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Pesticide Free Gardening

Pesticide free gardening is an environmentally-friendly alternative that considers the health dangers and impact on the environment when we use synthetic fertilizers.  By using a natural approach to gardening, we can control exactly what goes on our food making it healthier and more beneficial.

This initiative gives you all of the information you need to start and maintain your own pesticide free garden.  Quickly learn how to care for and nurture your garden using an environmentally safe approach.  Learning how to keep your fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs pesticide free each season is not only rewarding but also helps save our environment. 

Advantages of Pesticide Free Gardening

Essential Gardening Tools
colorful photo a thriving plants growing in greenhouse

Preparing the Soil in the Spring

How to Grow a Pesticide Free Garden

Use these Basic Steps to Begin

Pesticide Free Gardening Essentials



Pest Control

Organic Markets in Lancaster County

Community Supported Agricultural Programs

Case Study: Goodwill at Homefields Farm, CSA Cooperative Program


Did you know that something as simple as diluted biodegradable soapy water can be used to safely control annoying pests such as aphids?  With the proper “know how,” all-natural solutions can easily be applied in a way that is surprisingly affordable. To get you on your way to successfully growing a pesticide free garden, a list of 10 best gardening tips is available as well as information about the importance of compost and mulch. Information relating to pest control and minimizing weeds is also provided. 

For those who choose to leave gardening to the farmers but want to take advantage of pesticide free organics, joining a local Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) Program might be what you need. Learn more about CSA’s and listen to a pesticide free discussion from the Farm Manager at Goodwill at Homefields Farm in Millersville.  A convenient list of farmer’s markets offering locally-raised and locally-produced organic foods is also available.

Join the many Lancaster farmers and gardeners that have taken the natural approach.  With the knowledge and advice from many local pesticide free gardening experts, you too can enjoy all natural fruits and vegetables grown in your very own garden or purchase them from local farmers and markets.

Advantages of Pesticide Free Gardening

It’s Good for Your Health:
Store bought vegetables have all been sprayed with pesticides. Although all these pesticides have been approved for commercial use, how safe are they really to human health? When you wash your vegetables, are you really washing off all the pesticides? By growing your own vegetables you have the choice of growing them organically and free of pesticides. Think of a vegetable garden as a natural way to detoxify your body of chemicals at least for a few months of the year.

It’s Reasonably Inexpensive:
Growing your own vegetables can be inexpensive. Other than adding soil, buying some tools, watering and purchasing seeds or pre-grown plants, the cost is minimal.  Some of the key components to a successful pesticide free garden can be made yourself, like compost and mulch.  Growing your own supply of organic produce is a lot less expensive than purchasing organics at the grocery store.  Most vegetables can be stored for at least a week in the refrigerator.

It’s a Great Form of Exercise with Additional Health Benefits:
Gardening is a great way to get active by being outdoors. There are even gardening tools that make the planting and tilling easier. Once you see how everything has started growing and producing, you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Gardening is a way of getting back in touch with nature without leaving the comfort of your home.

By having vegetables within reach and readily available for picking, you'll be more inclined to eat more vegetables and meet your daily intake requirements for a healthy lifestyle.

Essential Gardening Tools

Pruning Shears – used to trim

Small Hand Saw - ideal for trimming larger limbs and wooden garden stakes

Hoe – used to dig up dirt and cut weeds

Shovels – common gardening shovels include the round nose and a sharp shooter
photo of garden tools and shovels hanging on plywood board walls
Ladder - for reaching the higher limbs that need pruning

Garden Hose – used to water the garden

Lawn Rake (Leaf Rake) – used to rake leaves (great for compost) or piles of dead weeds

Stiff-tined Rake - used for leveling new beds

Hand Trowel - great for bulb holes, digging for those six-pack annuals, and miscellaneous digging

Garden Cart – a great alternative to a three-wheel wheelbarrow, a lightweight four-wheel cart is well balanced and easy to push

Gloves - essential for working in the garden to protect your hands and keep them clean

Rototiller – used to rotate soil and uproot weeds
Tape Measure - a must for laying out new beds and spacing plants

Weed Eater – can be used to lay out new beds and to edge flower bed

Preparing the Soil in the Spring

When to Work the Soil:
Working the soil too early is a mistake. When the earth is still saturated with melting snow or spring rain, it is easily compacted by treading across it or even worse, driving heavy equipment on it. In addition, large clumps of wet soil turned over at this time will only bake into impervious clods that will be very difficult to break up later. Plant roots grow best when there are some air spaces between soil particles. Heavy, wet soil doesn't break up into the loose, air-retaining texture that is best for plants. Its clumpy texture is also likely to trap pockets of air around plant roots and that is just as bad as no air.

How can you tell whether your garden has dried out enough to be worked? The truest test of soil condition is fingering a handful of soil. Pick up about half a cup of earth in your hand. Now squeeze the soil together so that it forms a ball. If the ball of earth can readily be shattered by pressing with your fingers or dropping it from a height of three feet or so, it is dry enough to dig. If the ball keeps its shape or breaks only with difficulty into solid sections rather than loose soil, it still contains too much water. Clay soil that is too wet will feel slick when rubbed between thumb and forefinger. If it is very wet (75 to 100 percent moisture), the mass will be pliable and a ribbon of earth can be drawn out and pressed with your finger. Working soil that wet can spoil its texture for the whole season.

Heavy clay soil will form a ball even when moisture content is less than 50 percent. Soil that is somewhat coarser tends to crumble when moisture content is low but will probably form a ball at about 50 percent. At 75 to 100 percent moisture, it will be dark, pliable, and may feel slick between the fingers. Coarse-textured sandy soil will not form a ball if the moisture content is below 50 percent. At 75 to 100 percent moisture, it can be pressed into a weak ball, but even then it shatters easily. Coarser soil may be worked at a higher moisture content than fine particle clay.

How to Grow a Pesticide Free Garden

Before you begin your pesticide free garden, it is important to know and do a few things.  You should know the average last frost date for your area, determine the soil’s temperature, test the soil moisture, and incorporate organic matter

The last average frost date is the average date of the last spring frost as observed over several years.  It is important to determine your soil’s temperature by using a soil thermometer.  When using a soil thermometer, stick the probe into the soil and wait to see consistent readings for a few days.  Begin planting your garden when the soil reaches y our crop’s ideal temperature. Be sure the soil is warm and dry before planting. 

To determine the soil’s moisture, dig down four to six inches, grab a handful of soil, and squeeze it into a ball.  Try to crumble it between your fingers.  If it won't crumble and it looks like brownie batter, it's too wet. Wait a few days and try again. If it crumbles easily, it's ready for planting. If the soil slides through your fingers, it's too dry. Soak the soil and let it drain.

Adding organic matter regularly into the soil improves its tilth, the physical condition and workability.  A soil with good tilth drains well, is easy to cultivate,
is conducive to seed germination and root growth, and is resistant to crusting. 

Begin Your Pesticide Free Garden by Using these Basic Steps:

Step 1:photo of plowed soil
Pick a spot for your garden that gets at least half a day of sunshine and has easy access to water.

Step 2:
Clear the area of all weeds - mow, pull and dig them out. Till the area and rake out the debris. Wait until it sprouts and clear again to prevent weed problems later.

Step 3:
Test your soil and build it with organic matter. Add compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, and greensand to supply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Add lime or sulphur to adjust the soil's pH only if directed by soil-test results.

Step 4:
Till or dig in fertilizers and two kinds of organic matter. Rake your soil into beds or rows. Let your organic garden absorb its nutrients for at least a month before planting.

Step 5:
Choose an organic mulch to blanket your garden. Pick a material like ground bark that will decompose over a season or two and dig it in as it breaks down.

Step 6:
Start a compost pile and recycle leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, eggshells and kitchen waste into excellent organic fertilizer. Pile up leaves in the back of the bed to make leaf mold and use it for mulch once it's broken down to a dark brown material.

Step 7:
Plant your organic garden for success by relying on plants with good local track records. Look for disease resistance bred into plants, and especially in vegetables.  Know your crops and determine what soil temperature your vegetables prefer and what weather they can tolerate.

Step 8:
Practice smart gardening. Walk the garden every day and use a hoe to scratch out weeds as they sprout. Look for garden pests such as insects and diseases, and control them at the earliest stages for best results.

10 Best Gardening Tips

If you’ve decided that your family’s health is important and that you need to be more conscious of what you are feeding them, these organic gardening tips can be a great way to grow a successful pesticide free garden.  While growing your fruits and vegetables with traditional fertilizers and pesticides can produce a garden that looks lush and healthy, the remnants of those invisible chemicals often find their way onto your dinner plate.

As you begin to move away from using chemicals to grow your food, there are probably some questions lingering in your head about how to maintain soil quality and how to deal with pesky bugs and weeds without your old synthetic additives. A good understanding of these organic gardening tips should get you on your way.  These are 10 of the most important gardening tips for a successful pesticide free garden.

Tip 1: Interpret Soil-Test Results using this Formula
To apply a recommendation of 3 pounds of an element (say phosphorus) over 1000 square feet, divide the number of pounds you need (3) by the percent of that nutrient in the fertilizer. (The percentage will be on the label; for example, bone meal is 20 percent phosphorus.) Three divided by 20 percent equals 15 pounds per 1000 square feet.

Tip 2: Promote Healthy Plant Growth
Plants stressed by poor nutrition or inadequate water are more susceptible to pests and diseases.  Fertilization and watering should be moderate but consistent, thereby avoiding sudden changes in growing conditions.

Tip 3: Use Pest-Free Planting Material
Carefully check plants for pests and diseases before purchasing.  Buy plants from reputable nurseries. Cheap deals on nursery plants often are no bargain.

Tip 4: Use Adapted, Pest-Resistant Varieties
Some plants have been bred specifically to resist plant diseases or insects.  Some varieties are bred to better tolerate the effects of weather or garden conditions. Always choose types of plants that are adapted to local conditions.

Tip 5: Prepare Planting Site
Minimize injury to new seedlings from pests and diseases by making sure the soil crust is broken up and/or amended.  Temperatures should be warm enough (50 to 60 degrees for warm-season plants). 

Tip 6: Fertilize
Many pest problems can be minimized if plants are healthy and vigorous.  Give plants the proper balance of available nutrients.  Know when to fertilize and how much.  Test soil periodically and correct nutrient balance.

Tip 7: Rotate Crops
Disease problems tend to intensify when related plants are repeatedly planted in the same soil, allowing disease organisms to thrive there.  They can survive in plant debris and produce resistant stages that persist for years in the soil.  Rotation to non-susceptible crops can stop the development of the disease organism and, ultimately, allow it to die out.

Tip 8: Maintain Sanitation
Many problems can be alleviated by a good cleanup program.  Remove and promptly dispose of dead and diseased limbs or infested plants.  Control weeds before they reseed.  Discourage pests in compost piles through proper maintenance.

Tip 9: Tillage
Turning the soil improves it.  By incorporating old plant materials, the soil cover prevents many fungi and bacteria from spreading.  Many fungi that cause plant disease survive in intact crop debris but are killed when it decomposes.

Tip 10: Watering
Drip irrigation or spot watering prevents weed germination, saves water and controls fungal and bacterial.  If you experience problems with spider mites and cabbage worms, hosing and overhead irrigation is recommended.

Pesticide Free Gardening Essentials

Compost will be the building block of everything that you do. It will be the primary source of nutrients for your plants, which you used to get from chemical additives, and will improve the texture and structure of your soil so that it holds water better, providing an optimal environment for growing roots. Compost’s rich nutritional composition encourages the presence and development of a healthy earthworm population as well. These natural garden tillers turn over your soil and add even more vital nutrients to the soil.

The best thing about using compost in that it is free. Perhaps the best organic gardening tips are the ones that save us money. Compost is made from rotting and decomposing leaves, twigs, fruit, vegetables or anything else that was once alive. Even products that are several steps removed from their natural state can be composted. Things like cardboard make a great compost that is rich in carbon.

Like compost, mulch is another essential tool that you will need to utilize when planting and maintaining an organic garden. You can use mulch in several different ways to maintain the overall health of your garden.

Mulch is an ideal way to help control the weeds and other unwelcome plants that may be trying to grow in your organic garden. Spread a 3” layer of mulch over the entire area and then just clear places where you want to plant. This thick layer of mulch will prevent weeds.  When you remove the weeds, make sure that you remove the roots and all or they will grow back.

Mulch will also serve your organic garden as an insulator. On those super hot, steamy, summer days, a good layer of mulch will help hold moisture in the ground and keep the ground where your plants have taken root. In the early spring, when your climate may still be susceptible to cold temperatures, a heavy layer of mulch can protect your garden from an unexpected freeze.

Mulch also works as an active compost pile. As the bottom layers of mulch begin to decompose, they become part of the soil in your garden. By adding a fresh layer of mulch every year you are essentially adding new, healthy, soil to your garden area.

Pest Control

One of the biggest challenges that organic gardeners face is pest control. There are several organic gardening tips that prove to be pretty effective at preventing and eliminating common garden pests. 

The best way to prevent pests in an organic garden is to get to know the plants. Spend time looking them over as you’re on your hands and knees pulling the random weed. By paying close attention you’ll notice as soon as a plant starts showing signs of pests. The most organic way to deal with pests is just to remove them by hand although sometimes their presence can be a little overwhelming.

You can maintain the organic integrity of your garden by mixing a batch of very diluted bio-degradable soapy water. You can spray on the soapy mixture or you can wash the plants by hand with it. This is an effective way to remove little critters like aphids.  Make sure that you go back and rinse the plants with clear water after de-bugging.

If you have problems with larger pests, like rabbits, squirrels and skunks, then you’ll want to devise some physical barriers. A low fence surrounding your garden is enough to keep them out.

One important organic gardening tip you should follow is to plant things that are native to your climate and environment. By doing so, you are setting yourself up for success because these plants are already equipped to survive in your location. They have all of the necessary natural defense mechanisms in place that they need to fight off the insect invasion.

Organic Markets in Lancaster County

Central Market
Country Barn Farm Market
Funk’s Farm Market
Roots Market

Community Supported Agricultural Programs

If you want the benefits of a pesticide free garden but don’t want the work of a garden or if growing a garden isn’t an option, becoming a shareholder to your local Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) program is the next best thing.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a term used to describe a special partnership between farmers and customers.  The customers become members, or "shareholders,” in the farm for the entire growing season by paying a fee.  Members receive a weekly share of fresh, seasonal, chemical-free, non-genetically-engineered vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The farmer benefits from the seasonal start-up capital and additional labor.  Shareholders and farmers together share the occasional challenges inherent in small-scale farming, such as bad weather and pests.

The growing season is approximately 22-24 weeks long (half a year) beginning in early June with items like lettuce, spinach and peas, and ending in early November with garlic, broccoli, potatoes and squash. The summer brings an abundance of tomatoes, peppers, beans, basil, etc.

In addition to the produce, there are also intangible rewards of being part of a farm community, experiencing farm life, enjoying a closer relationship with the land, and knowing that you are supporting local farmers who use sustainable practices.  

photo of business sign for goodwill at homefields farm

CSA’s in the Lancaster Area

Case Study:
Goodwill at Homefields Farm, CSA Cooperative Program

Lancaster County is known for its rich heritage as the most productive farmland in the country (non-irrigated). Farms and greenhouse businesses are plentiful and productive; however, there has never been the option for individuals with disabilities or other special needs to seek workforce development training in this type of work environment.

Goodwill Industries has never incorporated the cultural significance of farming with the workforce development programs until Goodwill at Homefields Farm in Millersville.  Homefields Farm is a non-profit community supported agricultural (CSA) program for people with disabilities and other disadvantaging conditions.  By producing a business and vocational program around producing 35 different vegetable crops as well as flowers and culinary herbs, the competitive work environment is simulated and outstanding employment and training opportunities are offered.

Homefields is the benevolent landlord and a volunteer board raises monies to rehabilitate existing buildings, build new structures, and purchase necessary equipment. The program is operated under Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Pennsylvania. 

Homefields Farm provides employment opportunities to adults who wish to work in an alternative context. It links the trainee farmer to the community in a real-world business relationship and supplies the community with healthy, fresh, organically grown food options. Everything is grown on site without the use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers. Produce is harvested and cleaned only hours before it is picked up by the shareholders so the freshness and nutritional quality are exceptional.

Any support that the farm receives helps the program grow. The farmland is preserved and prospering because of the local community support. A weekly "share" consists of 9-14 different veggies plus pick-your-own items like flowers, strawberries, hot peppers, and culinary herbs. Newsletters with recipes are also available.

If you are interested in learning more about how to become a shareholder, please visit Goodwill at Homefields Farm.

Farm manager, Scott Breneman, discusses the benefits and process of pesticide free gardening exercised at Goodwill at Homefields Farm. To listen to his informative discussion and view photographs taken on the farm, click here.


Q: When is the best time to start my garden?
A: The best time to start your garden is after the average frost date, when the soil is warm and dry.  See “How to Grow a Pesticide Free Garden” section for more information.

Q:  What household item can I use to control garden pests?
A:  Mixing a batch of very diluted bio-degradable soapy water can be used to remove critters such as aphids. You can spray on the soapy mixture or you can wash the plants by hand with it.  See “Pest Control” section for more information.

Q: What are the benefits of pesticide free gardening?
A: Pesticide free gardening is better for the environment, its good for our health, offers a great form of exercise and is rather inexpensive. See “Advantages of Pesticide Free Gardening” sections for more information.

Q:  Where can I purchase organic pesticides and other organic products?
A:  See “Organic Markets in Lancaster County” section for more information.

Q:  What gardening tools do I need?
A:  See “Essential Gardening Tools section for a complete list.

Q:  How can I join Goodwill at Homefields Farm in Millersville?
A:  Visit their website at or call 717-871-3110 for more information.

Q:  Why do I need to add compost to my soil?
A:  Compost is the main building block of a pesticide free garden and is the primary source of nutrients.  See “Pesticide Free Gardening Essentials/Compost” section for more information. 

Q:  What are the benefits of adding mulch to my garden?
A:  Adding mulch helps to control weeds, acts as an insulator and as compost.  See “Pesticide Free Gardening Essentials/Mulch” section for more information.

Q:  How can I control garden pests?
A:  There are different options for controlling pests.  The most important solution is to get to know your plants.  See “Pesticide Free Gardening Essentials/Pest Control section for more information.


This site was created by Teresa L. Rineer (email) who is a student at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Last updated on February 10, 2008

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