Organic Gardening: Getting Started with John Grogan

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Are you looking to grow your garden without using chemicals or synthetis fertilizer? Join John Grogan, managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine and a lifelong gardener, for tips and advice on starting your own organic garden.

Event Date: 06/01/2000.

The opinions expressed by Mr. Grogan are his and his alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live! Our guest today is John Grogan. We are discussing organic gardening.

Grogan: Hello there! I'm the managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine.

Moderator: Well, let's begin by defining organic gardening.

Grogan: Basically, organic gardening is simply trying to replicate nature in the garden. That means no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It also means working with nature instead of trying to overpower it. Organic gardeners pay a lot of attention to building healthy soil. When your soil is healthy and alive, all the other pieces fall into place.

Morris71_Lycos: When should I begin planting my garden?

Grogan: That depends on where you live, but generally most vegetables go in after the last average frost date for your area. Here in Pennsylvania, that's May 1. Some cool-weather crops, such as cabbage, broccoli and beets, can go in before. Of course, peas love it cold. I planted my peas on St. Patrick's Day. They're now knee-high and blossoming.

Morris71_Lycos: Are genetically modified seeds a part of organic gardening or do I need to buy non-GM (genetically modified) seeds?

Grogan: GM seeds definitely are NOT a part of organics. The good news is not many seeds for the home garden are GM. Those are mostly used on a large-farm scale. Our magazine just did a large report (Jan/Feb 2000) on the problems with GM foods and seed. We did a lot of research and found many things to worry about.

Moderator: What did you find in your research? Any surprises?

Grogan: The biggest surprise was that GM foods do not have to appear on labels. So when you eat a bag of potato chips you have no idea whether those potatoes were bred to have their own pesticide built into them. Also, some GM foods have been found to trigger allergies in people, such as a soybean that had Brazil nut genes spliced into it. My biggest concerns are environmental. The pollen drift from GM crops can contaminate organic fields, and lead to lots of problems, including resistant strains of bugs and weeds. Also, GM seed is patented, and farmers who use it are prohibited from saving seed from one season to the next, which is a time-honored tradition.

Moderator: Have the latest USDA rulings regarding organic labeling had any impact on the home gardener?

Grogan: Not on the home gardener, but certainly on the consumer. We now will be able to know with confidence that something labeled "certified organic" really followed stringent requirements. Those requirements include no use of synthetic pesticides, no GM seed, no irradiation or sewage sludge, et cetera.

Moderator: Well, let's go back to gardening basics.

Grogan: OK.

Moderator: What does one need to do before planting. Are there secrets to soil preparation?

Grogan: Yes, and it's easy: Compost! Compost is merely decomposed vegetable matter. It's full of nutrients and helpful bacteria and other microscopic organisms. We have all sorts of studies documenting the wonderful effects compost has on garden soil -- and plants.

Morris71_Lycos: I've been meaning to start a compost heap. What can go into it and what can't?

Grogan: OK. The basics: No meat, no cheese, no cooked foods or bread. That will attract rodents. But everything else is game: Lawn clippings, leaves, potato peels and other kitchen scraps Even dog hair and fingernail clippings. The idea is to have a mix of green material and brown material. Too much green (like a mat of grass clippings) will get stinky; too much brown (like all wood chips) and it won't decompose. The other secret is to keep it damp but not soggy, like a wrung-out sponge. And the more air it gets, the faster it breaks down. So most gardeners turn their pile with a pitchfork every couple weeks.

mold28_WebMD: How do I know when the compost is ready to be used?

Grogan: It will be black and crumbly, and you won't be able to identify the stuff that went into it. It should just look like good-quality potting soil. But compost that is only partially finished, and still has sticks and leaves visible in it, is still great used as a mulch on top of the soil.