First of two parts

First-time vegetable gardeners often approach me to ask about the best gardening techniques. My answer is simple: use organic, eco-friendly and sustainable approaches. 

The conventional method, using synthetic chemicals harmful to the environment, animals and human health, has been proven to be a cause of many environmental problems, from water pollution to soil depletion to the decline of pollinator populations.

Over the years, the organic approach has become more developed without losing its fundamental philosophy of being eco-friendly and sustainable. In the ’70s, a new agricultural approach was developed in Australia: permaculture, short for “permanent agriculture.” The term implies working with rather than against nature and is founded on the relationship between animals, plants and humans. 

Over my years as a gardener (I started when I was 14 years old), I have developed my own gardening approach, which I call bio-intensive urban farming. It is a comprehensive ecological approach that integrates your home and neighborhood ecosystems with the use of organic techniques. I use “bio” because it is organic and “intensive” because its purpose is to maximize your harvest, using your gardening space efficiently to grow more.

Eco-friendly gardening means simply that our gardening approach is not hurting the planet by degrading or contaminating the soil or hurting pollinators and humans with chemicals. Simply put, eco-friendly means earth-friendly.

What is a sustainable garden?

Sustainable gardening is self-replicating, meaning you can renew your resources without significantly affecting the ability of future generations to garden in the same location. 

In other words, a garden that yields fruits and vegetables over and over sustains itself by natural means such as soil, seeds, water and sunlight. 

“If you want to have a balanced garden, feed the soil and build the ecosystem,” Cindy Conner, an author and permaculture educator, says.

Soil is the cornerstone 

Your gardening success depends on the quality of the soil you are using. I highly recommend getting a soil test because it will provide you important information about the quality of your soil, including about possible contamination with pollutants, especially lead. A soil test gives you specific information about your soil and any conditions you may need to amend.

Soil is a living organism that is slowly but constantly transforming itself. Microorganisms such as bacteria and nematodes, as well as fungi, are an important part of the composition of the soil. 

Bacteria, considered the most valuable life form in the soil, play an essential role in breaking down nutrients and releasing them to the roots of plants. Nematodes, microscopic worms that live around or inside the plant, may be “predators” or beneficial; beneficial nematodes provide nutrients to plants. Soil fungi break down organic material into forms accessible to plants.

Soil feeds humans and animals but has its own needs for food and nutrients.

Building your soil up

You can build your soil with organic materials, like compost. Composting is an easy way to add nutrients to your soil. By composting at home with fallen leaves, grass clippings and kitchen vegetable scraps you can create your own ongoing soil-building project.

Compost tea is an additional ecological option for feeding your soil. This technique involves leaving finished compost and nonchlorinated water in a compost tea brewer for 24 hours. The compost tea brewer, available for purchase online but easy to construct on your own, has a water container and an air pump to aerate the water. 

The brewing process lets microorganisms naturally present in the compost multiply several thousand times, creating a strong, living liquid fertilizer that will boost your soil and feed your plants. 

Another organic fertilizing technique, vermicomposting, uses “red wiggler” worms to decompose organic materials. The final product is vermicast, a rich soil fertilizer. Vermicomposting can be carried out in a special container inside your home, using a supply of red wigglers fed with kitchen vegetable scraps.

Soil amendment

Good soil provides all the nutrients our plants need. Each variety of plant and vegetable has its own nutrient requirements, so you may need to amend your soil to provide them with the necessary nitrogen, minerals and micronutrients. These are some ways to modify the composition of your soil:

  • Use grass clippings as mulch to supply nitrogen.
  • Use pine needles as soil modifiers to increase acidity, which is good for blueberries.
  • Use rabbit or chicken manure to fertilize nitrogen-hungry vegetables like asparagus.

Implementing sustainable gardening is easy and environmentally friendly. It cuts down on your home waste, provides habitat for beneficial wildlife such as pollinators, and reduces your carbon footprint.

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.