Homegrown & Organic

Rosalind Creasy was not much taller than a wheelbarrow when she started gardening. Her father gave her a plot, some seeds, and a few words of encouragement. Then he let her loose.

"Everything died," she recalls. "Dad didn't care. What mattered most was the time we spent together in the garden."

Those early failures reaped big rewards. Ms. Creasy has enjoyed a satisfying career as a landscape designer, photographer, and now, author of a new six-book series on edible gardening.

On a recent spring day, while eating a salad of mesclun greens, roasted tomatoes, and feta cheese, Creasy talked about a lifetime of doing what some home harvesters are just now trying: gardening the organic way.

Interest in chemical-free gardening is rising as more people tout its health and environmental benefits as well as the flavorful harvest it puts on the dinner table. Sales of organic products hit an all-time high of $3.5 billion in 1996, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Fruits and vegetables grown without toxic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) are no longer available only in natural-foods stores. Everything from organic carrots to plums are showing up in local supermarkets. Although often more expensive, prices for organic produce are starting to come down. Still, Creasy and other gardening gurus say there's nothing more rewarding than growing your own.

"Organic gardening helps you live in harmony with the earth and its natural cycle," says Hope Cushing, a landscape historian. "It's beautiful, it doesn't poison the environment, and it's a great way to take care of yourself and your family."

So why aren't more people doing it? The answer lies partly in that organic gardening takes a greater understanding of backyard ecology and more effort, at least initially.

"We're a society looking for quick, easy fixes," says Hatsy Shields, a garden writer. "But what people don't realize is that pesticides kill not only bugs, but also bees, which are key to a garden, as well as birds. And these poisons live in the soil for years."

Some gardeners want to not only "solve all of their problems with one jar, but they are also seduced by advertising," says Roger Swain, host of public-television's "The Victory Garden," and science editor of Horticulture magazine. "They want picture-perfect food like they see in the ads -and they think they can't get it without chemicals."

In her Hamilton, Mass., tennis-court-size garden, Ms. Shields sticks to some common strategies for keeping bugs at bay. Most vital, she says, is building healthy, rich soil before planting. This step is one all organic gardeners agree is key. The more you feed the soil with organic matter - compost and manure, the more it feeds the plants, they say.

This year, Shields's approach to soil can be summed up in one word: manure. She just had a truckload of it dumped next to her garden space, and she can hardly wait to start mixing it into the soil. (Manure adds valuable nutrients; loosens clay-based soil; and improves drainage. For sandy soil, it adds texture as well as volume.)

Shields is also a believer in mulching, crop rotation, and integrating herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Not only do flowers beautify, she says, but certain ones, like marigolds (especially older, more fragrant varieties), pansies, and scented geraniums deter pests such as aphids, Japanese beetles, nematodes, snails, and slugs. If flowers or aromatic herbs such as dill, thyme, and cilantro don't do the trick, there are always onions, which Shields plans to scatter throughout her garden.

Those bugs and critters that still venture into her beds "get a free meal," says Shields.

Many organic gardeners also employ homemade treatments such as soap spray for aphids, a mixture of yeast and sugar water for slugs, and hot-pepper spray for other pests. Or they may use "floating row cover," which is fabric, similar to cheesecloth, that covers plants and is porous to air, water, and sunlight, but not insects.

Or one can pick up a bottle of "Bt," Bacillus thuringiensis, an organic spray.

"It's my favorite compound and a powerful tool for any gardener," says Mr. Swain. "It doesn't touch the good guys," he adds, referring to "beneficial bugs." Ladybugs are the best known, but others such as ground beetles, lacewigs, and spiders can also drastically reduce populations of aphids, mites, and slugs. (See story, left.)

Weeds are another challenge to any gardener. Yank them out frequently, especially early on, reminds Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist for National Gardening in Burlington, Vt. Later in the season, says Mr. Nardozzi, weeds can be controlled with mulches such as straw or plastic, or even cardboard. Raised beds help too, he adds, not only with weeds, but they also improve drainage, creating more visible paths so the soil becomes less compacted.

But the fastest route to success in any garden, says Swain, is "the gardener's shadow." If you spend time in the garden and keep an eye on plants, you'll see potential damage and deal with it, he explains. For instance, those who aren't squeamish about slugs can handpick them off plants.

But who's got time to keep watch? Not to worry, you needn't quit your day job to make time for your garden, insist the pros. "Once you've established a baseline of healthy soil [rich in nutrients from organic matter] and smart design [integrating symbiotic varieties], organic gardening is less time-consuming than the 'attack and conquer' approach," says Will Raap, president of Gardener's Supply Company in Burlington, Vt., which sells more tools and supplies for organic gardening than any other catalog company in America.

Business is booming, says Mr. Raap, with sales of compost (especially blends of natural minerals and recycled agricultural byproducts like peanut meal and whey meal), and natural pest controls (such as milky spore for Japanese beetle grubs and Deer Off for deer), increasing 20 to 30 percent in the past few years. Another bestseller is Garden Boost, a water-soluble powder that multiplies the value of fertilizer by nine times (according to in-house testing).

To Raap, organic gardening is a "dance with nature." It's all about "figuring out how to meet both agendas - man's for a productive, beautiful garden, and nature's for restoring the soil and the biosphere." Ultimately, cultivating a close partnership with nature will result in the most success and enjoyment, he adds.

For the novice, Raap suggests one start with a vision, glean ideas and inspiration from gardening magazines, choose a few annuals sure to succeed (tomatoes, lettuce, flowers) a couple of perennials (asparagus, lilies), and then, "act as if they are your children and plant them in soil as well prepared as you'd dress your kids on a cold day."

Some believe that with all the less-toxic pest-eradication methods available today, it's possible to go halfway as an organic gardener. Others, like Maria Rodale of Organic Gardening Magazine, ascribe to a more radical approach.

"Either you are an organic gardener or you are not," says Rodale, granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, who started the publication that pioneered organic gardening with its first issue in 1942. She is also author of "Maria Rodale's Organic Gardening."

"The only thing preventing people from embracing organic gardening," says Rodale, "is lack of knowledge and lack of faith in nature and their own abilities."

It's this lack of knowledge that keeps her family's publication selling. Despite growing competition from other magazines, Organic Gardening Magazine still boasts 600,000 subscribers.

To grow organically, one doesn't need space the size of a tennis court. City dwellers can do it, too. For starters, suggests Creasy, plant containers of herbs and a few vegetables such as zucchini, mesclun mix, and cherry tomatoes.

Whether gardening on a sprawling estate or a windowsill, be realistic, warns Creasy. "Americans often buy with their eyes," she says, adding: "Don't. Consider your climate and its limitations." And never buy into the mentality that you can grow anything, she says, adding that, for her in Los Altos, Calif., eggplant is out.

Which goes to show that even the best gardeners aren't invincible. "I'm always learning," says Creasy, "but that's what it's all about!"

Passion for the process unites all avid organic gardeners. When asked by fans of "The Victory Garden" if he ever gets tired of doing the "same old thing," Swain responds: "Do Christians ever get tired of celebrating Easter?" For him, gardening is "a way of sustaining human life without trashing the planet." Beyond that, he adds, it is "the most meaningful work ever invented by humans."

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