A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Gardening on the Homestead

Hey there, green thumbs and aspiring gardeners! Today, we’re diving deep into the world of organic gardening with our Beginner’s Guide to Organic Gardening for homesteaders. If you’ve ever wondered what all the buzz is about, or if you’re just looking for some tips to make your garden flourish without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, you’re in the right place.

Beginner's Guide to Organic Gardening some organic vegetables
Photo by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford

What’s the big deal about organic gardening anyway

First off, let’s talk about why organic gardening is such a hot topic. Organic gardening is all about working with nature, not against it. It’s a holistic approach that focuses on soil health, biodiversity and ecological balance. You’re not just growing plants; you’re nurturing an entire ecosystem in your backyard.

Health benefits

Organic means the food you grow is as natural as it gets. No chemicals leaching into your soil and water supply. Plus, many folks swear that organic produce tastes better.

Environmental perks

Organic gardening is also a win for the environment. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides can wreak havoc on local ecosystems. They can contaminate water sources, harm beneficial insects, and even contribute to climate change. Organic methods, on the other hand, are sustainable and help to preserve the natural world around us.

Organic vs. conventional: a side-by-side comparison

Let’s break down some of the key differences between organic and conventional gardening methods.


  • Organic: Compost, manure, bone meal
  • Conventional: Synthetic fertilizers like ammonium nitrate

Pest control

  • Organic: Biological controls, natural repellents, manual removal
  • Conventional: Chemical pesticides

Weed management

  • Organic: Mulching, hand-pulling, cover crops
  • Conventional: Herbicides

Soil management

  • Organic: Crop rotation, cover cropping, reduced tillage
  • Conventional: Frequent tillage, mono-cropping

Getting your hands dirty: the basics of Organic Gardening

Alright, enough with the why. Let’s get into the how. Starting an organic garden isn’t as complicated as it might seem. Here are some basic steps to get you going.

Choose your plants wisely: Companion planting and more

Baby lettuce plant
Photo by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford

Some plants are better suited for organic gardening than others. Native plants, for example, are adapted to your local climate and soil conditions, making them easier to grow without synthetic aids.

Also, consider companion planting, where certain plants are grown together to mutually benefit each other. For example, tomatoes and basil are best buds; basil helps repel pests that love munching on tomato plants.

Some companion plant combos are:

  1. Tomatoes and Basil: Plant basil near your tomato plants. Basil can make tomatoes naturally tastier and help deter pests like aphids and hornworms.
  2. Corn, Beans and Squash: Known as the “Three Sisters,” these crops are traditionally grown together. Corn provides a structure for beans to climb. And the beans fix nitrogen in the soil. The squash acts as a natural mulch, reducing weeds.
  3. Marigolds and Vegetables: Marigolds are excellent companions for many vegetables. They repel nematodes and other harmful insects. Plant them near tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
  4. Lavender and Roses: If you have roses in your garden, consider planting lavender nearby. Lavender can deter aphids and other rose pests.
  5. Nasturtiums and Cucumbers: Nasturtiums are not only beautiful but also serve as a trap crop, attracting aphids away from your cucumber plants.
  6. Chives and Apples: Chives help deter apple scab when planted near apple trees. They also keep deer and rabbits away from your trees.
  7. Sunflowers and Cucumbers: Planting sunflowers can provide shade and support for cucumber vines, as well as attract pollinators to your garden.
  8. Garlic and Roses: Garlic is a natural pest repellent. Plant it near roses to keep aphids and black spot disease at bay.
  9. Carrots and Onions: These two root vegetables grow well together and can help deter each other’s pests. Carrots can also help break up the soil for easier onion growth.
  10. Comfrey and Compost: Comfrey draws nutrients from deep in the soil. Plant it near your compost pile to enrich your compost.

Soil is everything

Good soil is the foundation of a healthy garden. Start by testing your soil to find out what nutrients it needs. You can get a soil test kit from your local garden center or even use some DIY methods.

Once you know what you’re working with, you can add organic matter like manure, compost or peat moss to your soil. This will improve soil structure and fertility.

Remember to rotate your crops each season to prevent soil depletion and reduce the risk of pest and disease buildup.

Natural pest control

Photo by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford

Speaking of pests, you don’t need chemicals to keep them at bay. There are plenty of natural methods to control pests:

  1. Beneficial Insects: Ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps can naturally get rid of pests. Bring these insect soldiers into your garden by planting flowers like daisies and marigolds that attract them.
  2. Companion Planting: As mentioned earlier, use companion planting to your advantage. Certain plants can deter or confuse pests.
  3. Neem Oil: Neem oil is a natural pesticide. It’s effective against a variety of pests. Dilute it with water and spray it on affected plants.
  4. Homemade Insecticidal Soap: Create a mixture of mild soap and water to spray on plants. This can help control aphids, mealybugs and spider mites.
  5. Garlic and Chili Spray: Blend garlic and chili peppers with water and a bit of soap, then strain and spray on plants to deter pests.
  6. Diatomaceous Earth: Sprinkle food-grade diatomaceous earth around the base of plants. It’s effective against crawling insects as it damages their exoskeletons.
  7. Floating Row Covers: Use row covers to physically block insects from reaching your plants while allowing sunlight and water to pass through.
  8. Crop Rotation: Rotate your crops each season to disrupt pest life cycles and reduce the buildup of soil-borne diseases.
  9. Hand-Picking: Check your plants regularly and hand-pick pests like caterpillars, snails and slugs. Squish them or drown them in a bucket of water.
  10. Beer Traps: Sink containers filled with beer into the ground to attract and drown slugs and snails.
  11. Plant Diversity: Plant a variety of crops to confuse and deter pests. Monoculture can make it easier for pests to establish themselves.
  12. Clean Garden Beds: Remove debris, fallen leaves and weeds regularly to eliminate hiding places for pests.
  13. Birdhouses and Feeders: Attract birds to your garden by providing birdhouses and feeders. They’ll help control insect populations.
  14. Beneficial Nematodes: Apply beneficial nematodes to the soil to combat soil-dwelling pests like grubs and root maggots.
  15. Mulch: Add mulch to your garden beds by using organic materials like straw or wood chips to reduce weed growth and create a barrier for some pests.
  16. Traps: Use traps for specific pests. For example, yellow sticky traps can catch flying insects like whiteflies and aphids.
  17. Herbal Repellents: Some herbs like mint, rosemary and oregano can deter pests when planted near susceptible crops.
  18. Clean Tools: Keep your gardening tools clean. This will prevent the spread of diseases from plant to plant.
  19. Organic Pest Sprays: Look for organic pest control products that are safe for your garden, pets, and beneficial insects.
  20. Beneficial Fungi: Consider using beneficial fungi like Beauveria bassiana to control certain pests, such as aphids and whiteflies.

Go for permaculture

Permaculture “short for “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture”) is a design system that mimics natural ecosystems. It’s the ultimate form of organic gardening, focusing on sustainability and self-sufficiency. You can incorporate permaculture principles into your garden by creating a food forest, capturing rainwater and even raising small livestock like chickens or goats.

Here are some key principles and concepts of permaculture:

  1. Observation and Interaction: Permaculture begins with careful observation of natural patterns and processes. By understanding how ecosystems work, practitioners can design systems that mimic and work in harmony with nature.
  2. Design for Multiple Functions: In permaculture, elements within a system should serve multiple functions. For example, a pond can provide water storage, habitat for aquatic life, and a cooling effect on the surrounding area.
  3. Each Element Performs Many Functions: Similarly, each element in a permaculture system should have multiple purposes. For instance, a fruit tree not only produces food but also provides shade, enriches the soil, and attracts pollinators.
  4. Efficient Use of Energy: Permaculture emphasizes the efficient use of energy and resources. This includes optimizing the placement of elements to reduce unnecessary work and energy inputs.
  5. Natural Patterns and Edge Effects: Permaculture recognizes the importance of natural patterns, such as fractals and spirals, in design. It also leverages the productive edges or boundaries between different elements in a system.
  6. Small-Scale Intensive Systems: Permaculture often focuses on smaller, intensive systems where a diversity of plants and animals are grown together to maximize productivity and reduce maintenance.
  7. Diversity and Polycultures: Diversity is a key principle. By planting a variety of species, permaculturists can increase resilience and reduce the risk of pests or diseases wiping out an entire crop. Polycultures, where different plants are grown together, are common.
  8. Biological Resources: Permaculture values biological resources, such as beneficial insects, fungi and microorganisms, to perform essential tasks like pest control and nutrient cycling.
  9. Slow and Small Solutions: Permaculture seeks gradual, small-scale changes rather than abrupt and large-scale interventions. This approach is often more sustainable and easier to manage.
  10. Appropriate Technology: Permaculture advocates for the use of appropriate technology that suits the local context and minimizes environmental impact. This can include simple tools, rainwater harvesting or renewable energy sources.
  11. Zones and Sectors: Permaculture designs often incorporate zones and sectors. Zones represent areas of activity based on frequency of use, with high-intensity activities closer to the center. Sectors consider external influences like wind, sunlight, and noise when planning.
  12. Stewardship and Ethics: Permaculture is guided by three ethical principles: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Practitioners aim to care for the Earth, take care of people’s needs, and share resources equitably.
  13. Perennial Plants: Permaculture designs often feature perennial plants (those that live for several years) as they require less maintenance compared to annuals.
  14. Closed-Loop Systems: Permaculture encourages the creation of closed-loop systems, where waste from one element becomes a resource for another. For instance, composting kitchen scraps to enrich garden soil.
  15. Self-Regulation and Feedback: Permaculture systems are designed to be self-regulating, with feedback loops that allow for continuous improvement.

DIY fertilizers

My compost bucket where I store scraps in my kitchen for the compost pile.
Photo by DIY Homesteading 101, Alina Bradford My compost bucket where I store scraps in my kitchen for the compost pile.

You don’t need to buy expensive organic fertilizers. These DIY fertilizers are not only easy on your wallet but also great for your plants. Plus, you’ll know exactly what’s going into your garden. Here are some friendly and simple DIY fertilizer ideas:

  1. Compost Magic: Compost is like gold for your garden. It’s made by recycling kitchen scraps, yard waste, and other organic stuff. When it turns into dark, crumbly compost, spread it on your garden beds to make your soil super happy.
  2. Banana Peel Power: Don’t toss those banana peels! They’re full of potassium, which helps plants make flowers and fruits. Dry them in the sun, grind them up, and sprinkle this banana peel powder around your plants for a potassium boost.
  3. Eggshell Goodness: Eggshells are like little calcium boosters for your plants. Crush them into a fine powder after they’re all dried up, and sprinkle them around your garden. You can also add crushed eggshells to your compost pile to give it a calcium kick.
  4. Coffee Grounds Perk: Used coffee grounds have nitrogen, which plants love for growing big and strong. Sprinkle them around plants like tomatoes, peppers, and leafy greens. Bonus: they can help keep slugs and snails away!
  5. Fishy Surprise: If you have a freshwater fish tank, the water you change is like liquid gold for your plants. It’s packed with nutrients. Just dilute it with water and give it to your thirsty plants.
  6. Weed Tea Time: Turn those pesky weeds into something useful. Fill a container with them, cover them with water, and let it sit for a while. Stir it every now and then. When it’s ready, strain the liquid and use it to feed your garden.
  7. Sweet Molasses Treat: Molasses is like candy for soil microbes. Mix a bit of unsulfured molasses in water and give your soil a sweet treat. It can make your soil healthier and more alive.
  8. Epsom Salt Spa: Plants need magnesium, and Epsom salt is a source of it. Dissolve a spoonful of Epsom salt in water and give it to plants that crave magnesium, like tomatoes, peppers, and roses.
  9. Seaside Secret: If you live near the beach, grab some seaweed. Rinse off the salt, chop it up, and mix it with water. Let it steep for a while, then strain it. Use this seaweed mix to give your plants a taste of the ocean – it’s full of essential minerals.
  10. Manure Tea Party: If you can get your hands on some well-composted manure, make a manure tea. Mix a little manure in a bucket of water, let it sit for a few days, and then dilute it with water. Your plants will love this party!

Remember, when you use these homemade fertilizers, don’t go overboard. Balance is key – you want to keep your soil happy, not overwhelm it.

Cool tech to help with organic gardening

You might think that organic gardening and technology are at odds, but that’s not the case. In fact, modern tech can make your organic gardening journey even more rewarding.

Apps and software

PictureThis - Plant Identifier App
PictureThis – Plant Identifier App

There are tons of gardening apps out there that can help you plan your organic garden, identify plants and even diagnose diseases. Some apps offer a plant identification feature where you can snap a photo of a plant or pest, and the app will tell you what it is and how to care for it. I use Picture This App.

Smart irrigation

Water conservation is a big part of sustainable gardening. Smart irrigation systems can be programmed to water your plants at the optimal time of day, reducing water waste. Some systems even have sensors that measure soil moisture and only water when needed.

Drones and sensors

For those who are really tech-savvy, drones equipped with cameras can provide a bird’s-eye view of your garden, helping you spot problem areas you might not see from the ground. Soil sensors can also provide real-time data on soil pH, temperature and moisture levels.

The science behind organic gardening

You might be wondering, what’s the science that backs up all these claims about organic gardening? Well, studies have shown that organic farming practices can increase soil organic matter, enhance microbial activity and improve water retention. This creates a more resilient system that’s better equipped to handle extreme weather conditions like droughts or heavy rainfall.

Soil microbiome

The soil is alive, y’all! It’s teeming with microorganisms that play a crucial role in plant health. Organic matter feeds these microorganisms, which in turn break down nutrients for the plants. It’s a symbiotic relationship that you don’t get with synthetic fertilizers, which can actually harm the soil microbiome.

Nutrient cycling

In a natural ecosystem, there’s a constant cycle of life and death. Plants grow, die and decompose, returning nutrients to the soil. Animals eat plants and produce waste, which also contributes to soil fertility. Organic gardening taps into this natural nutrient cycling, reducing the need for external inputs.

Studies on Organic Gardening

Here’s some more research if you want to dig deeper:

Development of Organic Fertilizers from Food Market Waste and Urban Gardening by Composting in Ecuador

  • Authors: Janneth Jara-Samaniego, M. D. Pérez-Murcia, M. Bustamante, C. Paredes, A. Pérez-Espinosa, I. Gavilanes-Terán, Marga López, F. Marhuenda-Egea, H. Brito, R. Moral
  • Publication Date: July 20, 2017
  • Cited By: 43 times
  • Abstract: This study focuses on the development of organic fertilizers . The study aims to evaluate composting technology for organic waste management and to produce an end-product with commercial value as organic fertilizer. Various composting mixtures were prepared and monitored for temperature and organic matter evolution.
  • Read MoreFull Paper

A Conceptual Framework for Alternative Farmers’ Strategic Choices: The Case of French Organic Market Gardening Microfarms

  • Authors: K. Morel, F. Léger
  • Publication Date: January 15, 2016
  • Cited By: 39 times
  • Abstract: This study aims to understand how alternative farmers make strategic choices. It focuses on 14 organic market gardening micro farms in France and develops a systemic conceptual framework that integrates social and environmental aspirations.
  • Read MoreFull Paper

Perceived Changes in Well-being and Happiness with Gardening in Urban Organic Allotments in Portugal

  • Authors: I. Mourão, M. C. Moreira, T. C. Almeida, L. M. Brito
  • Publication Date: January 2, 2019
  • Cited By: 27 times
  • Abstract: This study evaluates the contribution of urban organic allotment gardens to the happiness and well-being of urban populations in Portugal. The study found that frequent visits to the gardens were positively related to a greater perception of subjective happiness.
  • Read MoreFull Paper

Rodale Press and Organic Gardening

  • Authors: W. Kelly
  • Publication Date: April 1, 1992
  • Cited By: 12 times
  • Abstract: This paper discusses the impact of Rodale Press on organic gardening in the United States. It explores how agricultural opinions changed following economic and environmental crises and how Rodale Press played a role in promoting organic gardening.
  • Read MoreFull Paper

The economics of organic gardening

Now, let’s talk money. Organic gardening can be more expensive upfront, but it often pays off in the long run.

Initial costs

Organic seeds and soil amendments can be pricier than their conventional counterparts. However, you can offset some of these costs by making your own compost and natural fertilizers.

Long-term savings

Once your organic garden is established, you’ll find that it’s more self-sufficient. You won’t need to buy fertilizers and pesticides regularly, and you’ll save money on water bills thanks to healthier soil that retains moisture better.

Increased yield and quality

Many organic gardeners report higher yields and better-tasting produce. While this can vary depending on various factors, the potential for improved quality is a strong selling point for going organic.

The seasons of organic gardening

One thing that’s often overlooked is how organic gardening can be a year-round endeavor. Sure, you might not be harvesting tomatoes in December (unless you’re in a super warm climate), but there’s always something to do.

Winter prep and planning

Winter is the perfect time to plan your garden layout and decide which crops you’ll be growing in the coming season. It’s also a great time to start composting if you haven’t already. Kitchen scraps like melon rinds, eggshells, potato peels, dog hair, tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells can all go into your compost pile. You can also add yard waste, like leaves and small twigs.

Spring awakening

Spring is when things really start to get exciting. You can plant cool-season crops like lettuce, peas and radishes as the soil warms up. This is also the time to start prepping your garden beds. If you’re using raised beds or containers, make sure they’re filled with high-quality organic soil.

Summer abundance

Summer is the peak growing season for most vegetables and fruits. You’ll be busy watering, weeding and harvesting. 

Fall transition

As the days get shorter and the temperatures start to drop, it’s time to think about your fall garden. Many cool-season crops you planted in the spring can be grown again in the fall. I like to replant peas and potatoes, in particular. It’s also the time to harvest and store your summer crops. Don’t forget to save some seeds for next year!

Organic gardening with kids and pets

If you’ve got little ones or furry friends running around, organic gardening can be a fantastic educational experience.

For kids

Gardening teaches kids about the life cycle of plants, the importance of nutrition, and the value of hard work. Plus, kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves. You can make it fun by letting them have their own small plot or container to take care of.

For pets

Believe it or not, pets can also benefit from organic gardening. Many dogs and cats enjoy munching on grass or herbs, and you can grow pet-safe plants like catnip or wheatgrass. Just be sure to keep them away from any plants that are toxic to animals.

Organic gardening in small spaces

Don’t have a big yard? No problem! Organic gardening is totally doable in small spaces or even indoors.

Container gardening

Almost any plant can be grown in a container as long as it’s big enough. Herbs, leafy greens, and even some fruits like strawberries and tomatoes do well in pots. Just make sure to use organic potting soil and fertilizers.

Vertical gardening

If you’re short on horizontal space, go vertical! Trellises, wall planters and hanging baskets are all great options for growing upwards. Plants like cucumbers, peas, and vining flowers are perfect for vertical gardening.

Indoor gardening

With the right setup, you can grow food indoors year-round. Leafy greens and herbs are the easiest to grow inside, but with grow lights and a little know-how, you can even grow things like peppers and tomatoes.

The global impact of organic gardening

While your backyard garden may seem small in the grand scheme of things, the collective impact of organic gardening on a global scale is huge.


Organic gardens are often more biodiverse, attracting a variety of insects, birds, and other wildlife. This increased biodiversity has a ripple effect, benefiting local ecosystems and even impacting global biodiversity levels.

Carbon footprint

Organic gardening methods can help reduce your carbon footprint. Composting organic waste keeps it out of landfills, where it would produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Plus, growing your own food reduces the need for transportation, cutting down on emissions.

Food security

On a community level, organic gardening can contribute to food security. Community gardens provide fresh, local produce to those who may not have access to it otherwise. On a larger scale, organic farming practices are more sustainable and could play a role in solving global food security issues.


Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a complete beginner, there’s always something new to learn and discover in the world of organic gardening. The best way to learn is by doing. So what are you waiting for? Grab those gardening gloves and get started. Your journey to a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle begins in your own backyard homestead.