I’m sure that many Mother readers are familiar with Eliot Coleman’s work. Coleman has been a leading voice in not only organic agriculture, but also increasing the power of local food systems by helping farmers and gardeners learn how to grow food year-round, even in the nation’s most frigid climates.
I’ve taken many of Coleman’s lessons to heart. We grow lettuce, spinach, mache, kale, and other greens in low tunnels through the cold Michigan winters, thanks to Coleman’s advice. We’re planning on constructing at least one high tunnel to enclose two of our largest raised beds this fall for additional off-season growing. And, of course, everything in our garden is grown organically.
But the piece of Coleman’s advice that I am most fond of is how to be a “deep organic” gardener. It marries nature, gardening, and frugality (three of my favorite things) in one beautiful concept.
What Does “Deep Organic” Mean?
Deep organic, at its simplest, means that you bring as few off-site inputs into your garden as possible. You don’t buy some granular organic fertilizer for your tomatoes; you give them plenty of compost instead. You don’t buy cypress mulch; you use the leaves that fell from your maple tree to mulch your garden. It requires us to think about our gardens and the waste we produce, rather than go out and buy some potion in a bottle (even if that potion happens to be an organic one.) It takes the money out of the hands of giant corporations who sell “organic” garden brands right next to their conventional brands and leaves it in our pockets.
How I Practice Deep Organic Gardening
The simplest, best way to practice deep organic gardening is to compost, and compost A LOT. We have three large outdoor bins, a compost tumbler that we use primarily for food scraps, and a worm bin (which is where most of our food scraps go.) In addition, I practice lazy composting by simply digging holes or trenches right in my garden beds and dumping compostable materials inside — composting on-the-spot, as it were. I also make use of worm buckets in my garden, something I’ll write about in detail in a later post. Nothing goes to waste: not a leaf, not an eggshell, not a single wilted carrot from the back of the crisper. Anything that can be composted, gets composted. We even “steal” leaves from our neighbors’ curbs in fall — leaves make beautiful compost, as well as perfect mulch. We leave our grass clippings on the lawn to feed and mulch the grass, rather than buying some concoction that promises a perfect green lawn (not that we have much lawn anyway — we seem to have less of it every year as we make more garden beds!) We make vermicompost tea to foliar feed our plants, both indoors and out.
You Don’t Have to Be Perfect
I am definitely not perfect with the whole deep organic thing. I still buy fish emulsion, though I am finding that vermicompost tea works just as well, so I can see not buying fish emulsion much in the future. I buy red plastic mulch for my tomatoes and peppers (and am trying out reflective mulch this year as well) because I am a tomato fanatic and have found that my yields are consistently higher when I use the red mulch than when I don’t. So I’m not perfect. But I do try to keep the concept of deep organic gardening in mind at all times, and try to figure out how I can accomplish my gardening goals without bringing in a lot of off-site inputs. I’m not sure at this point what I enjoy most about the whole deep organic philosophy — the knowledge that I’m gardening in a very natural, Earth-friendly manner, or knowing how much money I’m NOT spending on unnecessary granules and sprays.