Tony LaBella’s Top Tips for Successful Organic Gardening

As many of you know, Tony gave a really great talk at his farm on Sunday, April 15, 2012. I took as many notes as I could and have tried to collect them here for everyone. Tony talked about seven main topics (below). Under each topic are my notes. PLEASE add to this blog with any information that I missed or got wrong. Also, if you have been able to find any of the products that Tony mentioned please post the information on this blog so that everyone can benefit. Thanks to everyone for attending.

See you in the garden!


Soil management: fertility, cover crops and micro-nutrients
Look for N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) levels in fertilizers that aren’t too high, but then apply the fertilizer regularly throughout the season. Some organic fertilizers that Tony recommends:

“Vermont Compost” from Johnny’s (, but I can’t find it in their on-line catalog. White Flower Farm ( sells “Vermont Compost Plus.”

Composted chicken manure pellets (3-2-3) from Perdue ( I see that Van Wilgen’s sells chicken manure, too.

“Neptune’s Harvest” ( at Van Wilgen’s and Agway.

You may be able to find these products at other local gardening stores. If you find one of these products, please add the information to this blog so others will know.

Right now is the best time to lime to correct the pH of your soil (if it is too acidic). You can alternate lime and gypsum applications. Tony estimates that if you have acidic soil you’ll need a 50 lb bag of pulverized lime for a 20’ x 20’ garden plot. I would strongly suggest having your soil tested before doing this since a lot of people in the garden don’t seem to have particularly acidic soil.

If your soil has a lot of clay try a cover crop, either in the fall or in the spring. Tony says he has not been able to grow a decent carrot on his farm due to the clay in the soil.

He recommends adding lime to your compost pile if you are using leaf mulch in the pile. A good balance in the compost pile is 1/3 leaf mulch, 1/3 manure, 1/3 garden plant material.

You really need to do a soil test to see if your soil is deficient in micro-nutrients. The corrective treatment will depend on the particular deficiency.

You can compost between your rows, which will also help control weeds.

Cultivation/weeding: everyone hates it but it must be done!
Tony emphasized the need to be super diligent about this. Weeds are BAD and rob your soil of nutrients.

Pest and fungal control: organic spray options
Look for OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute; tested products. They publish a list of organic sprays. When a pest infestation is bad you can resort to pyrethrins (apply late at night when the beneficial bugs are not hanging around the garden). “Pyganic” is a product that Tony uses. I don’t know if the concentrated solution is sold in small enough quantities for the home gardener, but sells Pyganic dust.

For soft-bodied pests BT-based products are good (they won’t kill earthworms).

Neem oil is good for killing some pests but don’t add it in sunny conditions.

For fungus Tony recommends preventive applications of fungicides PRIOR to problems occurring. He alternates three types: Copper/“Oxidate”/“Sonata” products.

  • Copper products: Bonide makes one, (see their website for local dealers: I see that Van Wilgen’s sells one.
  • “Oxidate” (for powdery mildew), every 10 days, every 7 days if it’s been rainy. I found it on
  • A systemic fungicide called “Sonata” or “Serenade.” But don’t rely on the systemics alone – you must spray. I see that Van Wilgen’s sells “Serenade.”

    You might be able to find these products at other places. I didn’t do an exhaustive search for all available dealers.

Transplant care: seed depth, temperature control, age hardening off, spacing
Seed depth is critical. When they say ¼ inch they mean ¼ inch! You will not get the germination you want unless you follow the directions.

Direct seeding: beans, carrots

Don’t keep transplants too long before putting them in the ground. In other words, don’t buy transplants too early in the season and then plant them a month, or more, later. The health and growth of the plant will suffer. Buy the transplants close to the time you will be transplanting them.

Johnny’s Seeds sells lots of pelleted seeds, which are much easier to plant (I see they have Genovese basil, carrots, lots of lettuces).

Seed selection: heirloom, hybrid, GMO
Tony recommends Green Star lettuce (Johnny’s), which is heat tolerant. They also come as pelleted seeds. But, just forget spinach in the hot months.

Succession planting: a great way to reduce weeding and spraying
Whenever you harvest a crop plant something else in its place. Tony recommends planting lettuce every week!

Post-harvest handling: field washing and storage temperature
Cold shock your produce immediately after harvesting. Fill a bucket with cool water, plunge the produce in, shake the water off and then get it into the refrigerator as soon as possible.

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