
Seedlings need to be hardened off for a week or so outdoors to acclimate to outdoor temperatures before being transplanted into their final place in the garden. Introducing young plants to an outdoor environment should be done gradually on a mild day. Plants should be left in partial shade and protected from wind for a few hours the first day, then given a little more exposure time each day. It normally takes three or four days to accustom young plants started indoors to direct sunlight outdoors. In a week or so, the plants can stay out all day in the full sun. Seedlings can be moved back indoors during the transition period if the weather changes abruptly.
Flats or pots always need to have a good soaking before they are taken outdoors. Before planting, we like to soak the plants in a bucket of water with seaweed until they are saturated. Using Garrett Juice in the water is also a good technique. Plant roots should be sopping wet and planted into a moist bed.
Using natural techniques makes gardening easier and more enjoyable. Change and new ideas of any kind always seem harder and more complicated, but the Natural Way really is better in every way, even from an economic standpoint. Another important point is that it all gets easier and better every year. And there is no having to replace worn-out beds ever.
Increase the health of the soil by using compost, earthworm castings, and organic fertilizers to increase the organic matter. Mulch all plantings. Maintain an organic mulch layer on the bare soil year-round. Avoid all synthetic fertilizers that contain no organic matter. These fake fertilizers not only don't build soil health, they decrease it with every application.
Balance the minerals in the soil by applying rock powders or sands that provide the major nutrients and trace minerals needed by plants to be healthy. Volcanic rock materials are especially important because they provide much more than minerals. The best choices include lava sand, Texas greensand, soft rock phosphate, granite sand, zeolite, basalt, and natural diatomaceous earth.
Healthy gardens, farms, and ranches need a mix of plants and animals. Monocultures of plants are often very productive for a while but later succumb to insects and diseases. Examples include the Irish potato blight, Dutch elm disease, and more recently oak wilt here in Texas. Monocultures lack the genetic diversity to respond to changing environmental threats and become sitting ducks for parasites, predators, and pathogens. Stop using all products that do damage to the life in the soil. Encourage life.
Planting well-adapted plants is the most important step. Unless you select adapted plants, it doesn't matter whether your program is organic or toxic. The best choices are the natives, but the well-adapted introductions and naturalized plants are also good.
Sugar, especially in the form of molasses, is an effective soil amendment. These carbohydrates are food for the beneficial microorganisms. Using sugar heavily should not be done on a continuing basis, but it is highly effective in the early stages of the program. Small amounts of molasses are effective long-term and are often found in quality organic liquid and dry fertilizers.
Prepare beds for ornamentals or food crops by scraping away existing grass and weeds. Toss the material into the compost pile. Spraying herbicides first is an unnecessary, contaminating waste of money and time. Next add a 4-6 inch layer of compost, lava sand, or other volcanic material at 40 80 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft., organic fertilizer at 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft., wheat/corn/molasses amendment at 30 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. and till to a depth of 3 inches into the native soil. Excavation and additional ingredients such as concrete sand, peat moss, foreign soil, and pine bark should not be used. They are a waste of money and can hinder plant growth.
More compost is needed for shrubs and flowers than for ground cover. Add Texas greensand at 40 80 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. to black and white soils and high-calcium lime at 50 100 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. to acid soils. Decomposed granite is an effective amendment for most soils. It can be used up to 100 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.
Remove container-grown plants from their pots, rake the loose soil off the top of the ball, soak the root balls in water with Garrett Juice added, and set the plants in the new beds at a level slightly higher than the surrounding grade. Remove the cloth and excess soil from the top of balled and burlapped plants. Cut or tear bound roots of container-grown plants. In all cases, plant wet root balls into moist soil.
Mulch all shrubs, trees, ground covers, and food crops with 2" 5" of shredded native tree trimmings to protect the soil from sunlight, wind, and rain; inhibit weed germination; decrease watering needs; and mediate soil temperature. Other natural mulches can be used, but avoid Bermuda-grass hay because of possible herbicide residue.
Apply organic fertilizer two or three times per year. Foliar-feed during the growing season by spraying turf, tree and shrub foliage, trunks, limbs, and soil at least monthly with Garrett Juice or other organic blends. Add volcanic sand such as lava sand, dry molasses, and humate to the soil the first few years.
When soil is healthy, microbes in it will produce and release nutrients during the decomposition process. The microbiotic activity releases tied-up trace elements such as iron, zinc, boron, chlorine, copper, magnesium, molybdenum, and others, which are all important to a well-balanced soil.
The most important product in an organic program is organic material, which breaks down into organic matter or humus during the decomposition process. Humus reduces down further into humic acid, other beneficial acids, and mineral nutrients.
Organic fertilizers are better than artificial products because they are the derivatives of plants and therefore contain most or all of the trace elements that exist in growing plants. Synthetic fertilizers do not have this rounded balance of mineral nutrients.
In addition, organic fertilizers are naturally slow release and provide nutrients to plants when they need them. Synthetic fertilizers glut the plants with nutrients immediately after application, or soon thereafter, which is usually at the wrong time.
Fertilizer requirements for trees, shrubs, vines, and ground covers:
Fertilize all shrubs and ground covers with an organic fertilizer at 15 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Apply three times per year, in February, June, and September.
Fertilizer requirements for turf:
Fertilize all turf areas with an organic fertilizer at 15 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Apply three times per year, in February, June, and September.
Water enough to keep the plants happy and no more. All of the organic amendments will reduce watering requirements.
Rain is the best irrigation. Overhead sprinklers are second best, and drip irrigation is the third best choice although it can be cost effective and efficient in row crops.
Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon when watering pots. Do as often as time permits. Use 1 oz. of liquid humate in areas with acid soils and water.
Frequency of mowing varies with grass varieties. Leave the clippings on the lawn to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Mulching mowers are the best but are not essential. Put occasional excess clippings in the compost pile. Do not ever let clippings leave the site. Do not use, or allow maintenance people to use, line trimmers around shrubs and trees. They can do serious damage to plants.
Remove dead, diseased, and conflicting limbs. Do not overprune. Do not make flush cuts. Leave the branch collars intact. Do not paint cuts except on red oaks and live oaks in oak-wilt areas when spring pruning can't be avoided. Remember that pruning cuts hurt trees. For the most part, pruning is done for your benefit, not for the benefit of the trees.
Compost can be started any time of the year in sun or shade. Anything once living can go in the compost grass clippings, tree trimmings, food scraps, bark, sawdust, rice hulls, weeds, nut hulls, animal manure, and the carcasses of animals. Mix the ingredients together and simply pile the material on the ground. The ideal mixture is 80 percent vegetative matter and 20 percent animal waste, although any mix will compost. Oxygen is a critical component. Ingredients should be a mix of coarse- and fine-textured materials to promote air circulation through the pile. Turn the pile as time allows to speed up the process. Another critical component is water. A compost pile should contain roughly the moisture of a squeezed-out sponge to help the living organisms thrive and work their magic. Compost is ready to use as a soil amendment when the ingredients are no longer identifiable. Compost will be dark brown, soft, and crumbly and it will smell like the forest floor. Rough, unfinished compost can be used as a topdressing mulch around all plantings.
Manure compost tea is an effective foliar spray because of its many mineral nutrients and naturally occurring microorganisms. Fill any container half full of compost and finish filling with water. Let the mix sit a few days and then dilute and spray on the foliage of any and all plants. Pumping air into the tea with a simple aquarium pump increases its power. How to dilute the dark compost tea before using depends on the compost used. A rule of thumb is to dilute the leachate down to one part compost liquid to four to ten parts water. The ready-to-use spray should look like iced tea. Be sure to strain the solids out with old pantyhose, cheesecloth, or floating row-cover material. Full-strength tea makes an excellent fire ant mound drench when mixed with 2 oz. molasses and 2 oz. orange oil per gallon. Add vinegar, molasses, and seaweed to compost tea to make Garrett Juice.
Adapted plants growing in healthy soil have a powerful built-in immunity to insect pests and diseases. Toxic pesticides should not be used because they don't work. They always kill more beneficial organisms than the targeted pests.
Most weeds are controlled by having healthy soil and by mulching all plants and bare soil properlywith shredded materials. Avoid synthetic herbicides. Spray broadleaf weeds as a last resort with full-strength vinegar mixed with 2 oz. orange oil and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap or remove weeds by hand.
For black spot, brown patch, powdery mildew, and other fungal problems, the best control is prevention through soil improvement, avoidance of high-nitrogen fertilizers, and proper watering. Spray Garrett Juice plus garlic, potassium bicarbonate, milk, or neem. Treat soil with horticultural cornmeal at about 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Organic gardens have few disease problems, but these natural techniques work well for occasional problems.