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Romeo and Juliet 2.0: An Epic, Improbable Love Affair

by Amanda Little
June 14th, 2013

At first glance, they’re a funny match: Jeanne is 44 and Verd is 34. Jeanne is Type-A and a worrier; Verd is mellow and happy-go-lucky. Jeanne is Jewish; Verd is Irish. Jeanne grew up playing tennis at a country club; Verd grew up tagging the streets of Chicago. Jeanne’s community was rock-ribbed conservative; Verd’s was bleeding-heart liberal.

But somehow Jeanne and Verd stumbled onto the same path—a turbulent path fraught with mistakes and heartache, but one that has led, against all odds, to a devoted marriage with wonderful kids and path-breaking careers.

Jeanne met Verd in 1992 on a 200-acre farming commune outside of Austin, Texas. Jeanne had joined the commune seven years earlier, at the age of 18, after dropping out of high school. Verd did the same years later. He’d been a super bright student, but was more interested in breakdancing and bongs than in attending classes. He skipped whole days of school to work at a kennel where he cleaned cages for $6.50 an hour. One day in 1992, he picked up a magazine at Lollapalooza and saw an ad for the commune; two weeks later he was on a train to Texas.

The commune attracted people from all walks of life, from ex-cons to former marines to brilliant MIT and Harvard grads who were otherwise social misfits. Some came from as far away as Japan and Australia. Jeanne and Verd discovered that they’d grown up 20 miles from each other, in different suburbs of Chicago, and instantly connected.

She was beautiful, savvy and in charge. He was explosively charismatic and a great dancer. He apprenticed under her in the fields, learning how to grow the vegetables and fruits that fed the commune’s three-dozen members. They fell in love—the kind of fairytale love that involved running naked in the rain and having sex next to rushing rivers. But there was a big hitch: the commune leaders forbade monogamy. They believed that exclusive pair bonds would threaten the greater whole.

I won’t share the details of their forced separation here – you can read them in Jeanne’s book From The Ground Up: A Food-Grower’s Education in Life, Love and The Movement That’s Changing The Nation,(Random House: Spiegel & Grau) which comes out next month, but here are some key elements of their story: Verd got evicted from the farm; Jeanne developed a relationship with her best friend, Bryan, and they had a beautiful daughter named Thea. But with Verd gone, Jeanne spiraled into a deep depression, and eventually fled with Thea back home to her parents in suburban Chicago.

There, she began doing the only thing she knew how to do: grow food. First, on a small plot in her parent’s back yard, then, for a few neighbors and, eventually, for hundreds of clients. Jeanne’s business, The Organic Gardener, has now built more than 650 farms and food gardens in and around Chicago, and she’s become a pioneer of the urban farming movement that’s growing nationwide.

But none of this could have happened without Verd — and, for that matter, without Bryan. When Jeanne came home to Chicago, she had no emotional room for anyone but Thea, who was not yet three. Bryan had left the commune too, and was living close by — not a romantic partner to Jeanne but a dear friend and a devoted dad to Thea.

It took Jeanne a year after her return home to let Verd back into her life. Their reunion brought an emotional monsoon—grief over the time they had lost and euphoria at their second chance. Within six months, Verd had moved to Chicago. They married in 2007 and had their daughter Kisten the following year.

It was a natural fit for Verd to partner with Jeanne in her food-growing business since, under her own tutelage, Verd had become an expert organic farmer on the commune. She didn’t have much to pay him (or herself) at first, so Verd worked extra jobs running UPS deliveries and teaching ballroom dancing.

As their business began to pick up, Verd went back to school during his off hours, enrolling first in community college and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Last May, he graduated cum laude with a B.S. in neuroscience and received the highest departmental distinction — all while working full-time growing food. For now, he’s committed to building Jeanne’s enterprise and the broader movement, but he plans to go medical school eventually and become an eye surgeon.

Bryan — who was a mentor and friend to Verd on the commune — still lives close by, and he, Verd and Jeanne co-parent their two daughters. (We’ll share more details about their two-father household in a later post, but for now we’ll just say that it works miraculously well.)

The life Jeanne and Verd live is difficult, especially now during growing season, when they work 100-hour weeks. Verd is typically up by 4 am, does accounting for the business until 6, has family time until 7:30, and then his day of physical labor begins. In a typical week, he and his team of 10 staffers truck and shovel hundreds of tons of soil and compost for gardens, build half a dozen fences, install 20 irrigation systems, and plant innumerable seedlings and seeds. Plus Verd puts in 10 hours of eye research at a clinic at University of Illinois-Chicago. Jeanne has a similarly crazy schedule that also involves designing their projects, managing client relationships, and speaking events.

Doing all this while raising kids (Kisten is now 5, and Thea, 11) is intensely challenging. Jeanne and Verd occasionally have their knock-down-drag-out fights like the rest of us, but their tenacity, their eccentricity, and their punch-drunk love and gratitude for each other should earn them a place in the pantheon of world’s best couples.

Stories of happy marriages and ardent save-the-worlders can be cloying and unbearable — like excessive PDA. But Jeanne and Verd have a love so hard-won that to know it has just the opposite effect — it seems like a kind of public service, like their story might just restore goodness and vigor to relationships the world over.

How To Plant Your Groceries: The Rookie Guide to DIY farming, Part 2

In Part One of our Rookie Guide we laid out the five keys to planning a successful food garden: find a spot with good sunlight, prepare your soil, create paths, build a fence, and set up a system for irrigating. Once you’ve got these fundamentals down, you’re ready to plant. Be sure to enlist your kids (and your neighbors’ kids) in every step of the process. Kids love every part of it — creating furrows for seeds, digging holes for seedlings, loosening their roots before settling them into the earth, patting down the soil around the baby plants, and sprinkling them with water to settle the soil. Remember that gardens are forgiving. If your kids screw anything up—like planting seeds or seedlings too close together—their mistakes are always easy to fix.

What follows is the skinny on planting: supplies, what to plant when, how to space out your crops, and how to make it all look fabulous.

Almost all your supplies — fertilizer, compost, seeds, labels, plant supports, trowels, round nosed shovel, hard rake, —can be purchased online or from a local nursery. The Gardener’s Supply website is a one-stop shop, and for seeds we also love Johnny’s. Organic seedlings can be purchased at local nurseries and also often from local farmers at your farmer’s market. All types of compost from your local nursery or home improvement store work well—just go as organic as you can.

There are two basic ways to plant: by placing seeds directly in the ground or by putting plants (seedlings) in the ground. The seedlings give you a head start on the season, as they’re grown in a greenhouse or indoors during the late winter or early spring. Jeanne always plants large fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries and most herbs as seedlings. Vegetables and fruit including carrots, beans, beets, radishes, melon, and pumpkin she plants from seeds.

Amanda pulled a rookie move and planted everything in her garden as seedlings (except carrots). It’s the “insta-garden” approach and a safe way to start, but you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the birth of your tiny plants as they pop up out of the soil from their seeds.

The single most common rookie mistake is over planting — try to use restraint in the planting process! It’s hard to believe that the tiny things you plant will become huge and lush in a matter of weeks, but they will, and they need room to do it. If your plants are too close together, they will compete for nutrients in the soil, crowd each other and won’t grow to their full potential. Nutrient-rich soil can support a more densely planted garden than poorer-quality soil.

Read the information on the back of your seed packet closely or reference the online Kitchen Garden Planner, which has great advice about planting density and garden layouts. If you realize, as your garden grows, that you’ve placed your plants too close together, don’t sweat it. Just thin them out by pulling up the smallest, weakest plants, creating space for the healthiest ones.

You can think of crops in two basic categories: cold-tolerant crops that can be planted in early spring and will germinate and grow in cool soil and air temperatures (such as spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and peas) and heat-loving crops (such as tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, corn, and cucumbers) that must be planted in the late spring or early summer after the threat of a frost has passed. Find out which planting zone you live in and what to plant when on the National Gardening Association’s website.

Every food garden needs flowers. Some flowers, like nasturtiums and pansies, are gorgeous and edible—win, win. Others, like zinnias, calendula and sunflowers also attract pollinators and beneficial insects to your crops. Still others, like marigolds, deter pests.

In the next and final installation of our Rookie Guide, we’ll give you the 411 on tending and harvesting your garden — how to manage pests and weeds, how to stake and fertilize your plants, and when to pick ‘em.

How To Grow Your Groceries: The Rookie Guide to DIY Farming, Part 1

First off, let’s dispense with the myth of the “green thumb,” and shed concerns that food growing requires lots of free time and special skillz. Sure, there are people who have keener instincts for plants than others, but really anyone, anywhere can grow their own food — even Amanda, who works full-time, has two small kids, and can barely keep a fern alive. Only three weeks ago, Amanda planted a vegetable garden following Jeanne’s crazy-simple growing guidelines, which we outline in this post, and now, look at her go:

Jeanne isn’t a by-the-book type, she’s a get-down-in-the-dirt-and-learn-by-doing type, and after 26 years of experience growing food in hundreds of farms and food gardens, she’s boiled down the magic and mystery of edible gardening to the barest essentials. We’ll roll in out our Rookie Guide to Growing in three posts—this one on Planning, then Planting, then Tending—with five simple keys to success in each post. The guidelines will apply whether you’re growing on a rooftop, in the ground or in containers or pots.  

Diving right in, here’s everything you need to know about planning your food garden. Once you get these right, the planting and tending is shockingly simple and fun.

Most fruits and vegetables require loads of sun, so pick a spot for your garden that gets at least 6-8 hours of sun per day (you can measure the amount of sun you get with an affordable device like a “Suncalc”). If your location has limited sun (5-6 hours), choose crops that can tolerate less sun, like leafy greens, cucumbers, beans and herbs.

If you don’t have a sunny yard, you can plant in containers on a sunny deck, balcony, rooftop or fire escape; if you don’t have any of those, plant with a neighbor or on a community plot or in a schoolyard.

Healthy soil is the immune system of your garden: if a plant is well nourished by good soil, it’s less likely to be eaten by insects because pests attack weak plants first. You ideally want to plant in 12 or more inches of well-aerated, nutrient-dense soil blended with compost. Use a generous amount of compost— you can’t really use too much. (Jeanne usually applies a three-to-six-inch layer of compost when preparing her garden beds, and works that into the soil.) For an extra nutrient boost, you can also blend in some organic granulated fertilizer to your soil mix before you plant. (We love Happy Frog)

If you’re growing in the ground near an old house or in the city, test your soil for lead or other toxins. Amanda’s soil was lead-laced, so she worked the Nashville-based garden care company Weeding Woman which trucked in a rich soil-compost blend from a local nursery to fill the raised bed (pictured above).

Paths are more than just cosmetic – without them, the soil in a garden can get compacted, which makes it hard for roots to spread and chokes off the oxygen that’s essential to soil health and plant growth. Be sure to clearly demarcate the paths around your rows with straw, woodchips, stone, or whatever else looks good to you.

If the row of soil where you plant your crops has paths on both sides, it should be no wider than four feet so that plants can be reached and tended from both sides. If a row can be reached from only one side, make it roughly 2 feet wide.

Rabbit-proof fencing should be roughly 3 feet high and several inches below ground; the holes in the mesh should be no bigger than 1” x 2”. Deer-proof fencing can range from 5 to 8 feet high depending on the size of deer population and the amount of open space around the garden (the more space the deer have to run and jump, the higher the fence should be).

Amanda’s fence, pictured at the top, cost $250 to build using recycled cedar boards, chicken wire, and a staple gun; other more ornate iron and wooden garden fences can cost many times that. Some homeowners like to investing in high-end fencing because the fence is the part of the garden that you look at all year long, whether or not it’s growing season.

We love hand-watering with our kids — it’s a fun ritual every evening before dinner. But if you only have an hour a week to spend in your garden, use that time to tend your plants and install a watering system on an automatic timer before you plant. (There are affordable timers with sensors that measure soil moisture} and then prompt your system to irrigate as needed.) Jeanne loves drip-line tubing because it delivers water to plants at their roots.

An ordinary sprinkler connected to your garden hose can work as well, particularly when attached to an automatic timer. (Be sure to time the sprinkler to irrigate in the early morning or evening so that wet plants are not scorched by midday sun.) Dripworks.com is a great resource for information, equipment and other resources.

Garden Field Trip: A Third-grade Perspective on Edible Education

In spring this year The Organic Gardener was thrilled to join The Edible Schoolyard Project. The project is an online network, which allows, ‘education garden, kitchen and lunch programs around the world to network, share their lessons and best practices and gain a collective voice for change’. The networking site was launched early in January 2012 as part of the ongoing efforts of The Edible Schoolyard Foundation based in Berkeley, California and led by locavore extraordinaire, Alice Waters. We’ve found the site to be a fantastic resource for connecting with our peers in the edible education realm and have enjoyed sharing ideas and methods for educating a new generation on the pleasures and importance of growing healthy food. 

Our friends at The Edible Schoolyard Project have been incredibly supportive or our work with Green City Market at The Edible Gardens and have highlighted the program on their site throughout the year. They were keen to hear from some of the many students who visit the gardens to get their perspective on our field trips. So, when a group of third-graders from Illinois North Shore Country Day School visited us in October we enquired if the students might like to complete a questionnaire about their experiences with us. Happily they accepted and we collaborated with the teacher to collect their responses the week after their visit.


During their visit the students were given a tour of Green City Market, where they met some of the farmers and tasted a few items of seasonal produce. We then took them on a guided walk through the gardens where we and examined and tasted many of the crops we were growing such as pumpkins, squash, lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, figs, peppers, carrots and cucumbers. We discussed the different growing conditions various vegetables require and answered questions on the plants that fascinated our visitors like our Mexican sour gherkins and lemon sorrel. Like all visits to The Edible Gardens their field trip concluded with a garden activity where students get to join in on whatever work is happening in the gardens that day. Our fall activities can include digging potatoes, pulling up corn stalks and saving seeds but on this occasion each student joined us in pulling up a carrot, rinsing it off and snacking on it right there in the garden.


The insightful and entertaining responses collected from our young visitors were a joy to read. The Edible Schoolyard Project featured the North Shore Country Day School answers on their blog recently and we felt compelled to share them with you too! Click the link below to enjoy their hand-written answers.


And don’t forget to check out The Edible Schoolyard Project online at:- http://edibleschoolyard.org

Season Extension: Building a Low Tunnel

There is a lot to love about this time of year – crisp, sunny afternoons, leaves a dazzling array of orange, yellow and red, pumpkin patches, those delicious apple donuts that have become the standard fare at orchards throughout the Midwest.  On the other hand, these first few chilly weeks of the year also bring dark mornings, shorter days, and the wrap up of the gardening season.  Some people mourn the onset of winter while others welcome it with open arms, but surely we can all agree the end of fresh food right outside is sad to see each year.

Luckily with a few supplies and a little ambition, there is an easy way for the home gardener to postpone the inevitable season’s end and *bonus* to get an early start on next season – the low tunnel.  A low tunnel is basically a small, unheated hoop house that creates a micro-climate of warmer soil and air that is more hospitable to plants for the tail ends of winter, late fall and early spring.  While this doesn’t mean you’ll be out harvesting tomatoes in January, it does extend the harvest window in the fall and allow you to be the first on your block with seeds up in March.  

How to Build a Low Tunnel

The basic structure of a low tunnel is a series of hoops stuck into the ground or a raised bed.  Ideally the hoops are fashioned from half-inch metal electrical conduit as it is inexpensive and holds up well through the winter.  The downside is that a simple pipe bender tool is necessary for getting evenly rounded hoops.  For those without the tool or the desire to get one, half-inch PVC pipe will also do the trick.  For an in ground bed, you can push the hoops directly into the ground 6-12 inches deep on either side of the row you wish to cover, spacing them up to 5 feet apart.  With a raised bed, you’ll need to use simple clamps like the ones shown here to ensure the hoops stay sturdy in strong winds.  

The next step is to cover the hoops with a polypropylene fabric known as “row cover,” which comes in different grades or weights depending on how much protection you’d like to have.  To keep the structure sturdy, the fabric should be stretched taut and secured with clips on the hoops and sandbags or garden pegs along the edges.  In mid-November, we recommend adding a layer of greenhouse plastic over the fabric to keep it from sagging or giving away under the weight of snow accumulation.  We like Johnny’s Selected Seeds for the row covers, clips, and pegs.  Metal or plastic conduit can be purchased cheaply at any hardware store. 

Getting the Most Out of a Low Tunnel

A low tunnel is great for extending the season in fall – building one over a bed with established plants can allow you to continue harvesting into winter.  This works well for lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes, chard, kale and other greens.  Note: we say established plants, because even with the warmer low tunnel, there is still not enough sun in winter to achieve substantial new plant growth.  You can think of the low tunnel as a nice, temperate crisper, an addition to your refrigerator, in which you are storing cold hardy veggies until you are ready to eat them. 

Come late winter, early spring, the low tunnel functions more like a passive solar greenhouse, capturing the sun’s heat to warm up the soil enough for cold hardy seeds to germinate a few weeks earlier than unprotected seeds.  The line-up of plants is largely the same; you can get a jump on lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes and greens.  Sow these seeds in October or November, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they pop up in March.  Another possible use of the low tunnel in spring is for planting your spring transplants (usually safe in the Chicago area around mid-April) a few weeks early.  If you can find early plants at the local nursery or start them yourself at home, broccoli, brussels sprouts, onions, and cabbage will all do well starting in a low tunnel come late March, early April.  Just be sure to pull back the row cover on very sunny days and remove it all together once temperatures start to warm up as the low tunnel can quickly go from temperate to oven-like, and you’ll risk roasting your veggies before they’re done growing!

If you are in the Chicago area and would like our help building a low tunnel for your garden, call (847) 636-2720 or email us at info@theorganicgardener.net for more information.  

2012 Backyard Farming Business Summit

Last month, Jackie, our landscape architect, attended the 2012 Backyard Farming Business Summit held at the office of the Seattle Urban Farm Company in Seattle, Washington.  Attendees included representatives from urban farming and gardening companies nationwide: The Organic Gardener Ltd., Chicago, IL; Seattle Urban Farm Co., Seattle, WA; Green City Growers, Boston, MA; Verdura Culinary Gardens, Portland, OR; Urban Farm Colorado, Ft. Collins, CO; Love and Carrots, Washington, D.C.; and Farmscape Gardens, Los Angeles, CA.

The summit covered a range of topics related to the particulars of urban farming business models, such as sharing business strategies, types of projects, and ideas for expansion.  It was so exciting to learn about the different ways each company approached similar challenges and to be able to share some of the tips we’ve learned in the 7 years of TOG.

The meeting place exemplified the ideals of a true urban farm.  The Seattle Urban Farm Company shared their beautiful backyard as a setting for the summit:  a vegetable garden enhanced with amazing flowers, a hoophouse, and a darling designed chicken coop with three sassy chickens!

Thanks to Jessie Banhazl, Owner of Green City Growers and Caroline Lewis, Partner of Verdura Culinary Gardens for arranging this significant event – its definitely proof that urban farming is here to stay!  We look forward to meeting with these partners and more at next year’s summit. 

Until then, we’ve got several fun websites from our new friends to inspire new ideas for growing your own food.  Take a look:







Planning (and Planting!) for Fall

In the midst of these sweltering hot days, it’s hard to imagine the cold temperatures to come.  But for Chicagoans, warm summer or not, we know we’re in for a significant drop on the thermostat sooner or later.  Luckily for us gardeners, there are plenty of plants that tolerate, and even prefer the cooler temps. 

Hopefully your garden is blooming with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, and other summer lovelies.  If you’re like us though, there are a few gaps in the garden here and there left by spring and early summer crops that have bolted in the heat or simply been eaten! Now is the time to start filling in those spots with crops for fall harvest. 

At The Organic Gardener, we will be growing fall crops from seeds and plant starts.  This year, we have beautiful broccoli and cauliflower starts from the Green Earth Institute – a non-profit organic farm and CSA in Naperville, Illinois.  Check with your local farmer at the market or at garden stores like Chalet in Wilmette or Gesthemane for starts.  In addition to broccoli and cauliflower, you might also find starts for kohlrabi, scallions, and head lettuce.  It’s best to transplant early in the morning or on a cooler day and to water in the plants with a splash of fish emulsion or another organic fertilizer if you have it. 


There is also a long list of veggies you can start from seed this time of year – perfect for those empty spots in the garden or for those who might not have gotten started yet this year.  It’s not too late to get a container and some organic potting soil (We like Happy Frog from Fox Farm) and try your hand at sowing a few seeds.  Over the next few weeks into mid August, you should seed beets, carrots, lettuce, and Asian veggies such as hakurei turnips, mizuna, and tatsoi.  We haven’t always done fall peas at The Organic Gardener, but after having success with them last year we are poised to try it again.  We’ve found experimenting to be one of the great joys and challenges of gardening – that and adjusting to each year’s particular personality – hot hot hot in this year’s case! 

As temperatures start to cool in late August and September, you can seed spinach, arugula, radishes, and cilantro all of which need cool weather in order to thrive.  There is also still time at this point for more lettuce and Asian greens.  Hopefully you’ve been taking good care of your kale, chard, and collard green plants (harvesting the bottom leaves and leaving the center few to keep growing), as these should keep producing for you throughout the fall. 

The most important thing to remember with seeding and planting your fall crops this week is water!  Just like we need water in this heat, so do the plants and seeds.  If you put a bunch of seeds in and don’t see anything popping up after 5-7 days, you likely just need to increase your watering.  If you can schedule it, planting before a rain can help you get good germination from a seeding. 

Lastly, we’ve found fall transplants can be particularly vulnerable to bug damage.  For tips on how to handle unwanted pests, check out our previous entry on organic pest control.  

Starting a Garden in July

There is a lot of conventional wisdom surrounding how and when to get the garden going at the beginning of the season.  For our area in the Midwest near Chicago, cool weather crops are safe to go in the ground around mid-April, while tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are held back until there is negligible chance of frost, usually mid-May.  But what if you missed those traditional start dates?  Do you have to wait an entire year to get started growing your own food?  Absolutely not!!

Check out this garden we planted in Lakeside, Michigan last week. 


It may seem unorthodox to start a new garden this late in the season, but we have found at TOG that we can still get quite a bit of productivity out of a mid summer planting – especially if we keep in mind a few key factors.

Let’s get right to the most popular summer crops: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.  The first key is finding good plants from a local nursery or farmer, as it is unfortunately far too late to start these from seed.  In Chicago, Gethsemane still has an excellent variety of healthy plants.  Make some calls in your area, you may be surprised to not only find plants but a good deal on the price as well.  The next key is providing support for these plants as you transplant them.  This late in the year, seedlings will have grown tall in their containers and will also likely be root bound.  If the roots look like they’ve done laps around the container and hold its shape even when removed from the pot, gently break up the bottom of the root ball to free some roots for growing down into the new soil. 

Plant tomatoes deeply, 10 inches down or more for tall plants.  They will form new roots along the buried stem and as a result have a much stronger foundation.  Be ready with bamboo stakes or simple plant cages for all three, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, as some support staying upright will keep the plants healthier and help protect the fruit.  If possible, plant early in the morning or on a cooler day.  And lastly, don’t forget water! We like to water in new transplants at the time of planting with a splash of Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion/seaweed blend in the watering can to help with transplant shock and provide a fertilizer boost (nitrogen from the fish and macro/micronutrients from the seaweed).  This is of particular concern when a plant has been in its small container a long time, as is typical for this point in the season.  Make sure you have irrigation ready to go or a plan in place to water daily – with heat like we’ve seen this year, new transplants can easily be wiped out without sufficient water.  

What else can you plant right now?  Most nurseries will still have a good selection of herb starts including basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, rosemary and more.  There are also plenty of edibles you can still start from seed, including cucumbers, summer squash, green beans, heat tolerant lettuce, and shorter day melons.  Check the seed packet for more information on heat tolerance and days to maturity for individual varieties.

We try to wrap up our summer planting by July 15th, so if you haven’t started your garden yet get out this weekend and give it a go!  The conventional wisdom certainly has its place, but one of the joys of gardening on your own is experimentation and throwing the rules out the window.  Share any garden rules you’ve broken with success (or without!) in our comment section and check back soon, we’ll be discussing fall crops next week.  It may be hard to believe, but it’s already time to start thinking ahead to cooler temperatures! 

Organic Pest Control Tips

We are all about being organic here at The Organic Gardener – it’s even in our name!  But as many of you who have grown vegetables before know, there are frustrating times when even the most committed organic gardeners wish they could wave a magic “conventional” wand to get rid of the bugs happily munching away on all of their hard work. If you’ve gone out in your garden this week to find your lettuce looking more like Swiss cheese, please do not despair. We’ve got all the information you need on how to control the pests in your garden safely and organically.

To garden organically, it helps to really understand what “organic” actually means. There are a lot of misconceptions out there – not surprising given how often the word and its ubiquitous counter parts (natural, fresh, artisan) are thrown about these days.  Luckily for us, the term “Certified Organic” does have a specific meaning and set of required characteristics that have to be met as laid out by the USDA. For our purposes as organic home growers, here are the key parts to know:

  • No GMO (genetically modified) seeds 
  • No synthetic (man-made, chemical) fertilizer
  • No synthetic herbicides (weed killers)
  • No synthetic pesticides (bug killers)

Today, we are going to explore organic forms of pest control. Because even though synthetic pesticides are forbidden, thankfully for us, there are some safe, naturally occurring methods to ward off that Swiss cheese lettuce.

Your first line of defense – companion planting.  There are many, many theories out there about which plants grow well together as “companions.” At The Organic Gardener, we keep companion planting simple, by filling our gardens with herbs and flowers. The strong smell of fragrant herbs like rosemary, dill, sage, and oregano helps deter many common pests, while flowers help attract bees and other good bugs to the garden.  Tomatoes with basil is one combination we like in particular, as basil in addition to attracting good bugs and deterring bad ones, is also said to enhance the flavor and production of tomatoes. Planting alliums (which include onions, scallions, leeks, chives, and garlic) throughout a garden can also deter pests with their pungent aromas, which leads us to your second line of defense – Garlic spray! Yes, it is as smelly as it sounds, but that’s the whole point! A strong garlic concentrate, garlic spray can be used both preventatively and to treat a bug outbreak. We like the Garlic Barrier brand. Mix with water and spray the leaves, both on top and on the under-side, preferably in the morning. Spray every two weeks for maintenance and up to every 2-3 days during an acute pest attack.  

Unfortunately, there are times, particularly in a warm season like this one, when garlic spray just isn’t enough to do the job. In that case, we turn to stronger alternatives. At The Organic Gardener, we make up a brew that includes:

  • Bt (bacillus thuringiensis – naturally occurring, soil-dwelling bacteria that are toxic to many insects but not harmful to humans, bees, birds or other animals.  We like the Dipel brand.)
  • Safer Soap (uses potassium salts to weaken the insects’ waxy outer shell)
  • Fish emulsion (to give the munched up plant’s immune system an extra boost.  We like Neptune’s Harvest brand.)

Again, mix in water and spray both the top and the under-side of the leaves. Spray bi-weekly or as needed, ideally in the morning or evening.

There are lots of other options out there on the market that are helpful as well. Just remember, when selecting organic pest control methods, be sure to look for OMRI certification – it’s the equivalent term to “Certified Organic” in shopping for food. And give that Swiss cheese lettuce a try – with a good rinse we find less than perfect looking leaves, especially if they come from your own yard, are still quite delicious!


Welcome to The Organic Gardener Ltd. Blog! The goal of our blog is to spread the message we’ve been touting since 2005 – everyone, everywhere can grow their own food. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener with a large in ground plot or a city dweller who only has room for a few containers, we’ll have the advice and the encouragement you need to be successful at growing food. We’ll be blogging from the field, sharing resources and tips, answering your questions, and even sharing a few of our favorite recipes. For us, it’s all about demystifying the process and showing you how simple it can be. There is a vegetable garden on the White House lawn - there is no reason not to have one in your own backyard too!

As you’ve probably noticed, the Grow Your Own Food movement is quickly gaining traction around the country. In our neck of the woods, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, our team of 12 people is currently working long hours to help families, schools, and the communities of our area get their gardens going. In the past few weeks, we’ve planted nearly 600 tomatoes and almost as many peppers, along with eggplants, greens, and herbs grown for us by Tomato Mountain – an awesome, local organic farm. And we’re already enjoying the “fruits” of our labor with raspberries ripening daily as well as the last of spring’s spinach, radishes, lettuce, and arugula.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on our posts or what’s happening in your garden in the comment section or at info@theorganicgardener.net.  We look forward to sharing with all of you this season and beyond!