Defining Organic Gardening

A recent issue of The New York Times contained a brief article informing readers that Delta's economy carrier airline, Song, will sell food including yogurt, freerange chicken wraps, Caesar salad made with organic lettuce, and organic cookies. On another page was an ad for all natural veal that read "Hand-raised and fed only top quality protein with no hormones".

There is not another human activity that has devoted more money, labor, skill and ingenuity to the control and improvement of food production, and this is true of food plants in particular. It is our sustenance. And, "organic" is the word of the day.

Take a step back in time with me for a minute. 24 million years ago the first worms began the work of turning dead and decomposing flora and fauna into humus. In 2000 B.C. watermelons, figs, tea, bananas and apples are being grown as crops in various parts of the mid-east. In 1 A.D. Rome, farmers were spreading dung on their fields to improve soil fertility. In 1889 Johnson and Stokes introduced the "Brandywine" tomato, still a favorite heirloom vegetable.

In 1931 Sir Albert Howard's treatise "The Waste Products of Agriculture: Their Utilization as Humus" was published and is still celebrated as the turning point in modern organic agriculture. Here is the connection between soil health and food for human health.

So, as promised in my last column, I shall look into what "organic" can mean to the homeowner. An edible plant grown intentionally on your property suggests a security and a connection with the earth that far exceeds anything the shop window or store shelf offers. And, because you have made this choice and undertaken this activity, it offers the deep satisfaction, peace, freedom, even meditation that comes from working with nature. There is a stress on the "with".

And, because you are going to ingest the product of your efforts, you are going to be especially watchful that the process is beneficial to yourself and the environment. The definitions of "organic" are many. All include protecting the ecological health of our air, water, soil, plant and animal life. These many lives are vital to one another. What follows are some suggestions that may help you stay in tune with this goal and avoid the use of chemical pesticides.

<> Shallow cultivate your garden area -- no deeper than two inches. This will leave nearly 90% of weed seeds buried. Newly sprouted weeds will be easy to pull, thousands will never see the light of day, and eventually, your top layers of soil will become virtually weed free. Less labor. No herbicides needed.

<> Rotate crop families. This will reduce or eliminate losses, increase production, create a healthier environment for you and beneficial insects, reduce stress on you and plants, and save money in your pocket.

<> Encourage insect eating birds to your garden area. Have a birdbath in the area, better yet, one with a slow drip. This really lures the flighty friends in. If no tree is nearby, erect a perch or two that are cat protected.

<> Test soil pH every few years to see if lime in needed. Too often, pH is wrong, and gardeners think plant problems are insect or disease caused.

<> Companion plant with herbs. This can save fertilizer, and keep all the company happy.

<> Use sharpies (nut shells, egg shells, diatomaceous earth, etc) to repel slugs. These are cheaper and more earth friendly than chemicals, too.

<> Try planting a living mulch like dwarf white clover. They provide nitrogen and crowd out weeds.

<> Compost added to gardens must be well done or it will suck nitrogen from the soil in an effort to build the microorganism population's own body protein.

<> If you detect a problem with a plant, take a sample and analyze it. A hand lens is a great tool. See if it's an insect feeding problem. If it is, consider using benign products like horticultural oils or insecticidal soaps.

<> Japanese beetle traps contain a powerful pheromone, or sex attracting hormone, that will bring in beetles from miles around. Do not use these near what you wish to protect, but rather, put them out in the back 40.

<> Mulches of grassy hay and borders of flowers provide humid, temperature modified conditions that attract spiders, natures pesticides. Also, lots of other beneficial insects are attracted.

<> Employ an IPM approach. IPM stands for Integrated Pest Management. If you have a pest population inflicting damage on a crop, try to control it, not eliminate it. Minor damage is tolerable to almost all plants. Attempts to eliminate the pest, too often result in the resistant ones surviving. By then maybe their natural enemies will be gone.

<> Choosing resistant varieties of food plants to put into the garden goes a long way to eliminating pesticide applications. Resistant doesn't mean immune, but those abbreviations on the label carry a lot of weight.

<> Fertilization is usually necessary by the fourth or fifth week of growth, providing the soil was prepared previously and fertile when plants were put in. Whether you subscribe to only using organic fertilizers, or will rely on chemical ones, is your call. I must say that any product put down to supply a plant with any of the usual N-P-K will eventually have to be converted to its chemical or elemental form before the plant is able to take it up and use it. It's a matter of source.

Some believe chemical sources are injurious to soil micro-organisms. There is some support for this argument. Manures, dried blood, fish meals, cottonseed meals, bone meal, rock phosphate, greensand, wood-ash and granite dust are some of the many products to increase fertility and production that do not originate in laboratories.

The latest word on what "organic" is all about comes from the archives of Robert Rodale and the recent writings of Joan Dye Gussow, Eliot Coleman, Kathleen Merrigan, and John Ikerd. And, of course there are many others.

Organic has come to mean local, balanced, natural, ecological, nutritious, sustainable, conscientiously and justly provided food to nourish mind, body and spirit. The above mentioned are but a handful of practices that you can employ. There are so many others. Make a list for yourself and keep a notebook. Tolerate a worm in an apple.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 18, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.