Organic Gardening: Getting Started with John Grogan

Last Editorial Review: 3/24/2004

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.

mold28_WebMD: How long does that take (approximately)?

Grogan: It matters. If you finely chop up the materials, toss it regularly to give it air and keep it damp, it can break down as quickly as two to three weeks. If you just make a huge pile and walk away, it could be up to a year. Most take a few months. I usually make a compost pile one year for use the following. I always have two to three piles going and everything goes into them. The important thing is to start doing it. People think they smell, but honest, if you're doing it right, they don't at all.

Moderator: Does one need to worry about GM foods in the compost pile?

Grogan: That's a question we toss around here. The short answer is no. The bigger problem is composting grass clippings from a neighbor's yard or wherever that are laden with pesticides and herbicides. Then that stuff ends up in your compost. I'm always scrounging up grass clippings and leaves, and so on, for my pile. But I always check to make sure they were not recently sprayed, especially with herbicide.

mold28_WebMD: Do I just spread it on the soil or do I need to work it in before planting?

Grogan: Either way. The best way to start a garden bed is to spread as much as six inches on your bed, then gently turn it into the soil. If you already have plants in the ground, simply spread it on top. The nutrients leach into the root zone with the rain.

Moderator: Let's talk about insect control.

Grogan: OK.

Moderator: How is that possible without chemicals?

Grogan: Organic gardeners believe that by inviting a wide diversity of insects into your garden, they compete and keep each other in check. It all balances out -- just like in nature. You might get some damage, but a healthy organic garden rarely gets wiped out. That's because there are lady bugs and wasps and green lacewings, et cetera, eating the aphids and mites and other pests. Also, compost, besides being a great natural fertilizer, has proven abilities to knock back soil diseases.

mold28_WebMD: My neighbor had a huge problem with potato bugs. Any ideas on how he could have controlled them?

Grogan: Organically, there are a couple of options: If the patch is small, pick them off by hand and drop them into soapy water to kill them. Or else buy floating row covers, which let in light and water but keep out insects. Finally, if it's really out of control, there are organic treatments, such as BT  (Bacillus Thuringiensis), a naturally occurring bacteria that kills beetles and other plant eaters. The short term solution is to do what I just said. The long-term solution is to design a garden that has a wide host of plants that will attract a wide host of bugs. Diversity is the key.

Moderator: There aren't any magic potions?

Grogan: No magic, and chemicals from a bottle aren't the answer. They kill off bad and GOOD bugs. So your garden is vulnerable for the next wave of predators. Chemical pesticides also kill microbial life in the soil -- and those microbes are essential to controlling soil-borne diseases and helping plants absorb nutrients.

Moderator: Is it a good idea to introduce a species into your garden to control another?

Grogan: Yes, that's a common organic approach. You can buy lady-bug beetles through the mail, for instance. Release them in the garden, and they go after the aphids, et cetera. They have no adverse side effects. Personally, I've never bought any. I just provide a wide habitat of plants and hope they show up. 

Moderator: Are there animals one can attract that may be beneficial to an organic garden?  Like bees or bats?

Grogan: Bats are great natural mosquito controls. So are many kinds of birds. Bees, of course, are important pollinators every garden needs. The only animal of the mammal variety that helps me is my dog, whose scent keeps the bunnies and woodchucks away! Some of our readers swear that by placing a bird feeder near their garden, many of their pest problems disappeared. The birds were eating the grubs and snails and insects.

Moderator: Do you have any tricks of the trade for making sure a garden produces well throughout the entire season?

Grogan: I don't want to sound like a broken record, but compost and mulch are great helpers. Compost, besides feeding the plants, holds water in the soil. Mulch also retains water and keeps the soil cool in hot weather.

wabe_grb_WebMD: Is there an organic equivalent of "Miracle-Gro?" 

Grogan: There are many organic fertilizers on the market that I dare say work better than Miracle-Gro. Miracle-Gro can burn plant roots if you're not careful. It's also highly soluble and washes away quickly, requiring frequent reapplications (and eventually ending up in the water table.) Organic fertilizers, by definition, are slow-releasing and build soil tilth as they feed plants. But, again, if you use compost, your plants should get all the nutrients they need.

wabe_grb_WebMD: I have heard quite a bit about pH of soil. What does this mean?

Grogan: Soil pH is merely how acidic or alkaline the soil is. What you really need to remember is that nearly all plants thrive in the middle, what we call "neutral pH soil." I recommend having a soil test done to find out where your soil is.  The test usually gives you recommendations for correcting the acidity/alkalinity. Again, by adding compost, you'll be neutralizing your soil, regardless if it's acid or alkaline. Soils that are too acid or too alkaline do not allow plants to take up the nutrients they need. So you can fertilize like crazy and your plants will still be yellow and unhealthy. So a soil test is the best $12 you can spend.

Moderator: Here's kind of an odd question.

smersh_WebMD: What do you do to keep your compost heap from exploding?

Grogan: Exploding!? If yours does that, let us know and we'll put it in Organic Gardening magazine!!

Moderator: I'm guessing smersh is talking about spontaneous combustion.

smersh_WebMD: Doesn't the gas build up sometimes?

Grogan: Seriously, compost piles often heat up, sometimes to as hot as 150 degrees, and some people become worried that they might catch fire. Don't worry: They don't. The heat is a natural by-product of decomposition and a sign that your pile is working. A compost pile is a loose, friable pile (or should be). Any gasses escape as they are produced. Again, if you have the right mix of stuff, it shouldn't smell at all.

smersh_WebMD: Can I put paper products like newspapers, unpaid bills, et cetera, into my compost heap?

Grogan: Definitely put the unpaid bills in there! Paper is fine, though avoid glossy paper with colored ink. Some of those inks have heavy metals and other unwanted ingredients. I have friends who shred brown shopping bags and even cardboard boxes and compost them. Tea bags, coffee filters, all that stuff can go in. In fact, coffee is a great source of nitrogen!

Moderator: Well, our time is about up. Mr. Grogan, do you have any words of wisdom regarding organic gardening?

Grogan: Just to get out and try it. It's easy, it's fun, and what a great way to blow off steam at the end of the day. Garden on! And check out our web site at  We have lots of good information there, including a problem solver database.

Moderator: Thank you for being with us today, Mr. Grogan.

Grogan: Thanks for having me.

Moderator: Our guest this afternoon has been John Grogan. Before joining Organic Gardening, Grogan worked as a journalist at daily newspapers. Most recently, he was the metropolitan columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His commentary and investigative reports have won several state and national awards, including the National Press Club's Consumer Journalism Award.

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.

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