Master Gardener Don Rosenberg Discusses Organic Gardening

Author and Master Gardener Don Rosenberg
Author and Master Gardener Don Rosenberg

Master Gardener Don Rosenberg knows that busy families find organic gardening intimidating. That's why he developed his unique approach to gardening that anyone can follow. Even if you are short on space or working full time to support your family, you can enjoy a thriving organic garden that provides healthy produce. In this interview, Don Rosenberg discussed his book, No Green Thumb Required, and explains how his methods can help anyone have the garden they have always wanted but thought was just out of reach. Follow his tips and see what you can grow organically!

Backyard Organic Gardening

LovetoKnow (LTK): Why do you support back yard organic gardening?

Don Rosenberg (DR): My claim to fame is "I'm a guy and I'm lazy." I want a productive garden, but don't want to do any more work than is absolutely necessary. It turns out that organic gardening is easier than gardening with chemicals. There are no nasty liquids to mix, sprays to measure, or bottles to clean up and store. Synthetic fertilizers need to be added all the time, whereas organic fertilizers feed the soil over a longer period.Organic is good, but fresh is more important. Many vegetables lose 15 percent of their nutritional value per day, as well as their flavor. I advocate creating "kitchen gardens" - to be grown in your back yard and harvested just minutes before you use them. This means a smaller garden that's much easier to manage.

Perception of Difficulty

LTK: Why do many people find organic gardening difficult?

DR: The whole concept of vegetable gardening is very intimidating. People want a garden, but conventional methods are a lot of work. They take a lot of space, a lot of time and a lot of knowledge. But the worst part is all the digging, tilling and weeding. The standard approach is to find a spot for your garden, scrape off all the grass and weeds, dig down into your (compacted) soil, and till in a bunch of compost and fertilizer to make decent soil.

  • The first problem is weeds - weed seeds can lie dormant for 20 to 50 years, just waiting to be exposed to sunlight. When you remove your grass and till your soil you end up with a very productive weed patch. Weeds grow faster than domesticated vegetables, so you have a problem that never ends. Every time you till again, you end up with more germinating weeds.
  • The second problem is your soil. Most new houses had their topsoil removed when they were first built, leaving only subsoil behind. It can take 50 to 100 years for subsoil to develop into topsoil, and it can take 5 to 10 years for a gardener to do it manually by tilling in compost every year.
  • Next comes the problem of fertility. Because your soil isn't very good, you need a lot of room for each plant. It's very common now to have big houses but tiny yards - very little room for even a small traditional 20 x 20 foot garden. Or you may have a big yard with lots of trees - not enough space with adequate sunlight.
  • Finally, there's the knowledge gap. Many people have grown up without the benefit of having a garden and they don't know what to plant or when to plant. They don't know the basics of how to plant seeds or how often to water. They're afraid that after they do all the work of setting up their garden, they'll just kill it!

Simplification

LTK: How have you simplified organic gardening so anyone can do it?

DR: My approach is to embrace my inner laziness. I want a productive, tasty garden, but I don't want all that work. Over the last 20 years, I've developed a simple system that's as simple as six words, Raised Beds, Weedless Soil, and Limited Space.

I build a series of wooden rails over the top of an existing lawn and fill it in with new soil. Either inexpensive potting mix or a blend of 75 percent compost and 25 percent river sand will do. No need for expensive potting mix with synthetic fertilizers added, or "organic" potting mix. Just level your rails, cover your grass with a few layers of newspaper, dump in your soil and add your own organic fertilizer (Plant-Tone is a common brand, worm castings are even better). There's no need to ever dig, till or weed again!

Because your soil is perfect from the very start, your plants are healthy, and healthy plants resist bugs and diseases naturally. So there's very little need for herbicides and pesticides. If you do have a problem, it's usually with a specific type of bug attacking a specific crop. There's almost always a simple, organic solution for each case.

Limited Space Considerations

LTK: Can people with limited space still make a significant contribution to their family's diet through organic gardening?

DR: "Limited Space" are the last two words. Because you may not have a lot of room in your yard you need to make your raised beds as efficient and productive as possible. I found a way to remember how to select the most productive plants. It's called "FRESNO," which is not a city in California! It stands for Fresh, Rare, Expensive, Space-saving, Nutritious and Ongoing harvest.

If you are going to go through the effort of building your own garden you might as well use varieties that taste better fresh, are rare varieties, are expensive in the stores, and use space wisely. I also want to grow nutritious vegetables and those that offer a longer harvest period. A good example of "anti-FRESNO" is iceberg lettuce. It has very little nutritional value, and when you pick it after two months you get a one-day harvest. A better crop is leaf lettuce, where you can harvest a leaf at a time from each of several plants and enjoy a harvest of seven or eight weeks! You can plant seeds more thickly and as the baby plants germinate and start to crowd each other, you can thin them with a pair of scissors and you have an early harvest of "locally grown, organic, baby leaf lettuce mix" - $7.99 a pound at the stores!

A good example of FRESNO is heirloom tomatoes - they are nutritious and taste better fresh. You can grow rare varieties; they are expensive to buy and are efficient with space and harvest time.

Planning Your Garden

LTK: Why is planning important and how do you recommend planning be done?

DR: Every family's garden is different. A family of four may need only a trellis bed and a raised bed, while another might need only a single bed. You should think through what your family likes to eat and figure out how much space you will need per crop. I use the "Goldilocks Rule" - "not too much and not too little." You don't want so many tomatoes or squash you scare your neighbors, but you don't want so few peas that when dinner time comes around, you have only seven to share!

LTK: What is the best way for beginners to start?

DR: Start small. Locate a spot in your yard that gets six or more hours of direct sun per day. Grow a few simple vegetables your family will like and add more beds as you get a sense of how it works for you. Get the whole family involved in selecting the different crops and varieties and the kids will love planting the seeds, watering and harvesting.

Think of your garden as an "American Idol" for veggies. Try different "contestants" and if one of them doesn't "perform" well, vote it off the show and try a new one next season. Keep your best varieties and keep trying to knock them off with new ones. That way your garden will constantly improve each year and you'll always be trying something new.

No Green Thumb Required

LTK: What do you hope to accomplish with your book and projects?

DR: There's a lot of interest in local, organic farms as the way to solve our food problems, but the reality is that land is expensive and demand is great for the limited local produce we can grow. Organic farming is very labor intensive and therefore the produce is more expensive than what is grown on giant farms. Back yard gardeners have the space they need, can grow exactly what they want, and have the time needed to manage their crops carefully. It's easy to prune and tie up three or four tomato plants, but almost impossible to manage three or four hundred!The current image of gardening is that it's something that takes a lot of work, and it's usually true. My approach is much easier and means that thousands of families can enjoy gardening in their back yards and involve their children in the process. When kids learn about nature and healthy eating, it stays with them all their lives. And nothing tastes better than fresh, home-grown vegetables, so they're more likely to eat them and enjoy them.

I hope to expand my approach all over the country and have Instant Organic Gardeners in lots of cities, spreading the word.

Additional Tips

LTK: What else would you like to share?

DR: Our future is our children. They are often overweight because their diets consist of white foods - white milk, white sugar and white flour. They don't eat vegetables because the taste is lacking, and vegetables picked 7 to 14 days ago lose much of their nutritional value - and flavor. They spend their time in air-conditioned spaces and they walk on carpet, asphalt or concrete. They don't walk in the grass, dig in the dirt or play in the woods. They have never held a seed, much less planted one. They have never seen a plant grow from seed, watered it, and harvested the result.

A back yard garden gives our children a sense of knowledge and power. Now they know important things like "how does a plant grow?" or "where does our food come from?"

But unless gardening can be made easy enough for everyone to do it, no one will try. And that's why my approach makes sense.

Learn More

For more information, check out his book, No Green Thumb Required and visit his website, InstantOrganicGarden to learn how to have a productive, simple organic garden of your own.

Master Gardener Don Rosenberg Discusses Organic Gardening