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Organic Gardening: Chemical Free Zone

By Louisa Pearson
With the best will in the world, the notion of an all-organic garden can seem daunting. Like growing old gracefully, we know it's the right thing to do, but like that anti-wrinkle cream that promises a better, younger you, the fertilisers and weedkillers on sale at the garden centre can be awfully tempting.

But if you've previously adopted the quick fix approach in the pursuit of a plentiful flower bed or vegetable patch, John Fedor is a man who might persuade you to change your ways.

Fedor's book, Organic Gardening, sets out to prove that gardening without chemicals is the healthier, cheaper and more satisfying option. After all, the idea of working with, rather than against, nature is a logical one. From a safety point of view - for yourself and the environment - the risks are minimised, meaning there's no need to worry about young children coming into contact with synthetic weedkillers or causing unintentional harm to visiting wildlife.

Then there's the cost. "With organic gardening, very few commercial products are required," says Fedor. "Kitchen and garden waste are recycled into compost, reducing the amount of rubbish sent to the incinerator or landfill." The principles are sound, but what about the nitty-gritty of making organic gardening work? First of all, Fedor points out that the approach is nothing new. "I think it's about returning to the attitudes of days of old," he says. Beautiful gardens existed long before chemicals for garden use were invented, although they were inevitably more labour intensive. Fedor says that selecting plant varieties that best suit your region and climate will reduce pest and disease problems. And when you find a plant that works well in your garden, saving the seed provides an inexpensive, reliable way to use the crop again the following year.

Fedor is a big fan of heritage and heirloom varieties, firstly because, unlike many modern hybrids, their seed can be saved and replanted. They also benefit from having been proven over many years. A good way to start is to become a member of the HDRA Heritage Seed Library gardenorganic, which gives you access to several hundred of these versatile plants.

One of the hardest mental barriers for some of us to get over with organic gardening is that quick fixes aren't recommended. Fedor says that although you can get fast organic solutions - a high nitrogen liquid organic feed to improve an ailing crop, for example - it's better to focus on the long-term solution. A dose of inorganic fertiliser might seem harmless, but, explains Fedor, "each teaspoon of soil contains hundreds of thousands of living organisms. If the pH is changed or there's an excess of some unnatural compound in the soil, these organisms aren't able to do their work." For healthy organic plants, Fedor says that looking after the soil is the organic gardener's number one task. In many ways, this simply involves mimicking nature. Adding compost to the soil reflects the way that, in a wild setting, fallen leaves, animal droppings, annual roots and so on would all decompose, turning into humus and feeding the soil. Gardeners effectively perform the same task by replenishing the soil with compost, and give the crops a helping hand by weeding and watering.

"It's a wonderful help in the garden to look at how things work in nature and try to imitate them," says Fedor. If you want to go organic, establishing your own compost heap is a must.

After nourishing the soil, Fedor says that planning is the next most important step to a successful organic garden. Picking the right plants for your climate and location can combine with crop rotation to bring excellent results. For the best yield, never follow this year's crop with another member of the same family and arrange your plan so that heavy feeders always follow legumes. The way you plant also makes a big difference. Fedor suggests planting seeds close enough so that the mature plants touch. This means that light to the soil surface will be restricted, preventing it from drying out, and keeping weeds at bay.

Companion planting is another useful trick for the organic gardener, and Fedor suggests you experiment to see what works best for you. French marigolds are often popular, helping to kill nematodes in the soil and deter whitefly in the greenhouse. Other tips include growing parsley to deter carrot flies and avoiding growing tomatoes close to brassicas as it impedes their growth.

But what if the worst should happen and your plants suffer from disease or get destroyed by insects?

"Conventional thinking on pests and diseases is to find chemicals that kill or control them," says Fedor. "Many organic gardeners have taken this same approach and seek out organic pesticides and fungicides that do the same job." But he says this is flawed thinking, because healthy plants, in the right conditions, grow vigorously and almost never require chemical protection against pests and diseases. If your garden has a diverse range of plants, this should encourage beneficial insects which will, in turn, keep pests under control. Other approaches include installing physical barriers or using organic pest control methods such as a soap spray - but be aware that this could kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Biological controls, such as parasitic wasps to keep greenhouse aphids in check, are available from specialist suppliers.

It's also worth remembering that the organic approach applies to the whole garden, not just the vegetable patch. There's an organic solution to most problems - for example, a flame weeder should get rid of those weeds between paving stones just as effectively as a chemical solution. And when trees, shrubs and flowering plants are grown organically, they provide a healthy habitat for insects and animals.

"Things do get easier," says Fedor. "After a certain number of years of working on your beds, there's very little to do but seasonal maintenance." So it might sound like hard work, but once you've created your own environmentally friendly eco-system, success should come naturally. Reference.

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