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Organic Gardening

In the context of food production there are many definitions for the term "organic" just as there are for "free range". The commercial and regulatory definitions are usually not what the terms mean to most consumers. We use the term "organic" to mean growing vegetables, fruit, herbs, and ornamentals in soil while using no synthetic fertilizers and no synthetic pesticides. To enrich the soil we amend with compost, mulch and organic fertilizers such as chicken or steer manure. The aim is to develop a rich, loamy, and porous soil where abundant microbes break down the organics into inorganic compounds that the plants can utilize. Natural methods are used to control pests. These include planting - in close proximity to edibles - marigolds, chives, garlic, and other plants that insects tend to avoid. Additional methods of pest control include use of ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantises and trichogramma, and fostering an environment that attracts insect-eating birds.

One tacit assumption is that by growing food "organically" the produce will be more nutritious. Whether the produce so grown will be more nutritious is open to debate. In some cases the nitrogen available to plants grown organically in soil can be less than when using synthetic fertilizers. For example, a recent study found that birds preferred seeds from plants grown in plots that were synthetically fertilized rather than in organic plots due to the higher protein content of the non-organically grown seeds. The birds didn't care how the plants were grown. They only went after the seeds that were more nutritious. This might appear counter-intuitive but unless the macro and micro nutrients are available in sufficient quantity in the soil, the plants cannot reach their full, nutritional potential. The take away message is that when growing edibles without using synthetic fertilizers, one must be very diligent in amending one's soil and rotating crops.

Another tacit assumption is that produce grown organically will contain less or at best no harmful pesticide residues. On the face of it, this is appealing. The caveat is that the organic farm cannot be environmentally isolated from neighboring farms and their farming practices. Another assumption is that synthetic pesticides are inherently more harmful to the environment than are organic pesticides. This may or may not not be true - if we consider current synthetic pesticides. For example, a recent study comparing organic and synthetic pesticides found that the organic pesticides tested killed more beneficial insects (such as lady bugs) than did the synthetic pesticides tested. Further the organic pesticides were less effective in controlling pests than the synthetic ones. The take away message from the study was that farmers should compare pesticides based on performance and environmental impact rather than relying on the 'synthetic' or 'organic' label.

Should We Garden Organically?

If you choose to grow vegetables in soil, the guiding principle is first to do as little harm as possible. By using beneficial insects and companion plantings incorporating plants which pests avoid, we reduce the chance of harming ourselves and contaminating our ground water, rivers, streams and lakes with either organic or synthetic pesticide residue.

By following sound organic principles we can continually improve the quality of our soil. And by amending the soil with compost, mulch, and organic fertilizers we are in effect recycling what would otherwise end up in landfills. It is well to consider that even if one gardens "organically", nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals will still make their way into our aquifers and waterways. It is important to keep our eyes on the science. Evaluate the trade-offs and keep an open mind.

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