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Sunday, 16 October 2005
Organic Gardening Can Yield Big Results


Daily News (Los Angeles, CA);

By Steven Rosen 

Not only can you grow a decent-tasting tomato - seemingly impossible to buy in stores - you can also help save the world by doing so.

It's possible through organic gardening, which is becoming an important part of the ``green movement'' emphasizing recycling and a reliance on environment-friendly processes and products.

“This is the one thing you can do yourself to make a real impact on the world - you can think globally by acting locally,” says Scott Meyer, editor of Pennsylvania-based Organic Gardening magazine.

Of 80 million American households practicing gardening and landscaping, 4.5 million now are committed to doing it organically, according to a 2004 survey by the National Gardening Association and Harris Interactive polling agency.

Organic gardeners use often-homegrown compost rather than commercial synthetic fertilizer, and avoid pesticides and other chemicals - the basic elements of organic gardening.

An additional 2 million gardeners use some organic-gardening methods and plan to do more, and 6.5 million use some - such as composting - but haven't made a further commitment yet.

One such organic-gardening household is Chris Jung's in Glendale. Not only does he garden organically, he's gotten so into vermicomposting - using worms to eat refuse like yard cuttings, kitchen fruit and vegetable trimmings and create compost from their castings - that he's created a side business out of it. He sells between 5 and 15 pounds of worms per month, often to cities encouraging employees and residents to practice composting and organic gardening as part of recycling.

“The worm castings are high in nutrients and one of the best fertilizers you can give a plant,” he says.  “And you're doing the whole circle-of-life thing. You're refurbishing what the plants originally took out of the soil and putting it back in. Worms will eat anything organic.”

Although Jung keeps his worm bins outdoors, some people keep small containers of worms in their homes - an entertaining way to get children interested in recycling.

Active worm cultivation isn't the only way to create compost. In fact, organic gardeners like to say that “Compost happens” if you just create a big enough outdoor pile and let the nitrogen and carbon elements in green grass trimmings and brown leaves interact with one another. Mixing and aerating will hasten the process.

You don't even inherently need to recycle kitchen scraps, if preserving coffee grounds and banana peels strikes you as icky. And if you want to recycle your household's organic refuse, don't use meats, fats or anything with bones, grease or ammonia. Those can produce odors and attract animals. And definitely avoid kitty litter - cats are carnivores and their manure can spread parasites.

Once the soil is ready and properly fertilized with compost, it's time to plant is ready. Among the suitable flowers are roses, nasturtiums, zinnias and sunflowers. And there are plenty of appropriate vegetables.

“Tomatoes are a classic because they have real flavor as opposed to what you get in the market,” says Yvonne Savio, gardening-education coordinator for the local cooperative extension office. She also runs the master gardener program, which trains volunteers to assist community gardeners.  “But don't buy tomatoes with fruit already on them. And plant a foot deep to allow the stems to get roots.”

For other vegetables that grow well in organic gardens - squash, beans, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers - she recommends starting with seeds rather than plants. (On the other hand, Meyer suggests starting with plants rather than seeds the first time to better monitor growth.)

Meyer also says it's important not to over-plant.

“In planting your beds the first time, they look so empty that it's tempting to place more plants,” he says. “But that becomes jungly and complicates air circulation and invites fungus to grow.  Plants that are stressed are the most likely to attract pests.”

Aphids, caterpillars, beetles and more - their presence is what drives panicky gardeners to pesticides and insecticides in order to save their gardens. Experts counsel new organic-gardeners to stay calm and become informed.

You can take a damaged leaf to a nursery, for instance. Or you can check the Web site gardensalive.com for information on similar pest- caused damage and advice on “natural” solutions. University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources division publishes books on the topic, available at anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu.  “That demystifies things so people don't run to a nursery and say, 'Give me any spray you got against these bugs,'” Savio says.

One answer may well be to purchase beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, to eat the nastier ones.  “Many people who have kids and pets out there don't want to use even safe chemicals today,” says Steve Hazzard, owner of West L.A.'s Orcon/Organic Controls, which supplies insects to nurseries.

You'd be wise to realize you can't be a complete purist about organic gardening - at least not immediately. Some compromises will be necessary. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's standards for certifying a commercially sold plant or vegetable as “organic”  are probably much stricter than most hobbyist gardeners could easily follow.

For instance, as Frank McDonough of the Los Angeles Arboretum points out,  “If you are composting your grass clippings and you apply fertilizer to your grass that is not approved, then you are not technically growing 'organic' roses. Also, table scraps and other additions to your compost pile could kill the 'organic' stature of your roses if they contain any pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, artificial dyes or other materials considered banned by whatever organic certifying body you are dealing with.

“So you can see, to be considered organic in the eyes of the government and those whose job it is to certify things, is such is a truly rigorous task beyond the patience and resources of most gardeners (that) the best most can do is to practice a somewhat 'synthetic' facsimile.”

But that is still rewarding to an increasing number of people. And it's a vast improvement over doing nothing to change your consumerist lifestyle.

“You're doing wonderful things for yourself and for your environment,” says Virginia Davis of North Hills, a master gardener. “The garden can be such a pleasure.”

Organic gardeners don't use commercial synthetic fertilizers and avoid pesticides and other chemicals. Here are some tips to raising a healthy organic garden from the ground up.

Soil. Enrich your garden soil with your own home-grown compost, the ideal organic matter, from decaying plant wastes, such as grass clippings, fallen leaves and vegetable scraps from your kitchen. During summer, add enough water to keep the compost moist but not soggy.

Plants. Choose plants suited to your garden. Roses, nasturtiums, zinnias and sunflowers are good bets. Consider vegetables such as squash, beans, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers.

Pest control. Control pests by enlisting the help of natural predators, such as insects, birds and lizards. Grow different plants, so that pests of a particular plant won't destroy an entire section of the garden. Barriers such as row covers, netting, and plant collars can be effective solutions, too.

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