Whither Organic Gardening?

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
Polarize (variant) — Having or showing of two contrary qualities, powers, tendencies, etc.

book coverIf there is one word that seems to set gardeners against each other it is “organic.” This article hopes that organic (natural) gardeners and inorganic (synthetic or chemical) gardeners come to grips with the meaning of these bandied about terms that are often not truly understood. Organic gardening is not a new phenomenon but it can be confusing if you do not know the facts. If you are intellectually curious and have an open mind concerning why natural and why synthetic gardening (not versus), then you might see how a middle ground approach to gardening can be used to your best advantage. Synthetic gardening will not destroy the ozone layer, upset the sewer system or create other forms of imagined havoc.

Dr. Jeff Gillman, Associate Professor of Horticulture Science at the University of Minnesota, is the main source of information for purposes of this article on whither organic gardening. His academic credentials are a master’s degree in entomology and a doctorate in horticulture. He is a person well equipped to write the book called “The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and The Bottom Line” (Timber Press, 2008). This just over 200-page book is an easy read and truly understandable. Even though he cites 130 bibliographic references he states, perhaps in true academic fashion, that it is difficult to come up with real conclusive answers based on research as to why organic. Instead what you will find are many additional questions that have yet to be answered. From the get-go, Gillman recognizes that gardeners tend to assume that any product labeled or even thought to be organic is okay. This means safe to use on plant material, safe for the environment and safe for gardeners. In most instances this is probably true (with the usual admonition of read the label and do what it says); however, when do you know it is not true, that is, not safe to use and can impose a significant threat to your person?

One of the fun things about gardening is that you can do practically anything you want, money not with- standing, because you are the lord and master over your property unless you have to deal with homeowner association rules and the grass police. You can try out new plants without the worry of a native plant society-type wagging his finger in your face. You can even purchase a flat of invasive English ivy although this is not recommended. If you want to prune your plants so that they look like meatballs, who will dare to stop you? Of course, people have strong opinions about lots of things but does that make them right? Just think about politics and religion. The same thing can be said about the home gardener. One should not make broad sweeping statements, let alone come to conclusions, unless you did the research. Can we agree to stop fighting the battle of perception, which is usually unfair? Guilty until proven innocent is not the American way! Instead, please understand that many organic products are poisons. Do not believe me. Just check with any unbiased horticulture extension agent. Likewise, a gardener who uses synthetic products is not the devil nor will you end up in the hot place. All this talk about “going green” or “eco-friendly” has become buzzwords of the day. Merchants are well aware of our vulnerabilities and seize upon them. This is like an impulse purchase from the end cap in the grocery store.

Gardeners need to be educated. Can we find a balance between natural and synthetic products? Gillman has not chosen sides. As a scientist he deals in facts and not opinions. This is why his definitive work is an excellent book on the subject. Why? Because he tells it like it is. He does this by describing controls for weeds, insects, disease, birds, deer, rodents and even slugs and snails. In each instance he lays out, in the fashion of the book subtitle, the benefits, drawbacks and the bottom line of organic gardening without being preachy. If natural is the way to go that is fine; if synthetics are the way to go that should be just as fine. In other words, a silver bullet does not exist and furthermore, probably never will.

An example: A raging discussion on soil enrichment (read amendments) and fertilization is taking place in the green industry. Gillman’s book discusses these problems and also subjects them to the same construct noted above. No doubt you will be pleased to read that the first step is to get a soil test! In a book by Jeff Lowenfels called “Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” he explained why it is important to improve your soil and the benefits derived from compost tea. The Gillman bottom line states in fairly strong terms to stay away from these teas. Furthermore, Linda Chalker-Scott, urban horticulturist and associate professor at Washington State University proclaims that the need for compost tea is based on fuzzy science. She backs up her position with numerous scientific citations in her book, “The Informed Gardener.” Know too that research done on teas conflict with one another and it is difficult to sort through the rhetoric. This is a point well taken, like so many others in the Gillman “manifesto.”

In summary, after reading the “truth” book you should be able to make an informed decision about natural and synthetic gardening. Perhaps the answer really is do both. For some of you the science may burst your balloon and others might say something like, I told you so. Gardening in a natural way is fine if you understand what and why you garden this way. As you probably know, plants love “food” any way they can get it. Keep this thought in mind: opinions are just that, but a fact is. Gillman teaches you the meaning of “is.” Be careful out there because when you purchase any pesticide product at your garden center apothecary (or box store) you are buying poison. Want proof? Look up the meaning of the word — cide in your dictionary.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Master Gardener Association newsletter — March/April 2008 and has been modified for the Fairfax County Master Gardener web site.