So where does a gardener begin the process of going organic?
Where the plants do: the soil.
"The place you want to start is the soil because everything comes from the soil," says Phil Radspinner, vice president of a Northern California farm-and-garden supply store. "In fact, there is a saying in organic farming and gardening -- feed the soil, not the plant."
Soil-test kits give you a general idea of the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium levels in your soil so you can customize your fertilizer and amendments to fit the plants' needs. For more specific information, send a soil sample to a qualified lab.
Taking a soil sample is easy. Remove the top layer of grass or weeds and take a scoop of the soil a few inches underneath that. Repeat that in eight to 12 places throughout the yard, placing all the soil into one container. If there's a spot in the yard where nothing seems to grow, place that sample in a separate container.
Then smash the clumps and mix it all up to get a nice homogonous representation of your soil. Call your nearest cooperative extension office for information on where to send the soil sample and send it out. The results will tell you which organic fertilizers and amendments are necessary to add to improve the soil.
"A lot of (organic) fertilizers can be processed through the soil's buffering ability, the natural microbial process in the soil," Radspinner says. "Conventional fertilizers typically go directly to the plant, and then there can be a side effect on the microbes and the soil chemistry that can become detrimental in the long run."
Organic pest-control methods typically are milder than conventional pesticides and, as a result, cause less shock to the plants' systems. One such product, insecticidal soap, is very mild. An "OMRI" on the label indicates its review by the Organic Materials Review Institute.
Weeds can be a problem in the organic garden. There are methods, such as hand weeding and digging out weeds with tools, that work, but consider burning the weeds out, if local conditions permit. A propane flamer works by rupturing the plant's cell walls, eventually killing it. It doesn't disturb the soil surface, so there's less erosion. Plus, buried weed seeds aren't exposed, which would start the whole cycle over again.