Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Tomatoes grow in an organic garden.

If your idea of a spring garden means tomatoes, eggplants and okra instead of snapdragons and petunias, Jordan Bantuelle can make your dreams come true.

Saturday, Bantuelle offers a workshop on growing organic veggies at the Urban Farmstead in Central City.

“Last week we covered getting beds and plants started, and this week we’ll talk about how to keep things healthy,” he said.

Bantuelle recommends building raised beds for an organic vegetable garden.

“First, there is a lot of concern about the high quantity of arsenic and lead in the soil in an urban environment and the possibility of plants taking up those elements into their leaves,” he said. “But it’s also important to start with good soil, and filling a raised bed with the right soil ensures quality.”

Make your bed

The bed should be at least 6 inches deep, he said. Plants’ roots need to be able to develop and spread to that depth.

“But if you plan to grow carrots, for example, the bed has to be deeper,” Bantuelle said. “Generally speaking, the deeper the better.”

Width matters, too.

He says a bed should never be wider than 4 feet, because the average person can reach about 2 feet. “You never want to step in the bed,” he points out, “because you’ll compact the soil.”

At 4 feet across, the bed is just wide enough for a gardener to access it fully from two sides.

A layer of cardboard at the base of the bed serves as a suitable barrier between the native soil and the added soil.

Topsoil from a big-box retailer forms a good base, according to Bantuelle, and it’s relatively inexpensive in smaller beds.

“Once the soil is in the bed, that’s when you want to add amendments,” he said. “If you’re working large beds or a lot of beds, it makes sense to get your soil already amended. We like the soil from Sugarland in Belle Chasse and from Laughing Buddha in Metairie.”

What about plants?

When Bantuelle talks about selecting plants for a vegetable garden, he talks about starters and seeds.

“Some veggies can be a little hard to get going from seed, so if you aren’t real experienced, you’ll want to buy starters,” he said.

“Cucurbits like squash and melons are easy to grow from seed, as are legumes like beans and peas. But anything in the nightshade family like eggplant or peppers are harder.”

Bantuelle and his business partner, Ian Wilson, spend a good bit of time debunking the myth of the green thumb. Instead, they promote good watering habits.

“You hate to see someone start out excited about their vegetable bed and have it fail. They’ll say ‘I guess I just don’t have a green thumb,’ ” he said. “But one of Ian’s favorite sayings is that a green thumb is one that spends a good bit of time on the hose nozzle. It’s his way of acknowledging how important proper watering is.”

Water, fertilizer tips

By “proper watering,” Bantuelle means watering two to three times a week (depending on the weather) and saturating the soil at the base of the plant each time. A minimum of 10 seconds should be spent aiming the water at the plant base, not its leaves.

“Wet leaves are more susceptible to disease, and they don’t help the plant grow. Only deep watering helps the roots grow deep so they can tap into nutrients,” he said. “An alternative to hand-watering is to use a soaker hose, but not the kind that sprinkles.”

Applying organic fertilizer is also important for growing healthy plants.

“Worm castings, fish emulsion, bat guano, blood meal — all of those are ground-up animal products that make great organic fertilizers for a vegetable garden,” he said.

Even the best-cared-for garden can experience pest infestations, Bantuelle noted, but there are safe and effective organic pesticides that can help.

“A favorite of ours is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). It’s a naturally occurring bacteria that is especially effective against certain caterpillars,” he said.

Other organic pesticides include Neem oil and diatomaceous earth, but perhaps the best defense, as always, is a good offense.

“There are bugs that are actually beneficial in an organic garden — like lacewings, ladybugs and the praying mantis,” Bantuelle said. “They eat harmful bugs, and that’s why we call them ‘assassins.’”

R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at