Organic Gardening in California
Organic gardening in California on the most basic level is the same as anywhere else. You work with nature instead of trying to control it. When you try to garden in an area that has not been treated with chemicals this is pretty easy. The challenging aspect is finding enough of nature to work with in a landscape that has been treated with all of the modern fixes. In a landscape where green lawns come on a truck and are kept green because of another truck full of chemicals, shifting a landscape back to fending for itself can be intimidating. The soil is full of salts from the fertilizers. There are no beneficial insects in this post apocalyptic garden, mostly just ants. The natural soil fungi are poisoned by fungicides and even by well intentioned gardeners putting concentrated salt fertilizers around their plants. Thankfully nature is forgiving and when it is given just a small respite a wealth of organisms start to grow. Even by our lapse of attention and inaction we begin to garden organically as nature begins the process of repair. If you look in a thimbleful of untreated water there are a million bacteria and 10 million virus organisms, almost all of them good for us. Just by leaving things alone there is a wealth of life that is trying to start growing.
When working in the organic garden the highest priority is to mimic nature whenever possible. If we take a task away from mother nature it is ours to keep. For instance, when we spray all of the bugs with a full spectrum insecticide we lock ourselves into a situation where we have to keep spraying indefinitely to stave off wave after wave of herbivorous insects consuming our vegetation, because all of the insect's predators died with the spraying along with the bad guys. Or we have to wait an inordinate amount of time for the beneficial insects to arrive and survive the after-effects of our chemical warfare. By working 'with nature' in our landscape designs, we reduce the amount of work required to keep a landscape in aesthetic order. I have always been driven to find a way to get more with less work. 'Think more, work less' is a great motto and it is very appropriate for the organic garden. By design I attempt to attract a number of insects as pollinators and for the beauty of the insects themselves. Butterfly attraction is a serious diversion for many. By allowing the insects and encouraging the birds many of problems caused by the insects never come to pass. Attracting wildlife to the garden is a solution to the pest problem not a cause of it.
If there is one pat answer to most of what ails a garden or its plants, it is add more organic mulch. In the forest, leaves fall on the ground and they are taken into the ground by insects or broken down by fungi and bacteria. In the garden we often busy ourselves raking up and removing much of what would help our soil grow. Mulching with compost or woodchips is our way of mimicking the falling leaves in a more controlled fashion. I hate double digging. It is too much work. There are in excess of 10,000 insects in a cubic foot of healthy soil. Each of them loves to dig. Let them! Within a few short months the tilth of the soil improves dramatically merely by adding organic material to the top of the soil. This is the single most important idea in gardening, whether you are gardening organically or not.
Organic gardening does not just mean that you just don't spray the bugs. The greatest enemy to the health of our garden is salt. We get it as residue from our water as it evaporates, from our chemical fertilizers, and salt even leaches out of the cement around our homes. We store our water in reservoirs evaporating the water and concentrating the salts. Our water is laced with chlorine to keep things from growing in it. Because table salt is Sodium and Chlorine combined, salt is generated each time we water with our garden hose or sprinkler system. Our fertilizers that are in powder form are another formulation of a salt. In this case ammonia is combined into a salt. Adding organic mulch gradually neutralizes the effects of the excess salts by the release of humic acid as the compost breaks down. It can be beneficial to the garden to spray humic acid to counteract salt buildup in the soil. Truly the most beneficial thing that happens to a landscape is rain. In California we just don't get enough of that rain to disolve all of those salts. In a wet year the salts dissolve in water and will be drawn out of the reach of the plants. Nutrients can be added to the soil but they should not be added in such concentrations that they will damage the surrounding soil. This is most easily done with an aged manure or ground and composted plant material.
Choosing plants appropriate for our climate is probably one of the ways that you can make the greatest impact in allowing a garden to be cared for organically. More plants die due to over-watering than drought, ask any professional gardener. When a city ordinance required that the irrigation water be turned off during a severe drought in our area some years ago most of the plants that I was caring for did not all die. In fact, I was surprised that many started to grow much better. Happy plants are resistant to bug problems. For years people have been selecting plants that are equipped to handle the vagaries of our climate. The problem is that, as a group, we just don't know enough about the plants in our gardens. To remedy this problem we are developing a series of lists, pictures and descriptions detailing the needs of our plants. I spent a long time not being able to distinguish the difference between a Privet and an Indian Hawthorn. I hope the garden images on our site will help you figure out what is growing in your yard. Or maybe we can inspire you in choosing some new plants that you would like to grow as you start gardening organically.
The ecological principle that greater diversity in an environment is a sign of its greater health holds true in the garden setting as well. When I look around the world that surrounds me there are hundreds of thousands of species, not to mention the oh so many varieties of those plants. When I go to a business park or shopping center or condominium complex there are usually no more than 20 varieties at all three combined. A typical commercial landscape is much the same in San Diego, Bakersfield, or San Francisco, or even Beijing. I think we can make our world a little more interesting than that. There are a number of parts of the world with climatic and soil conditions that are similar to ours. They are each full of rare and unusual plants that could flourish here. And one shouldn't forget the wealth of California native plants that are seen all too infrequently in our gardens. A complex web of plants and life in the garden makes it a pleasure to garden organically.