Choosing to grow your fruits and vegetables organically is an easy way to practice sustainable living. You won't be using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or soil amendments, but that doesn't mean plants are left to fend for themselves.

Choosing to grow organic isn't just about what you don't use in your garden, it's about fostering an appreciation for the natural world, and understanding why those chemicals aren't the best choice for your small backyard garden.

Step 1. Prepare the Soil

Healthy soil produces healthy plants. When you think about fertilizing, you should actually be thinking about how you're supporting the soil. The health of your soil is the single most important aspect of growing food crops. Plants have to eat the right nutrients to be able to fend of insects and disease. Chemical fertilizers and herbicides do nothing to build the soil health and can harm beneficial soil microbes, worms and bacteria. Chemical, readily-available nutrients (think MiracleGro,) are like steroids for plants, causing quick, weak growth and do nothing to improve the soil. Let me just say it again. Healthy soil produces healthy plants.

The best way to understand your soil and know how to amend it, is a soil test. Bring a sample of your soil to Bath and have it tested. If you don't have time to test your soil, you'll want to amend with plenty of humus and organic, plant-based compost. We recommend Agricharge, Cotton Burr Compost, Mushroom Compost and Super Humus.

Step 2. Make Your Own Compost

Your yard and kitchen already produce the ingredients you need to start composting. Composting keeps organic waste (potato peels, moldy vegetables) out of the landfill where they won't break down properly, and those valuable nutrients won't be returned to where they came from. Spread finished compost in your garden and around plants to keep them healthy and vigorous.

Step 3. Plant in Raised Beds and Groups

Raised bed have a lot of advantages. The soil is warmer, excess water drains better, it's easy to amend the soil and they look good. You won't be walking in them, therefore you won't be compacting the soil and stomping on worms. Build a designated path with stepping stones, bricks, anything big enough to put your feet on. You'll only be watering the necessary soil, instead of broadcasting water over a large area.

Step 4. Water

Water is our most precious resource, so don't abuse the privilege of having it always available. Use a drip irrigation system (you can install your own easier than you think, I promise.) The best time to water plants is in the morning. Mornings are cool, usually not as windy and less water will evaporate. Watering at night causes fungal and bacteria diseases, like powdery mildew. If you didn't wake up early enough and you have to water in the evening, avoid getting the foliage wet. It's a simple mistake, but I see a lot of people watering leaves. The leaves aren't absorbing the water, the roots are. Water at the base of your plants.

Deep, infrequent watering is better. It encourages plants to push their roots deeper in search of water. Shallow, light waterings tell the plant that water will come from above, and the roots become too lazy to dig deep, looking for a drink and cool soil. Your plants won't be prepared for drought and hot summer days.

Step 5. Weeding

Pulling weeds by hand is a chore that will make you a better person. As a new homeowner, I now understand why my parents made me pull weeds and pick up random sticks: it builds character.

The mark of a mature gardener is tolerating a few weeks, and pulling them when they start bugging you. Murdering them with toxic chemicals that can drift through the air and ruin your neighbors prized tomatoes, or sink into the lawn where your dogs and children play is a quick fix that can have serious consequences in the long run. Pulling weeds is good exercise and a lesson in patience. There's probably a few weeds waiting for you to finish this article. Go get 'em!

Reduce the number of weeds you wage war against by spreading a thick layer of mulch. When you just can't pull another weed, there are a few organic options like Burnout, and other products that contain clove oil. Or, hire the neighborhood kids to pull those weeds.

Step 6. Organic Pest Control

When your plants are being assaulted by insects, your first instinct is to reach for a pesticides. Chances are the spray you reach for will work wonders, but it might also kill the ladybugs, bees and other beneficial insects that are on your team.

Pest infestations are usually the result of an unhealthy plant in an improper environment. Is your plant getting enough light, moisture and nutrients? Big box stores offer incredible prices on plants, but the staff doesn't have the experience that a true garden center has and you easily end up with the wrong plant, in the wrong area. A diverse garden helps prevent pests by boosting biodiversity and hosting beneficial insects. We sell ladybugs and praying mantid egg cases.

Organic pest control sprays include safe ingredients like Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally-occurring bacteria that gives caterpillars and leaf-eaters a fatal stomach ache. Horticultural oils, insectidial soaps, garlic and pepper sprays are effective ways to control pests without harming the beneficial insect population that calls your backyard home.

Step 7. Organic Fertilizers

Plants that are heavy feeders might need extra nutrients throughout the season. Organic fertilizers are comprised of organic ingredients that are released slowly to the soil. They aren't as readily-available as chemical salt fertilizers and won't harm soil ecology. You can fertilize plants throughout the season by top-dressing with compost, or scratching a granular fertilizer into the top of the soil around the base of your plants.