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Grow a great garden with fewer chemicals
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Organic vegetable gardening is on the rise in Mississippi, and its benefits are attracting interest from both commercial and home gardeners.
"Organic gardening has been an increasing trend in the United States for about 10 years, but interest in Mississippi is fairly recent," said Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service in Crystal Springs.
"The main reason for this heightened interest is consumer demand. More and more consumers want to be certain their food supply is safe," Snyder said. "Organically grown vegetables eliminate potential hazards associated with chemical use, leading to the perception of greater food safety."
Vegetables sprayed with chemical pesticides are not necessarily harmful. All pesticides are labeled with a "days to harvest" number that indicates how long to wait between spraying and harvesting to allow chemicals to dissipate. But Snyder said organically grown vegetables offer an extra margin of safety that appeals to many consumers.
Organic growing also prevents chemical contamination of the environment.
"If they are not used properly, chemical pesticides and fertilizers can have a damaging effect on the surrounding environment, leaching into the water table, and even hurting fish and other wildlife in nearby lakes and streams," Snyder said.
Gardeners may decide not to convert completely to organic growing methods, but they can take steps to cut back on chemical pesticide and fertilizer use.
First, Snyder advised home gardeners to assess how much pesticide they actually need before spraying.
"Evaluate whether there really is an insect problem," he said. "Sometimes gardeners administer pesticides when the garden may not need them. Also, know what insect is the target, and whether it is a chewing or sucking insect. These factors will affect the type and amount of pesticide used, and will decrease the risk of over-spraying."
Gardeners also can reduce chemical use by planting disease- and nematode-resistant vegetables, planting only healthy vegetable transplants, keeping the garden free of weeds, hand-picking insects and encouraging beneficial insects. Insects that can improve a garden's performance include the convergent lady beetle, assassin bug, praying mantis and green lacewing.
Companion plants can help ward off pests and boost growth in small-scale gardens. Vegetables that feed at different soil levels, like carrots and onions, make a good combination. Marigold flowers are also a good companion plant because they confuse pests with their scent.
To reduce use of chemical fertilizers, begin with a soil test, available from the MSU Extension Service Soil Lab for $6.
"Perform a soil test in the fall, or in February before planting season begins," Snyder said. "The test will determine if fertilizer and limestone are needed to obtain appropriate nutrient content and pH level in the soil. If the soil has a low pH, it is acidic and will not absorb some nutrients well. The gardener can add a little limestone to the soil, which is an organic, inexpensive way to boost the pH level."
William Evans, research professor with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, tested the use of composted chicken litter as organic fertilizer for vegetables.
"Studies of composted chicken litter from Smith County have shown it to be an effective and safe fertilizer for vegetables like collard greens and tomatoes," Evans said. "The composted litter has many benefits for the home gardener. It builds up the soil's organic matter, which Southern soil is notoriously low in, and it builds soil structure by improving nutrient availability and water balance.
"The composted chicken litter is also a very effective fertilizer for commercial growers using amounts of two to eight tons of litter per acre," he said. "Recycling the large amount of chicken waste produced by Mississippi's booming poultry industry is both economically and environmentally efficient."
Animal manures are the most widely used organic fertilizers, but others like peanut meal, soybean meal and sawdust also provide natural nutrients to plants.