Organic Gardening – Are You An Organic Gardener?

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Robert Pavlis

Organic Gardening – What is it? This should be a simple question, and many of you may think you know the answer, but the answer is more complicated than you think.

I consider myself an organic gardener – but some of you won’t agree because I do use some Roundup.

Can you garden organically and still use Roundup? Can you be ‘sort of’ organic and still consider yourself an organic gardener? Do organic gardeners make the best environmental choices?

A true organic gardener, organic gardening
A true organic gardener

Organic Gardening – What is it?

There are many definitions for organic gardening – let’s look at some.

Organic gardening means that you do not use chemicals. Many organic gardeners believe this statement and it is part of many definitions of organic gardening, but if you understand anything about chemicals you will know that the statement is false.  Organic gardeners do use chemicals.

The definition is sometimes changed to ‘organic gardening means you do not use man-made or processed chemicals’. That is also not correct. Blood meal and Neem oil are certainly processed chemicals as are most organic pesticides.

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Most simple definitions that focus on the use of chemicals do not describe organic gardening very well.

If we ignore for a moment the certified organic farmer, organic gardening is more about a philosophy of gardening than any specific act of doing or not doing a certain thing. I tried to find a good, succinct description of this philosophy, but didn’t find one.

Here is my attempt at a description. Organic gardening is a method of gardening that minimizes the impact the gardener has on the environment.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Buying and spreading bags of composted manure.
  • Spraying natural Neem oil to get rid of aphids.
  • Using Roundup to kill invasive European buckthorn.

Are these organic practices? I think most of you would say yes to the first two – they follow accepted organic practices. You would say no to the third since it uses man-made chemicals.

Using composted manure is good – right? Consider this. Every time you transport something, you cause pollution and global warming. The compost had to be trucked to the store, and then you trucked it home in your car. You can garden without it and too much of it is actually toxic to your plants. Which option makes you more organic – using it or not using it? Buying it is clearly less organic than not using it.

Neem oil is extracted from a plant in India, and then shipped to your location. That is a definite environmental impact. Neem oil is not selective and kills both beneficial and pest insects which is not environmentally friendly. Isn’t doing nothing the more organic option? I hear you – you just said ‘ but…but aphids are destroying my roses!’ Then don’t grow roses!

Just because a chemical comes from a plant does not make its use a good organic practice.

I never spray for pests in my garden but I do use Roundup for European buckthorn. Buckthorn is very invasive and takes over wooded areas competing with and killing native perennials and shrubs. I had 4 acres of buckthorn thickets made up of thousands of plants – they seed like crazy. I cut the stems, and paint the cut. This method takes very little Roundup. Is this any worse for the environment than shipping and using Neem? Is it worse for the environment than doing nothing and letting buckthorn remove all the native plants? I don’t think so.

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Can You Be Organic And Use Roundup?

Many people would say no, but I think you can garden organically and still use man-made chemicals.

I don’t truck compost into my garden. I don’t import organic chemicals like Neem oil. I do use Roundup for a very specific purpose.

My form of organic gardening does not have a set of specific do’s and don’ts that must be met.

There are degrees of organic gardening. At one end of the spectrum you have gardeners who buy absolutely nothing for their garden. They never spray for pests, and they compost everything on site. Then you have some gardeners who do a little composting  and use as few chemicals as possible. Both of these people are organic gardeners, but to different degrees.

Let me give you another example. You want to kill some grass so that you can make a new flower bed. You have two options; spray with Roundup, or cover the area with newspaper using the lasagna method. Which is better for the environment and therefore more organic?

Most people think the lasagna method is organic, but they would be wrong. Recycling old newspaper instead of using chemicals seems like such an organic selection, but consider this. The newspaper changes the water and air levels in the soil beneath the paper. In effect it kills off much of the life in soil. Dew worms don’t ‘love’ eating the paper – they leave the area because they can’t get enough oxygen. Roundup on the other hand kills the grass does limited  harm to the soil life and has a short half life. You still have to have someone manufacture it, and truck it to your property, so it also has a negative impact on the environment. The best organic choice between these two options is not so clear.

Certified Organic Farmers

There is a certification program in the US that will certify a farmer as being organic. I won’t go into details, but the qualifications are very focused on NOT using synthetic chemicals.

A certified farmer can do all kinds of damage to the environment and still be certified organic. They can import ‘organic chemicals’ from anywhere in the world rather than use a suitable local man-made product, and still be organic. I am not saying they all do this – many are very environmentally conscious.

Many countries have such certification programs, and the requirements differ from country to country, although most are similar. You can be organic in one country and not meet certification requirements in another. Does that make any sense?  Having dozens of different definitions of the term organic does not make sense to me.

The bottom line is that you are “organic” if you follow the rules. You don’t have to farm in an environmentally friendly way to be considered organic.

Why is this important? As a philosophy, organic gardening allows you to make intelligent choices on a case by case basis. As a certification process, you are forced into following rules even when they don’t make sense for the environment. It is a fundamental flaw in the certification process.

For example, organic farmers can and do use higher levels of natural pesticides instead of using a smaller amount of a man-made product. They need to do this because the natural pesticide is less effective in some cases. The natural product can even be more toxic than the man-made product, but the rules are quite clear. Thou shalt use the more toxic product.

Organic certification would be so much more organic, and environmentally friendly, if the program used the pesticide that is most suitable for the job, considering both efficacy and environmental impact. Instead it blindly follows the rule – no man-made chemicals.

This is not the farmers fault – they need to remain certified to sell organically certified produce – I don’t blame them for a moment. The problem is with governments, industry associations and the general public. The latter group can’t get their head around the fact that some man-made chemicals are safer than organic chemicals.

Organic Zealots

There is another group of organic gardeners that I’ll call organic zealots. These are people who go over board on organic ideas to the detriment of both their gardens and the environment. In many ways they are like certified organic farmers in that they follow very strict rules, but they are not certified. They have the freedom to think for themselves, but they don’t.

For this group of people the rules are not written down. There is no official set of rules for being organic. Each zealot makes up their own rules, but they do tend to follow each other with a herd-like mentality.

If you don’t follow their rules – you are not an organic gardener. There is no gray area.

Unfortunately this group usually does not believe in science because all science has been paid for by Monsanto. As a result they don’t understand the real world and make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims.

Organic zealots give organic gardening a bad name.

Are You An Organic Gardener?

Most gardeners are organic gardeners to some extent. They believe in nature and the environment. They will do things in their garden that benefit the plants and the environment – to some extent.

You can be an organic gardener and still use man-made chemicals and fertilizers. The important thing is that you use them as little as possible, and where possible and practicable you use better alternative organic methods. Look at each situation on a case by case basis, and do what makes sense.

A real organic gardener uses science as a guide, instead of a list of must-follow rules. It is OK to be an 80% organic gardener, which is much better for the environment than being a 100% organic zealot.

Problem With The Word Organic

We have one term, organic gardener, to describe all of the above flavors of gardeners. One term is not enough since  it causes confusion, but that is all we have right now.

I encourage people to think rationally about what they do in the garden. That means understanding the science, and ignoring the preaching of organic zealots. Don’t blindly follow organic certification rules. Instead use them as a guide when they make sense.

Take steps to become more organic by becoming more informed.

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I love this video! It is such an important message.


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  1. Photo Source; Hans Splinter

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

18 thoughts on “Organic Gardening – Are You An Organic Gardener?”

  1. I carefully and discriminatingly use methods and products, each one researched (via reputable sources) and considered separately. I mostly cultivate and conserve native species, as well as some small degree of food gardening.

    I use a safe, yet practical approach. I wouldn’t be able to make even half as large of an impact if I didn’t use chemicals. Mostly in the form of weed control, of which there’s a huge issue in my area, and I have a large property with neighbors (and a park neighbor) who let theirs go to weed, which comes to mine.

    I’ve increased the diversity of plants, insects, fungi, mammals, and other fauna thanks to my unnatural intervention.

    It sounds very nice, in theory, to be “all natural” (or whatever that possibly means, Naturalistic Fallacy comes to mind), but it’s hardly good for the environment. This kind of bandwagon jumping doesn’t lead to critical thinking, research, label following, or risk weighing, as long as it’s “natural”, it’s just considered to be safe.

    There’s no reality to this black or white, natural is safe, synthetic is harmful, approach. But people either like to think that it’s really that simplistic or they think that they understand that it is.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight and bringing up these hard to rationally discuss issues.

  2. I am a very serious organic gardener and will not use any manmade chemicals in my garden. I am also a scientist and have to accept the data and evidence reported by colleagues. You cannot allow yourself to be swayed by philosophies and beliefs because they lead nowhere. If you are a gardener then you have to accept that you are changing the natural environment. Even when we try not to turn the soil and use mulches, this too is still an attempt to modify what would happen naturally. I have looked hard to find evidence that glyphosate is detrimental somewhere in the food web without any success. It seems to have little effect on microbial populations and what effect it does have lasts a short period. Glyphosate seems to slightly change the types of saprophytic fungus that live in the soil probably because it encourages those that use glyphosate to provide mass and energy (eat it). So my science tells me that it is only detrimental to plants.
    So why won’t I be using it? I implied above that I have a philosophical view of gardening as well as a scientific understanding. I would like to grow as much in tune with the natural world as possible. Removing unwanted plants should not just involve a quick spray around but a careful consideration of the life of the plant, its contribution to the life of other organisms, its return of nutrients when it dies or is composted. We have too much of a cavalier attitude to other organisms. They deserve more respect than this.
    Although it becomes more and more unlikely that there is any other sentient life in the galaxy, considering how we treat organisms on the Earth may well inform us how we would treat alien life forms.

    • I agree totally that gardening upsets natural processes and that we don’t respect or think about smaller organisms. But I think just living on this earth is doing more damage then the gardening I am doing. Most leisure activities probably do more damage than gardening, especially if they involve travel.

      In my glyphosate example, it is a choice between possible damage by chemicals and definite damage by invasives. Now that the buckthorn is mostly gone, I am replanting the woods with natives. I think I am improving things.

      How would we treat aliens? We treat each other terribly so why should we expect that we will treat aliens any better?

      Always good to hear from you.

    • I admire your practical reasoning. But what about some of the organic chemicals (copper sulfate, petroleum-based horticultural oils, even insecticidal soaps) that are known to have greater negative impact on the environment than some synthetic chemicals? Is it not a question of what has the least deleterious effect?

      • Choosing the lesser of two evils Don? Maybe this is the right answer however I am not sure. A few years back did a study on a river which was being polluted. We traced the pollution back to old Victorian cesspits which were still being used. Once this had been identified it could be rectified but not for some time. As the river was being polluted, all the industries along the river were allowed to pollute to the same extent. The argument was that they were not making things worse. It was an engineers response not a biologists. Whatever humans do alters the environment, and we are part of nature too. However, I would rather use no pesticides and herbicides at all regardless of how they affect non target organisms.

        My preference is a philosophy not science. I cannot defend this philosophy using science but the lighter I walk on the Earth the more beauty I see.

    • Mick here again, I do use Roundup but I drill a hole in the bad plant and put 1 drop in the hole. That way it can’t spread! I detest the product and the company that makes it.

      • Drilling a hole in the center of a woody stem might work but is less effective than painting around the edges where the transport vessels are.

        You “detest the company that makes Roundup”. Then use a similar product containing glyphosate made by several companies now.

  3. Very good question/debate about what organic gardening means. And the zealots, they should be sent back to live in those times when people were accused of witchcrafting since they don’t need science in their life.

  4. One of your very best Robert. I like your intelligent responses to the comments that your readers make.
    I am a huge advocate of the benefits of glyphosate as I constantly go on about it on my blog. Even if you hate Monsanto it is now out of patent and you can support other companies without using ‘Roundup’!
    I have always keenly followed the organic movement and perhaps in another life I might have been an organic gardener myself!
    I have read from cover to cover Lady Eve Balfour’s original book. We credit her over here as the founder of the organic movement from the early 1940s. She was a practical farmer and I believe if glyphosate had been invented then she would have used it. Incidently in the early days of Roundup the organic movement espoused it.
    Oh by the way I do bury newspaper!

  5. Hi Robert. I do like your blog. It makes me think a great deal. Just one worry. You say that Roundup does not affect invertebrates in the soil. I could not find any independent scientific papers that supports this assertion when I was researching Roundup.
    Do you have any references that I could look at?

  6. Agree completely. I use the terms “organic chemicals” and “synthetic chemicals” to make the distinction between the two options. So important for all gardeners to understand that it is not a choice between “organic products” and “chemical products.” The choice is between organic chemical products and synthetic chemical products. Either way, you are always using a chemical. That some of the organic chemicals have higher EIQs than some of the synthetic chemicals, as you correctly point out, is difficult for some gardeners to accept, in my experience.

    • I’d go a step further. It is not a choice between organic chemical products and synthetic chemical products. It is a choice of using a chemical. Each chemical needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Every chemical can do some potential harm to the environment. We should understand the harm and the benefits of using the chemical.

  7. Considering the cancer research division of the World Health Organization has labeled glyphosate a “probable carcinogen” I’ll pass on it’s use. I believe your definition of an organic gardener is a good one. I do not use insecticides on my garden at all-relying mostly on hand-picking and companion planting. I find some herbs to be fairly effective pest control. For weed control, I’ve learned to love moss in my mostly shade and damp back yard and, in the front yard, I simply dig out weeds. I do not have European buckthorn in my yard–only the vestiges of a Japanese honeysuckle that I got rid of by cutting all the way back and weighting down a tarp over the little “stump.” Voila! Gone!

    • The labeling of glyphosate as “probable carcinogen” has promoted all kinds of false impressions and sensational headlines. But realize that the same organization also labeled drinking alcohol, working in a beauty salon, working shift work, and drinking coffee as a “probable carcinogen”. They make it very clear that all this means is that in their view there has not been extensive enough research to eliminate cancer as a potential. conversely it also means they did not find evidence that it is carcingenic.

      Bacon on the other hand was labels as ‘cancer causing’ by the same organization. So eating bacon is more hazardous than using glyphosate!

      Covering shrubs with a tarp will work – if you have 1 or 2. It does not work for thousands of plants.

  8. I really love this post! I have recently gone back to using a little glyphosate to save my back on re-edging all my mulched areas. Otherwise, chemical free, be it organic or synthetic….


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