Many people welcome the idea of growing fresh fruits and vegetables using the most “natural” means available. This generally means trying to follow organic procedures. New gardeners, or those changing from pesticides and artificial fertilizers to a more organic method, often have many questions about how to use this approach.
In 2002, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA implemented a set of national standards for organic production. These rules ensure that the same practices and definitions are used by all growers in all states throughout the nation. If a farm is to be certified “organic”, it must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years. While these specific regulations are geared toward commercial producers, the overall principles can be applied to gardens and large agricultural enterprises alike.
WHAT IS ORGANIC GROWING?
Organic gardening or farming does not simply mean avoiding herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers, although this is a crucial part. It is far more than simply replacing one group of pesticides with another. Rather, it is a system of creating an environment that reduces the population of potential pests (insects, diseases or weeds) and promoting plant health to increase resistance to predators and pathogens. This requires that the gardener provide the right soil conditions, select healthy plants, and follow proper cultural practices. It also requires a gardener to “scout” the landscape regularly –checking the garden for pests and addressing problems while they are still manageable.
Organic practices require that the environment be a healthy one. When the environment provides the necessary light, temperature, water, nutrition and adequate space, plants will have a better appearance and they will be more productive. They will also have the resources needed to deal with pests.
FIRST - IMPROVING THE SOIL
Soils in the desert southwest tend to lack organic matter, and have either very slow or very fast drainage. Overly slow drainage may be due to high clay content or to a hard, impermeable layer beneath the surface. This can cause plant roots to be inefficient and even to decay. Extremely fast drainage is typical of high levels of sand. In this case, the soil tends to dry quickly and requires frequent irrigation to meet plant needs.1 Desert soils are frequently quite alkaline because of the large amount of calcium present, which can cause certain essential minerals to be unavailable to plants. The second additions make the soils inhospitable to plants, unless they are native or desert-adapted. Most garden fruits and vegetables are not adapted to desert conditions; they require soils that are richer in nutrients and have enough, but not excessive, water.
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