Organic urban gardening

mustard greens and green tomatoes

Greene Acres is an organic garden: we don't use chemical pesticides or fertilizers like MiracleGro anywhere in the garden. Instead, we use compost to build healthy, fertile soil. Manure, bone meal and fish emulsion are also wonderful sources of nutrients. (We haven't figured out an organic way to deal with rats, so for now we use poison.)

A note about soil contaminants:

Several tests have indicated that the soil and the rainwater in the tank are on the high end of "safe" lead content. However, one can assume that all soil in Brooklyn is contaminated. We use clean soil and compost for all edible planting. A test of the soil in kids’ digging areas in 2013 revealed lead content around 106 ppm (ask Suzan for details.) Parents who are concerned about lead exposure should take basic precautions like washing hands and shoes, as recommended by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Office. Gardeners should also know that the flower bed to the right of the tank was formerly a composting site, and lots of rat poison was used in that area.

For further reading, see Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities by the Cornell Waste Management Institute, and Green Thumb publications on urban gardening.

Organic gardening does not mean letting the bugs take over. It takes vigilance. Some tips on organic pest control:

1. Plan your garden using companion planting guides. Flowers and herbs can't repel an active infestation, but they can deter pests.

2. Maintain your plot: remove dead leaves and any diseased plants. Truly diseased plants should go in the garbage, but dead leaves can go in the compost. If you encounter Squash Vine Borers, try wrapping tin foil or old stockings around the vine to keep them from boring in. If whiteflies have been a problem in the past, spraying cabbages and kales with garlic spray can keep them from settling in this year. Some other rumors: add cornmeal around the base of your roses to keep aphids at bay.

3. Nip it in the bud: Inspect your plants regularly for bugs. A strong hose spray will knock aphids off, or you can kill a few with your fingers. Squash vine borers leave telltale bits of brown dirt where they enter a vine. If you catch them early, carve them out gently to kill them before they chow your whole vine. Even if they have done some damage, you can often catch before the vine is beyond repair. Cut along (not across) the grain of the vine to open a hole and pop out the borer. In theory, most squash vines will send out new roots if they are buried in soil, so you can protect large vines by elbowing them in.

4. When rinsing and squishing won't cut it, a dilute mix of soap and baking soda sprayed evenly on the underside of afflicted leaves will get the whiteflies, but you have to be persistent. Flypaper is as good for whiteflies as it is for houseflies, and you can buy tanglefoot and sticky traps to keep the flying insect populations down. Garden Guides has more recipes for natural pest control.

5. Discriminate: not all bugs are bad. Ladybugs, especially in their larval state, are voracious carnivores and like nothing more than a few juicy aphids for breakfast.

Stay tuned for more resources on organic pest control.