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TODAY contributor
updated 8/5/2008 8:02:26 PM ET 2008-08-06T00:02:26

I spent the weekend munching on fresh string beans and romaine lettuce — the bounty from my mother’s first season as an organic gardener. There was something extra-special about these vegetables — a crunch and snap, a crisp, bright zing that could only be the result of what this garden lacked. From seedling to tiny sprout to full-grown veggie, the contents of my mother’s garden was not exposed to a drop of synthetic pesticide or fertilizer.

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Once you decide to commit to a do-it-yourself garden — be it flowers, edibles or both — turning to chemicals to help your plants flourish is not only counterproductive (you can easily buy a pesticide-ridden tomato at your local grocery store), but also potentially harmful to your family and the planet. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can affect the purity of what you’re growing while also sinking into the earth, contaminating future harvests as well as groundwater.

Going organic in the garden may not be as easy as aiming a bottle of spray-on insecticide, but there are several fairly simply steps to creating a garden that’s as green as your thumb. Start here: 

Test your soil
Before you start planting, it’s essential to learn about your soil. A quick study by a professional soil tester will tell you about the pH and nutrient content of your particular patch of earth. From there, you can take steps (that is, add natural enhancements) to boost what’s missing. There are many safe ways to get your soil up to speed, but first find a local soil expert.

Plant the right plants
You may be in love with blueberries and azaleas, but that doesn’t mean your soil and climate are equipped to grow them. When you grow plants that are right for your particular circumstances, they will need less specialized care and nurturing and will flourish easily. Do your research — a good place to start is with your local garden supply store.

Fight weeds — the natural way
Outsmart weeds by preventing them from growing in the first place. A thick blanket of hay, straw, wood chips, or shredded leaves or newspaper (think biodegradable materials) blocks sunlight from hitting weeds, which keeps them from overrunning your garden.

Combat pests with zero chemicals
Bugs can be a serious bummer for any gardener, but they pose a special challenge for those who choose to go organic. Luckily, there are many different ways to keep bugs at bay without turning to toxic pesticides. You can start by welcoming the critters that eat the insects that eat your plants (got all that?). Water will attract and maintain these bad-bug-munching insects and animals — like ladybugs and birds. If you’re not setting up shop next to a pond, think about integrating a birdbath or big bowl of water into your garden landscape.

Garden already overrun with plant-hungry bugs? Experiment with one of the many natural pesticide options — from garlic and hot pepper sprays to naturally occurring, insect-thwarting bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis to insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils. Again, research is important here as specific pests react to specific pesticides.

For a monthly dose of valuable information, consider a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine.

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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