Growing your own vegetables is a fantastic way to connect with nature, take some time away from technology, and provide your kitchen with healthy food. If you want to start an organic vegetable garden from seed, there are a few things you must know.
Organic vegetable growing presents unique challenges to growing a conventional garden. You need different techniques for dealing with pests, fertilizing, and soil.
Let’s get straight into the important stuff so you can get your seeds growing.
What is Organic?
Organic is a regulated term used in the US to refer to plants and seeds that have been certified to have been raised according to the rules of the National Organic Standard.
When it comes to home gardening, the term organic is used to describe a way of raising crops that minimizes the use of chemicals and detrimental environmental practices. But it’s not a regulated term.
When we talk about organic gardening in this guide, we’re talking about doing our best to keep the environment and your soil healthy and happy without using chemicals or harsh gardening practices.
The term organic, when used in this guide to refer to buying seeds, is a reference to the regulated term established by the USDA. The rest of the time, we’re simply talking about sustainable gardening practices.
1. Be Mindful of Location
The first thing you need to sort out when planting any plant or vegetable is location. If your plants don’t have the right amount of sun and the right soil drainage, they will never thrive. Before you do anything else, make sure that you pick the right spot.
You should also be aware of whether the area experiences fertilizer runoff from other farms, or if it has been previously contaminated with pesticides or other chemicals.
Before planting, spend a sunny day noting the amount of light each area of your garden receives. Document the sunlight as it moves across your yard on a map, because it’s super easy to forget whether the sun moved away at 4:15 or 4:30 (for example).
2. Test Your Soil
A lot of people jump into planting without testing their soil first. Then, as the season progresses, they dump fertilizer onto the soil without even knowing what the soil was lacking in the first place.
Test your soil before you plant. That way, you only need to add the nutrients that your soil is lacking. You don’t risk over-fertilizing the earth.
With organic gardening, the goal is to make sure your soil is healthy and consequently feeds the plant rather than applying food to the leaves or roots directly, as with conventional fertilizers.
3. Choose Organic Seeds
This may sound obvious, but it can be a bit confusing. Labeling isn’t exactly regulated, making it hard to parse exactly what it all means. When you’re browsing the aisles for organic seeds or placing an order online there are a few things to think about before making the final payment.
For instance, you might see seeds labeled as “hybrid” or “heirloom” and you might assume that the first is not organic, while the second is. Not so fast. Either of these can be organic or conventional.
Hybrid seeds are exactly as they sound. They are a hybrid of two different plants. Breeders will combine two plants using various techniques to come up with a plant that exhibits positive traits, whether that is big blossoms or disease resistance.
Hybrid plants are often sterile and you can’t use the seeds to produce new plants.
Heirloom seeds are those that have been bred the old-fashioned way. These vegetables have existed for decades or even centuries and if the plant produces seeds, those seeds will grow true. Growing true means they’ll reproduce a replica of the plant rather than something slightly different.
You might also see seeds labeled as non-GMO. GMO seeds are those that were bred in a lab and have been genetically modified. Non-GMO doesn’t mean organic, however.
Don’t be afraid of the term “genetically modified.” Growers have been genetically modifying seeds for centuries through breeding. However, many GMO seeds are patented and you can’t save and re-use the seeds from the plants.
Look for heirloom seeds if seed saving is important to you. Regardless of which type of plant you choose, look for the USDA organic-certified seal to know that the seeds were produced using certified practices.
4. Buy From a Reliable Source
When it comes to organic vegetable seed growing, try to go to a reliable seller. The word organic is placed on a lot of labels nowadays but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the seeds are high quality.
Do some research beforehand. Local farmer’s markets are an ideal place to find organic seeds. You can also find some reliable retailers online if you prefer.
It’s helpful to know the people behind the label and how your seeds were produced. Your organic seeds should ideally come from farmers that are compensated fairly for their work and that practice responsible land stewardship.
When you buy from local sellers you’re not only helping the planet but you’re contributing to the lives of farmers and their families positively.
Just remember that local doesn’t necessarily mean organic, but often a local grower will be a better steward of the land than a big-box organic label, so don’t be afraid to stray from organic seeds if you find an excellent source.
5. Start Small
The best way to try organic seed gardening for the first time is by creating a small herb garden inside or in a small patch of your yard. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the particular needs and process of organic gardening.
Herbs are ideal for growing inside as many only need moderate sunlight and don’t need much space. Plus, they are easy to maintain so you won’t need to spend hours caring for them. Try basil, lemon thyme, cilantro, or parsley.
If you don’t have a spare windowsill you can also use balconies, terraces, and communal gardens in urban areas.
6. Use Wide and Flat Containers
If you decide to use containers to plant your organic seeds, you should make sure that they’re wide and flat to prevent overcrowding and reduce the need for pesticides or fungicides.
Avoid plastic if you have concerns about the chemicals leaching into your soil (not to mention the harm to the environment that comes with making them and tossing them out when you’re done).
Instead, you can re-use things like old dresser drawers or make your own raised beds out of recycled wood.
6. Use Compost or Manure Instead of Fertilizer
When it comes to organic vegetable gardening it’s not just about buying organic seeds, it’s about your whole approach to planting. Well-rotted (NOT fresh) manure and compost are excellent alternatives to conventional fertilizers.
Compost and manure help provide your seeds with better nutrients, increased drainage, and help hold moisture.
That means you won’t have to use conventional fertilizers or soil amendments when you plant.
Making your compost is helpful for successful organic gardening, but you don’t have to have a big compost pile in your yard to succeed.
If you don’t have the room to make compost, check out local horse or cattle farms to see if they are selling or giving away well-rotted manure or compost.
7. Plant Flowers
Don’t hesitate to plant flower seeds alongside your veggie crops. Encouraging local wildlife such as bees and butterflies to visit your plot of land is great for pollination. Some of the best plants for attracting bees are as follows:
If you plant a couple of these by seed when you plant your veggie seeds, you’re guaranteed to get some bees flying by!
9. Find Chemical Alternatives
These days, we’ve figured out all kinds of ways to deal with pests and diseases without having to use chemicals. Beneficial bacteria and nematodes can do some real damage to the problems that ravage your garden.
Neem oil, copper fungicides, and hydrogen dioxide can all be a part of a healthy, organic garden.
Chickens are also an organic veggie garden helper, so long as you keep them away from the seeds while they’re starting out. Chickens will eat all kinds of bad pests, from aphids to snout beetles.
You can apply many of these to the soil when you plant your seeds to control any pests or diseases organically.
10. Use Cover Crops
Remember that trying to foster healthy soil is key with organic gardening. Before planting your veggie seeds, consider using a cover crop to nourish the soil during the off-season.
11. Rotate Your Crops
I know it’s tempting to plant the same crops in the same place year after year, but don’t do it. Even if your tomatoes did phenomenally well in that corner by your garage last year, don’t try to plant them there again the next year.
Rotating crops is one of the best ways to ensure that your seeds and seedlings won’t be killed by pests and diseases.
12. Be Diligent About Weeding
Weeding isn’t the most fun part of gardening, but you have to do it if you want to raise a healthy organic veggie garden. Turn on a podcast, head outside with some gloves and a trowel, and get to work.
Don’t use chemical weed killers. These have no place in an organic garden. For tips on non-chemical weed control techniques, head to our guide.
13. Use Resistant Cultivars
While we do have some options for organic pest and disease control, it helps to pick seeds that are resistant to the common problems in your area. That way, you won’t have to stress about your plants as much down the road.
Some people worry that you can’t find heirloom seeds that are pest or disease resistant, but growers have been carefully breeding plants for years to be hardier and tougher than ever before.
They do this by choosing the most robust plants in the garden and saving the seeds from them for the next year. Over time, a tougher, more resilient plant emerges.