Organic Gardening Rules

By Tom Harris, Ph.D.
The Hill Country Gardener

Malcolm Beck is a San Antonio organic gardening guru who is known all over the country. Over the last 50+ years he has developed six basic rules for people to follow in organic gardening.

The first rule is: always use the best adapted varieties for each environment. It makes so much sense to start with plants that have been proven to do well in our environment.

If you really want to see flowers and blooming things, you're going to have to get off the Interstate, probably get out of the car, and wander back off the road to see the native plants.

The reasoning behind rule number one is so that you won't be disappointed when you plant a native plant in your yard/garden. If you stick with the native or adapted plants, your chances of success go way up. Native plants can survive with minimal TLC and be just fine. They'll just keep on blooming because that's all they know how to do.

Malcolm's second rule is: plant in the preferred season. A gardener with experience thinks that this rule is really too simple, but they've obviously forgotten what it was like to not know when to plant what.

Almost every time I teach this class, people will ask about some plant that they've planted out of season and wonder why it didn't do very well. Usually it's some plant they brought from "home" and tried to make it grow here. When this happens, I refer them back to rule #1 above.

In the Master Gardener training program in San Antonio, they told us that you can't be a real Master Gardener until you've killed at least 1,000 plants, and 25 of them have to be azaleas (which don't grow well here).

The third rule in Malcolm's list is: balance the mineral content of the soil. What this is talking about is to be sure that you have all the minerals like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, sulfur, molybdenum, phosphorus, etc. in the soil where you'll be planting. If you don't know, do a soil test.

The fourth rule is: build and maintain the soil organic content. This is accomplished by the addition of lots of compost to the soil where you'll be planting. The organic matter — especially in compost — has lots of microscopic-sized life forms in it (called microbes) that work on the soil minerals to help release the minerals in the soil and turns them into a form that the plants can take up through the root system and use them to grow.

Malcolm's fifth rule is: do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life. What he's talking about here is to not use pesticides and fungicides that harm the microbes in the soil. Once you kill off the microbes, it's really hard to replace them. One of the basics of handling garden pests is that healthy plants have a natural ability to resist bugs and disease. What this means to the novice gardener is: keep your plants healthy and you won't have bug and disease problems. You keep them healthy by constantly providing fertilizer, water, and good soil to grown in. Bugs and diseases usually go after the weak or sick plants. It's that old "survival of the fittest" thing, which works in the plant world, too.

The sixth rule is: consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated. This one should be self-explanatory by now; that is, if you screwed up one of the previous five rules, you're going to have problems — lots of problems.
Gardening tips

Now is a good time to re-sod areas in your lawn that are thinning. To save money, cut the squares into smaller pieces and space them 6 to 12 inches apart. Water them well and they should cover the bare spots before cooler weather comes in the fall. 

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