Essentials Of An Eco-Friendly Vegetable Garden

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

Gardening should be a partnership between human and earth, not a battle of man versus nature. Unfortunately, growing a vegetable garden can be more fight than fun. And, if you are like most of today’s gardeners, you’re thinking hard about what you put in your body and the chemicals used around your home, children and pets.

An eco-friendly garden doesn’t add to your workload, but it does require a different approach. Begin with these essentials to taste a season of success with organic, earth-friendly gardening.

Test The Soil, Treat The Lack

Test The Soil, Treat The Lack

Organic gardening begins from the ground up. A soil test takes the guesswork out of what your soil really needs to produce healthy plants. A typical soil test lab report will tell you the pH, existing nutrient levels, and the percentage of organic matter. Search for a lab that suggests organic solutions for a home vegetable garden.

By balancing the soil, you won’t need synthetic chemical fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers feed  plants, but leach soil of nutrients, and kill beneficial soil organisms (like earthworms). The excess nitrates in synthetic fertilizers run off into streams and waterways, cause damage to marine life, and wind up in our drinking water.

The alternative is a more thoughtful method of addressing the lack in the soil with specific natural mineral powders or other organic soil amendments. Organic gardening is not the absence of chemicals – everything is chemical. Your eco-friendly garden begins with organic, beneficial treatments that balance the soil. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants that can better withstand the elements, pests and disease, and consequently, healthier food.



Too late in the season to test the soil? The best organic amendment is finished compost. Work in a 3 to 6-inch layer to new garden beds before planting, tilling it to a depth of about eight inches.

Compost is so beneficial and easy to produce that no eco-friendly garden should be without a compost pile. You can begin your compost pile in an unplanted corner of the garden, with or without containment. If you prefer structure, cement block or hay bales will do for starters. Good compost needs:

  • Carbon (“browns”) – leaves, pine needles, sawdust, hay, bark, paper (coffee filters, paper towels, cardboard tubes), natural fibers (silk, cotton, wool), human or pet hair, nut hulls

  • Nitrogen (“greens”) – grass clippings, weeds, spent annuals, scraps, peelings, cores, egg shells, coffee grounds

  • Oxygen – Turn the pile weekly with a pitchfork

  • Water –  Keep the pile moist, equivalent to a damp sponge

For optimum “cooking” of your compost pile, add about three parts browns for every one part  greens. Speed up the process by adding a little purchased organic compost – active microorganisms will jumpstart the process of decomposition.

Avoid meat, dairy and greasy products, which will attract unwanted pests and may carry pathogens. Also avoid byproducts of rot-resistant, treated wood, which in the past used arsenic as a preservative.

Water Correctly

Water Correctly

Healthy plants need water, but too much or too little won’t do. An eco-friendly garden is designed to give plants what they need – infrequent, deep watering which serves to help the roots grow deep – while avoiding the water waste typical of hand-watering and sprinklers.

Sprinklers waste water through evaporation and blowing droplets, and hand watering delivers water in a larger area than needed. Correct watering not only cuts down on your water bill, but it keeps your plants healthier (damp plants can lead to fungus), and saves hours each week.

A drip irrigation system delivers water slowly and exactly. If your garden is positioned close to the tap, a soaker hose may be a more economical choice.

A cheaper alternative is to bury plastic bottles near the base of each plant. Choose a milk or soda bottle, and use an ice pick to punch one hole in the base, then bury the bottle up to the neck. Leave the cap on between watering to prevent evaporation and soil blockage. This mock-drip irrigation system is more labor intensive, but less time consuming than watering by hand.

Finally, it makes sense to harness nature’s provision. Invest in a rain barrel with an attached hose leading to your garden. The gallons of water you collect and divert to watering garden beds could recoup the expense within a season.



Mulch is your best friend in the garden. Not only does it conserve soil moisture, but it also forms a barrier against weeds, making your workload much lighter, and negating the need for herbicides. Mulch is also important for preserving those beneficial soil microorganisms. Without mulch, soil temperature can reach 120° Fahrenheit. With a recommended layer of at least 3″, mulch maintains a preferable temperature of about 85°.

An eco-friendly garden means you choose what you have available on hand, or from local sources to cut down on transportation emissions. Good choices of mulch for a vegetable garden include:

  • Hay, especially alfalfa

  • Finished or half-finished compost

  • Straw

  • Shredded hardwood bark or shredded native wood chips

  • Pine needles

  • Large grade pine bark

Some mulch materials are sub-standard or should be avoided in the garden. Raw walnut byproducts are toxic to plants. Sawdust and fine grades of pine bark don’t allow enough oxygen to the soil. Gravel and other inorganic mulches won’t biodegrade. If you use grass clippings, mix them with chopped dead leaf matter or other dead vegetation to prevent the grass from matting.

Pests in the garden can be challenging in the organic garden, but if you’ve taken the time to ensure a healthy growing environment for your plants, you’ve already won half the battle. Instead of reaching for pesticides, consider using physical barriers to prevent infestations.

Row covers are your best bet. Row covers allow light and moisture to penetrate, but prevent insects from entering and sometimes seeing the goods. A sturdy brand of row cover netting can last for years. It is secured over u-shaped wire plugs, sealing the edges with soil. Row covers are a much better investment than any organic pesticide.

Barriers 1

Once the plants are established and too tall for the row covers, some insects are past their season. Organic sprays or other deterrents can’t remove the damage done by some disease-carrying insects, such as tomato spotted wilt, caused by thrips (Sciothrips spp.). This and other types of disease can ruin a crop – and a beginning gardener’s spirits!

Some crops require uncovering for pollination (cucumber, potato, squash). You may recover the row afterward, checking first for bugs. Release a few praying mantis under the netting for added insurance, and the row covers offer another benefit by protecting your investment of beneficial insects.


These essentials are your foundation for an eco-friendly, organic vegetable garden. Many more earth-friendly solutions and natural recipes are available, some of which can be made with common kitchen ingredients, that will help the conscious gardener raise food in harmony with nature, but these will get you off to a healthy and successful start.

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