Toolshed: Organic Gardening 101

By Christine Sine

Flourish Magazine, Winter 2010

A good organic garden doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to transform and build up soil with compost and green manure crops. It might take even longer to work out which crops grow best in which part of the garden, or how to intermingle vegetables and ornamental plants to produce an overall pattern that is pleasing to the eye, as well as the palate. Building a garden slowly, a few plants at a time, prolongs the pleasure and dreaming. Then, just when we think we have it all figured out, the weather pattern changes, and we get to start all over again.

1.  Plan Ahead: Organic gardening is dynamic and creative, just like the God who created our gardens. In winter, exercise this creativity by expressing ideas for the coming growing season. On the calendar, mark special celebrative occasions that you hope will be provided for out of the garden. You might want to plant an extra row of spring lettuce for your best friend’s wedding, or plan to cut back on summer crops because they will fall on the ground and spoil while you are away on vacation. No one wants to come back to totally inedible produce. Last year I discovered, which has some great strategies for vegetable garden planning. From that website, here are my adaptations of Roy Stahl’s suggestions:

  • Refrigerator Method.  Think about what has been in your fridge over the last 12 months. What is always there and what are “one-offs”? If vegetables thrive in your area, this is the best method because you know you will use what you grow.
  • Native Method. Consider what grows well in your area. Don’t grow artichokes if you have hot summers. Don’t grow carrots if you’ve got heavy, clay soil.
  • Frugal Method. Grow vegetables like delicious cherry tomatoes and salad mixes that are expensive at the supermarket.
  • Anti-Pesticide Method. Grow vegetables that have the highest pesticide load, such as sweet bell peppers, celery, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, carrots, and green beans.
  • Tiny Garden Method. If you have limited space to grow, check out container varieties and or Mel Bartholomew’s square foot gardening techniques.
  • Squirrel Garden Method. If, like an acorn-gathering squirrel, you want to stow away vegetables for winter, set aside garden space for storage vegetables like potatoes, onions and garlic. Think of what can be dried (beans, herbs) or canned/frozen (tomato sauce).
  • Impress The Neighbors Method. Go through your seed catalogs until you say, “What the heck is that?” and then if it grows in your area, grow it in your garden. Grow it in your front yard to befuddle neighbors walking by with their dogs.

Considering these suggestions alongside my understanding of gardening as a spiritual discipline led me to adopt some additional gardening strategies based on my faith and God’s Levitical principles:

  • Garden with friends. I never enjoy gardening as much as I do when the other members of the Mustard Seed House community where I live are there planting seeds, too. Catie, our household’s six-year-old member, has her own garden journal as well as her own garden.
  • Share with neighbors. Gardening is a way to be truly hospitable. I always start far more tomatoes, cauliflowers, and squash than I need, and have found that one of the most effective ways to get to know my neighbors is to share the seedlings with them. Then, of course, when the squash harvest explodes and I am faced with fifty pounds of zucchini, sharing is the only way to cope.
  • Plant a row for the hungry. There is a growing movement among backyard and community gardeners to plant an extra row specifically to give away to food banks and ministries that provide for the poor and the homeless. In Leviticus 19:9-10, God instructs the Hebrews: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. I am the queen of messy gardens. A few weeds around the strawberries and snails on the lettuce don’t matter. Maybe this is just me rationalizing my way of doing things, but I cannot imagine that the God who would create animals as entertaining as a monkey or as unusual as a bumblebee could possibly take himself too seriously.

2. Buy the Right Tools: The backyard gardener really needs very few tools, most of which are quite inexpensive:

  • A shovel to prepare the soil for planting
  • A hand fork and kneeler for weeding on your knees
  • A long handled hoe for weeding larger areas
  • Pruning shears for larger bushes and plants
  • A garden hose or simple irrigation system for large areas, and a watering can for pots
  • An all-purpose organic fertilizer (such as compost, manure, or store-bought products)

3. Build Up The Soil: Healthy soil produces healthy plants. The soil, rather than the plant, needs to be nurtured and built up. When I first started gardening, I wasn’t concerned about whether or not my methods were organic, and like all novice gardeners, I started by fertilizing and protecting the plant rather than building up the soil. But all that changed when I tried to kill some insects and ended up with a dead bird in the garden. I realized that what I sprayed on my plants had far more impact than just killing a few bugs. As I researched the use of pesticides, I was shocked to discover how toxic they could be, not just to the bugs they were meant to kill, but also to wildlife, aquatic animals, and even people who handled them. It didn’t take long for me to be converted to a new way of gardening.

4. Control Pests Organically:Organic gardening doesn’t mean you have to put up with insects eating all your plants or slugs infesting your salads. Though the term essentially means not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic gardening is really far more than that. This method depends on techniques that work in cooperation with nature, encouraging natural pest control by inviting beneficial birds and insects into your gardening space, and replenishing rather than depleting the soil by the use of compost and green manure crops. And that seems like something our creator God would be much happier with than lots of toxic substances.

5. Use Green Manures or Cover Crops: Planting overwintering crops like fava beans and clover can help restore nitrogen to the soil and also prevent erosion. Unfortuately, in the rhythm of my life, October, when these crops should be planted, is often a very busy travel time.

6. Practice Crop Rotation: Crop rotation is another important technique for the avid gardener to use, though it is often a challenge for those of us who have limited space and even more limited sun. When the same crop is grown in the same spot year after year, it not only depletes the soil of nutrients, but it also enables nematodes and fungal pests to multiply.

7. Watch and Listen to Your Garden: Take note of what grew best last year and where it grew. Did you cluster plants with similar watering and fertilizer needs? Did you discover new dry or marshy spots in your garden? What new birds, insects, and small animals took up residence because of your techniques? For example, since I planted lavendar, the bumble bees have become regular visitors, busily pollinating the squash and other edibles. Consider keeping a garden journal of everything that happens.

8. Encourage Diversity: Variety is the spice of life for the avid backyard organic gardener. It is not just plant variety that is important, but also wildlife diversity. An organic garden is alive with constant humming of bees, chirping of birds, and busyness of flitting butterflies. Attracting and keeping birds, insects, spiders, toads, bats, and even the earthworms and microbes is a wonderful way to get kids involved in the garden. Like us, all of God’s creatures need shelter, water, and food to survive. Keeping the birdbath full, choosing nectar-producing flowers, and building bird houses and feeding logs can attract wildlife and encourage children to interact with and learn to love the garden at an early age.

In her delightful book A Blessing of Toads, nature writer Sharon Lovejoy reminds us: “A garden gives many harvests, but perhaps the most important is the one that awakens our spirits every single day. William Wordsworth described the garden as the “harvest of a quiet eye.” What a wonderful insight into the Christian life! When we allow our spirits to be awakened each day by the presence of our loving, compassionate God, our lives give many harvests that are rich and fruitful.

Christine Sine is the executive director of Mustard Seed Associates and the author of several books, including Godspace: Time for Peace in the Rhythms of Life. She describes herself as a contemplative activist encouraging a way of life that interweaves spiritual practices with concern for justice and creation care.


  1. Christine Woodward says:

    Love your journey and your purpose filled life. I have 4 children under 16 yrs and truly enjoy a striving for a balanced life not to mention mentoring one. God is so good to us! I favor your inner person and Godly ideas. Amazing how planting one seed can change so many lives. There are endless examples from our lives. Application is key to most of the issues of our world today. I intend to purchase or check out your published literature. Thank you for being such a gift to many.


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