The word organic is bandied about a lot in connection with food and gardens these days, but
what does it really mean?
That depends on the context. In simple terms, growing organically could be described as growing
in harmony with nature, without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other
such products that upset the balance of the ecosystem. For farmers or commercial growers,
however, it can be quite complex.
Following the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
began setting national standards for food that could be labeled “organic,” whether it is grown
in this country or imported. New federal programs came into being, charged with making sure
that agricultural products labeled as organic “originate from farms or handling operations
certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by USDA.” The regulations were
fully implemented in 2002.
Happily for gardeners, organic gardening at home is a personal choice, so it’s a lot more
straight-forward – and much more fun. Here’s how the managing editor of Organic Gardening
magazine, Therese Ciesinski, describes it:
“Organic gardening is more than simply avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It is
about observing nature’s processes, and emulating them in your garden as best you can. And the
most important way to do that is to understand the makeup of your soil and to give it what it
needs. If anything could be called a ‘rule’ in organic gardening, it’s this: feed the soil, not
To feed the soil, gardeners must restore the resources their gardens consume, by adding organic matter. That includes adding
compost, and possibly growing cover crops – so-called green manure – that are tilled back into
the soil. You can use compost as a replenishing additive, to make both clay and sandy soils
more plant-friendly, or as a mulch on top of your garden beds.
Compost is the microorganism- and nutrient-rich soil produced from the aerobic decomposition of
organic matter. The garden itself is the source for many of the ingredients in compost,
including grass clippings, plant waste, and shredded leaves in fall. You can also add kitchen
waste such as vegetable and fruit scraps and peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells, and dead
houseplants to your compost pile, and, if you wish, chicken, cow or horse manure. (Don’t add
dog or cat droppings or dairy and meat products, however, as they may contain unwanted
pathogens, or attract pests to the pile.)
To Organic Gardening magazine’s founder, J.I. Rodale – who was advocating organic gardening
back when green was just a color – adding compost meant healthier soil, and eating fruits and
vegetables grown in healthy soil meant healthier people. Plants, of course, get their nutrients
and moisture from the soil, so it stands to reason that rich soil will help plants thrive. But
choosing the right plant for the right place is also part of gardening organically. That means
growing plants that are adapted to your region – and also suited to the conditions in your
garden – so that they don’t need a lot of extra care to enable them to grow. A water-loving
plant situated in a hot, dry spot may survive with a lot of help from you, but it will be
constantly stressed. That’s not emulating nature’s processes.
Plants that aren’t already stressed are better equipped to withstand insect infestations, too.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be damage to your plants. Organic gardeners generally allow for a
certain amount of pest damage, because they understand that they are all part of a natural
system that includes wildlife – even bugs.
Diversity helps. Don’t make life easy for the bugs by planting large swaths of one crop, but
instead interplant different kinds of plants. And know your plants. Many organic gardeners find
that they can keep damage to an acceptable level by checking their plants regularly for early
signs of trouble.
Some insects can be controlled just by hand-picking. Potato plants, for example, can be
defoliated by potato beetle larvae, but Burpee horticulture manager Bill Rein reports that
walking through your potato plot once a week can solve the problem. Just turn over the leaves
to check for bright orange larvae, and pinch off the leaves on which you find them. Dispose of
the leaves safely (not in the compost pile).
It helps to know which bugs are beneficial, and which are destructive pests, and when they are
likely to arrive in your garden. Often, the beneficial insects, such as lady beetles, are
predators that eat the eggs or larvae of pest insects, such as aphids – and when the two have
similar seasons, it creates a nice balance in nature, and your garden. Also, if you know when
seasonal infestations of particular insects are likely, you can use other defenses: floating
row covers to prevent moths from landing and laying eggs, sticky traps to capture airborne
insect pests, or collars (tinfoil works well) around the base of plants to deter borers,
cutworms and similar bugs.
There are some excellent books that help gardeners learn about the insects in their backyards.
Among them are Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney
Cranshaw, Insects and Gardens by Eric Grissell, and The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural
Insect and Disease Control by Barbara Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley.
There are also many sources online, such as Insect Management for Organic Vegetable Gardens by
Robert J. Bauemfeind, an entomologist at Kansas State University who wrote this downloadable
pdf in 2004: //www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/entml2/mf2622.pdf
Although focused on Kansas, this publication is useful for other regions. Not only does
Bauemfeind outline a variety of methods for dealing with infestations, he also talks about
beneficial insects as well as those that are a problem for gardeners – and he shows photos of
many insects, eggs, larvae and pupae.
If all other methods fail, organic gardeners may need to use some deterrents that won’t harm
the environment or other living creatures. Most experts recommend the natural bacteria Bacillus
thuringiensis, or Bt, to get rid of caterpillars and other leaf-eaters – but do keep in mind
that some caterpillars develop into desirable butterflies. You can also use insecticidal soaps
or horticultural oil to get rid of pests, and sometimes just a good spray of water will do the
Don’t forget that good gardening techniques apply whether or not you are gardening organically.
So, choose disease-resistant plant varieties that are right for your garden’s conditions, mulch
your garden beds to retard weed growth and keep moisture in the soil, and never dispose of
diseased or infested plants by putting them in the compost pile.