What does Organic Mean?

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Robert Pavlis

You see the word organic used everywhere these days so you would think that the word has a simple definition. Not so.

The word is used by different groups of people to mean different things.

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What does organic gardening mean?


What does Organic Mean to a Chemist?

What does organic mean to a chemist? Chemists use the word organic to describe a chemical that contains carbon. When a chemist says a pesticides is organic it means it contains carbon. It could be derived from nature or man-made; either way it is organic.

What does Organic Mean to the General Public?

When the general public refers to something as being organic it can mean different things. An organic apple is an apple that was grown without synthetic pesticides. The word ‘synthetic’ here is critical since even organic apples can contain significant levels of nasty natural pesticides – a topic for another post. the post What is Organic Fertilizer provides a more detailed description of organic fertilizer.

Several countries, including Canada, US, European Community, and Japan regulate the meaning of ‘organic food’. To be organic food, the food must have been produced by following specific organic farming guidelines. These guidelines determine both the use of pesticides as well as other cultural practices such as the use of organic fertilizers.

Food Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis

The term “natural” is now used more and more and seems to be synonymous with organic which just confuses things even more. As we will see in other posts, natural products can be very deadly. The term natural does not have a legal definition and is therefore used too freely. To better understand what natural chemicals are see my post Chemicals are Bad, Part 1.

The term organic gardening usually means that some environmentally friendly practices are used. For example, mulching with organic material, and fertilizing with manure would be part organic gardening.  The term is not well defined, and can be misleading. For example, if I use peat moss is it organic gardening? The peat moss is a natural product so it would seem to be an organic choice for amending the soil. But peat moss is usually trucked a long distance to get to your garden. The transportation required is certainly not environmentally friendly. Instead of the term organic gardening I prefer environmentally friendly gardening – but that is also hard to define.

What if you garden organically most of the time, but once or twice as year you use synthetic fertilizer. Are you still an organic gardener? The term is perhaps not so important. What is important is that all gardeners try to use organic practices when possible. It is also important to understand how certain organic practices benefit or harm your soil, your plants or yourself. The idea that anything organic or natural is good for your garden is a myth.


1) Legal definition of organic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_food#Legal_definition

2) Photo Source: Jack Dykinga

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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!

2 thoughts on “What does Organic Mean?”

  1. When talking about growing mediums Raviv, Wallach, Silber and Bar-Tal (2002) say, “[Growing media] are primarily divided into organic and inorganic materials. The organic materials comprise synthetic substrates (like phenolic resin and polyurethane) and natural organic matter (peat, coconut coir and composted organic wastes). Inorganic substrates can be classified as natural unmodified sources (sand, tuff, pumice), processed materials ( expanded clay perlite and vermiculite) and mineral wool (rockwool and glasswool).

    Talk about mixing your meanings of organic!

    According to the Soil Association in the UK, the inorganic materials sand, tuff, pumice and lime can be used in organic gardening. Bone meal which is mostly the inorganic salt calcium phosphate can also be used. However, ferric phosphate cannot be used as a slug killer.

    The term ‘organic’ will never be legally defined because it is already used for such a wide range of different uses.

    • the term organic may not be legally defined but derivations of it, such as ‘organic food’ and ‘organic farming’ do have legal definitions, although each country can have their own. The USDA also has ‘organic standards’ defined. When the general public uses the term organic they are generally following these definitions, not the chemists definition.


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