conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Go organic
Fertilizer-free gardening reaps tasty rewards


April 2008

When you’re green you’re growing … when you’re ripe, you rot."

This saying covers a lot of ground — even the rotting part — when it comes to organic gardening, the philosophy of using natural matter to enrich soil and make it useful.

Master gardener Nino Ridgway knows a lot about green. She grew up planting seeds with her family in a backyard garden — with no sprays or pesticides — and their flowers, herbs and vegetables grew lush and flavorful.

"Organic gardening is really very easy," says Ridgway, who owns Herbs and Everlastings, a business she runs from the Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon. "You don’t have to spend money on fertilizers to grow a fruitful garden.

"It’s all about composting — returning organic matter back into the soil to be used again by plants of all kinds," she says. Ridgway spent a year during graduate school studying organic farms all over the world. After earning a doctorate from UW-Madison, Ridgway joined the Barthel farm to share her commitment to the organic approach.

Cold composting means "recycling" tree and garden trimmings, plants, roots, early spring grass clippings, sticks, dead leaves, egg shells, coffee grounds and other green and brown organic matter (no seeds, flowers or flower buds, though — they encourage weed growth) to work their natural magic.

"In Milwaukee, our soil has a high natural fertility," says Ridgway. "And while it is rich in potassium and phosphorus, it lacks organic matter — leaves, compost, trees and plants that rot and then work their way back into the soil to add nitrogen, a key component for productive crops."

Composting is easy — all you need is a small box in your backyard.

"Just throw your trimmings in, stir now and then, and in a year, you’ll have a crumbly, rotting compost to improve your garden," says Ridgway. "In the fall, lay this compost over your garden, work it in and then watch your garden thrive."

What about organic herbs? It’s fun to grow these useful plants — especially for their scent and flavor.

"Herbs love well-drained soil," says Kathleen Awe, another local master gardener who has studied organic gardening for more than 30 years. Both Awe and Ridgway are active members of the Herb Society of America-Wisconsin Unit.

"The Mediterranean herbs such as basil, lavender, oregano, thyme and rosemary can be tricky because their native soil is more dry and gravelly than ours," explains Awe. "Work in a little gravel at the base of the plant — which helps drain the roots."

"Unless it’s really hot outside," agrees Ridgway, "water herbs only once a week, once the plants are established. Otherwise, root rot will set in."

Awe also cautions against fertilizing herbs. "Manufactured fertilizers cause the leaves to grow too fast, and they won’t develop the essential oils they need to be flavorful," she says.

Awe loves exotic herbs. Calendula, she says, is the Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Year for 2008. "It’s a daisy-like flower — an annual that reseeds itself in many varieties and is beautiful in a flower garden. Today, we use it as an edible flower, mostly as a saffron substitute."

Every grandmother seems to grow nasturtium, says Ridgway — an annual herb whose leaves and flowers have a sweet, mild radish flavor.

"Plant this herb in a pot or garden," advises Ridgway. "It likes some sun, some shade. You can save the seeds and plant them in spring, first inside and then move to the garden."

"There’s no magic to organic gardening," Awe says. "Just experiment in your own backyard, learn from your mistakes, and have fun!"

May 24 at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, where more than 10,000 plants will be available for purchase. Upcoming lecture series topics include landscaping with herbs, edible flowers and heirloom herbs. For more information, visit


This article was featured in the April 2008 issue of