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?
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.
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.
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.
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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When Organic Goes Bad
I love this video! It is such an important message.
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Photo Source; Hans Splinter