What is organic gardening?
You’ve probably seen organic produce in the grocery store (and the higher price tag that tends to come with it). Have you ever wondered why organic produce costs more?
Organic fruits and vegetables are the results of organic gardening methods. Organic gardening is quite different than the conventional gardening methods that we’ve come to know over the past several decades.
However, organic gardening is an ecofriendly and more sustainable version of gardening. Keep reading to see how organic gardening and conventional gardening differ (and why it matters).
What does organic gardening mean?
The term ‘organic’ is a word that has a slightly different meaning for different folks. To some, organic gardening means to garden without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
To others, organic gardening takes on a more holistic approach. Some gardeners describe organic gardening as studying nature and making nature work with their vegetable garden, rather than constantly fighting it.
If you’re just getting started with organic gardening, I would recommend easing into it. Start by cutting out synthetic fertilizers and replacing them with organic ones or replace your Sevin dust habit with natural pest control.
There isn’t a steadfast definition of what organic gardening is. One of the most popular sources for defining organic gardening is presented by J.I. Rodale.
Rodale was an early advocate of organic gardening. In fact, he’s often credited with the term ‘organic gardening’. To Rodale, organic gardening meant taking care of the soil. By starting with healthy soil, he knew that we could grow healthier plants.
He was an advocate for cutting out the use of harsh chemical fertilizers, synthetic soil additives, and chemical pest control. He founded what would become the Rodale Institute, a hub for organic gardening experiments.
The Organic Materials Review Institute is a non-profit organization that reviews fertilizers, pesticides, and other gardening materials to determine if they meet the standards for organic gardening. Materials that are approved by the OMRI are certified for use in organic gardening under the USDA National Organic Program.
For the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, click here. Please note that this is an exhaustive list that is being updated frequently.
What is an organic vegetable garden?
An organic vegetable garden is one that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, soil additives or other gardening materials.
In other words, if you’re going to have an organic garden, retire your RoundUp and Sevin Dust.
Don’t worry though; there are tons of organic methods that you can use to replace your synthetic methods.
Organic vegetable gardens work with nature instead of against it. After getting through the learning curve of organic gardening, you’ll probably find that it’s much more enjoyable. It’s also comforting to know that your food was produced without a bunch of synthetic chemicals that have questionable health effects.
You’ll spend more time focusing on improving your plant’s health. A large part of your time will be spent amending and building your soil up using natural methods.
Healthy, nutrient-rich soil means healthy, nutrient-rich plants. The healthier your plants are, the better your crops will be for you.
What are the benefits of organic gardening?
There are so many benefits to organic gardening. There are so many benefits that we could write an entire article just about why you should have an organic garden.
An organic garden can have wonderful impacts on your health.
Organic gardening is more labor-intensive than conventional gardening. Instead of simply spraying your plants down with pesticides once a week, you’ll spend time in the garden checking for pests and removing them.
This may sound less fun, but the extra time spent outdoors is good for you! It’s no secret that nearly all Americans today are deficient in vitamin D. The main reason that we are deficient in vitamin D is that we spend almost 90% of our time indoors!
Your body can produce its own vitamin D, but only when you’re in the sunlight. Spending an extra few minutes per day can help you to get more vitamin D.
Organic gardens produce foods with higher nutrient contents than conventional gardens. Your fruits and vegetables grown in your organic garden will have better flavor and higher amounts of nutrients.
If you started your vegetable garden because you wanted to grow healthier, tastier fresh fruit and vegetables, then why wouldn’t you want to take that a step further and improve them even more with organic methods?
Reduce your chemical exposure with organic gardening.
For decades, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have been used in gardens all over the world. You can walk into nearly every garden shed and find synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, or other man-made chemicals.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with using these synthetic gardening materials.
First of all, we don’t fully understand the long-term impacts of being exposed to these chemicals. They simply haven’t been around long enough for researchers to determine the long-term effects.
You probably saw commercials and ads about the Round-Up lawsuits a couple of years ago. Round-Up was linked to specific types of cancer. It’s one of the most commonly used herbicides in agriculture and has been for decades. It was only recently linked to causing cancer because it took years for scientists and doctors to make the connections.
We don’t know what the long-term effects of exposing our bodies to synthetic materials are. Keep in mind that many synthetic garden materials are created to kill plants and insects. If it’s toxic for things in the environment, then it makes sense for it to be toxic to us as well.
Save the bees with organic gardening.
Did you know that 90% of the food we eat today can be linked back to pollination by bees?
Every 4/5 bites of food are directly related to bees.
With that being said, the honey bee population is drastically reduced each year. That’s a scary thought considering how much our food supply depends on them. If honeybees were to disappear completely, agriculture wouldn’t be able to exist.
Bee populations are decreasing in large part due to pesticides. When pesticides are applied to plants, any insect that comes into contact with that pesticide is harmed. Pesticides aren’t species-specific.
Bees may not immediately die from the pesticides, but they can carry the chemicals on their bodies and back to the hive. The chemicals then get transmitted into the honey and fed to the developing bee larvae.
Organic gardening uses methods of pest control that are usually bee-friendly. The use of beneficial insects to combat pests is a popular choice with organic gardeners because it doesn’t harm pollinators and can reduce populations of harmful insects quickly and effectively.
Reduce environmental impacts.
Do you know what ocean dead zones are?
Ocean dead zones are places in the ocean where all life has ceased to exist. Coral reefs die, fish and marine mammals leave. Oftentimes these dead zones are completely devoid of life with the exception of large masses of jellyfish.
What does that have to do with organic gardening?
When synthetic fertilizers are added to the soil, they often leach through the soil or, in heavy rains, will create nutrient-rich run-off. This nutrient-rich run-off makes its way into local water sources like creeks, streams, and rivers.
Eventually, this nutrient-filled water winds up in the ocean. The large influx of nutrients causes algae blooms to happen. The algae, which also use photosynthesis like plants, will absorb the fertilizer run-off and their populations will explode.
This may sound like a good problem, but it’s not. The algae use up large amounts of oxygen from the water, making it uninhabitable for fish and marine life. This then leads to the creation of ocean dead zones.
For decades, row crops were produced using massive amounts of fertilizer. The excess would run-off and lead to dead zones in the ocean. One of the most common ones is seen in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Nutrient run-off is just one negative impact that can come from conventional gardening.
When you practice organic gardening, you’ll encourage natural diversity in the soil and the environment around your garden, which is a good thing.
Other Insect Populations
Not only is organic gardening safer for bees, but it’s also safer for other insect populations. It may sound like a good idea at first to get rid of insects. I mean, who likes mosquitoes, right?
But, there are two problems with this way of thinking. First of all, researchers have found that pest insects, the ones that bother us (like mosquitoes, cockroaches, etc) are the LEAST likely to be harmed by pesticides.
This means that the insects you don’t like probably won’t be hurt by your pesticides anyways.
In fact, pesticides tend to cause more harm to beneficial insects, or the ones that we want around. Spiders, predatory wasps, and other insects may not sound like the good guys, but they are! They help to control populations of harmful insects.
The second problem with reducing the insect population can be seen when you think about the entire environment. Think back to elementary school when you learned about food webs and food chains.
Everything in the environment serves a purpose. Some insects break down dead matter or serve as food for other organisms. The insect world is very complex and we don’t understand it completely.
If we eliminate large amounts of the insect population, we will disrupt food chains and prevent things from decomposing. This will affect bird and animal populations and cause problems with the soil.
Organic gardening uses fewer pesticides that cause harm to insects, no matter what kind they are.
Importance of Organic Gardening
You can see from the benefits listed above that the importance of organic gardening. Organic gardening was widely used before the invention of synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Organic gardening is much more sustainable than conventional farming. In many conventional gardens, fertilizer is poured into the soil and chemical pesticides are used frequently. This has a snowball effect; once you start depending on these to keep your garden going, it’s hard to not use them.
A recent study showed that more than 1/3 of the topsoil in the midwestern U.S. is no longer naturally fertile. This shouldn’t be a surprise as this land has been used heavily over the past several decades. Conventional farming methods lead to soil degradation if farmers aren’t careful.
Unfortunately, it has taken decades for scientists to understand this. With all of this being said, I’m not downing modern agriculture. There are many efforts being made to make large-scale production agriculture more sustainable. Farmers are learning the benefits of using fewer pesticides and fertilizer.
Where did organic gardening come from?
You could call this a trick question and it’s one that I see quite often. People want to know where organic gardening originated from.
Well, it’s pretty simple. Our ancestors all used organic gardening. Organic gardening 100 years ago wasn’t called ‘organic’ gardening; it was just called gardening. Most people grew their own food at home.
They managed to grow their own food without synthetic chemicals because these chemicals weren’t around. You couldn’t go to the store and buy triple 13 fertilizer or Round-Up spray. These things didn’t exist.
Instead, they used food scraps to keep their soil healthy. Gardeners picked pests off of their plants by hand. They saved the seeds from the most productive plants year after year, resulting in hardy, productive breeds of plants.
Gardeners worked with nature instead of against it.
So the better question may be ‘when did the word organic gardening start being used?’ rather than where did organic gardening come from?
Again, one of the pioneers in organic gardening was J.I. Rodale. He started using the term in the 1940s to describe his more natural methods of gardening.
Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
Another key point in organic gardening history came about when the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was passed. This act established national standards that would need to be met for foods to be certified as organic.
Before the act was passed, you didn’t really see organic produce or goods in the grocery store. The organic foods act gave producers a way to certify their produce as organic and sell it that way.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 helped to get organic foods in front of customers. It started to open up the public’s eye about organic produce, what it was, why it mattered, and how to produce it.
The Truth About Chemicals
Chemicals get a bad rap. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been known to spray Roundup in my yard or garden beds (have I mentioned how much I HATE pulling weeds??)
But, it’s important to realize too that not all chemicals are the same and they aren’t all bad. There are two main groups of chemicals- synthetic and natural. In organic gardening, synthetic chemicals are avoided but natural chemicals are ok.
A chemical is simply a name used to describe some sort of compound. Lye is a chemical. Azadirachtin, the main active ingredient in neem oil, is a chemical. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is another chemical.
All chemicals are different. They work in different ways, break down differently, and have different uses. When you’re practicing organic gardening, you’ll be using chemicals that come from naturally derived sources. Neem oil, hot pepper wax, bone meal, and other organic substances are created from naturally occurring, organic materials.
The Soil in an Organic Garden
The basis of a strong, healthy garden is soil, no matter if it’s organic or conventional. Your garden is only going to be as good as your soil.
Think about soil for a minute. When you think about what soil should feel like, imagine the soil in the forest. The soil is rich, dark, loamy, and soft. You can see bits of organic matter in various stages of breaking down.
If you were to really dig around, you’d probably notice that the soil was teeming with life. Earthworms, beetles, and other small organisms call the rich, forest soil home.
The soil in your garden should appear similar to that of rich forest soil. It should have a loose, fluffy texture. The soil should have a deep color, indicating organic matter. You should also see bits of organic matter in the soil.
Remember, the healthier and more nutrient-dense your soil is, the healthier your plants will be.
Plants that are in rich, healthy soil are better suited to fight diseases and pests. Plants will use certain nutrients to help repair damage from pests and keep diseases at bay. If they can’t get the nutrients they need to keep themselves healthy, they will be unable to fight off diseases and pests. They will become less hardy.
Obviously, plants can’t talk, so they can’t always tell us what they need. If they are fighting off disease and can’t get the nutrients they need, they may die back before you realize what’s going on. Healthy soil can create hardy plants that can handle stress from disease and pests.
Looking for the best organic soil options that you can buy from Walmart? Check out this video below:
If you’ve decided to ditch traditional fertilizers, you’ll want to keep your soil in tip-top shape. You’ll do this by adding organic fertilizer to the soil.
One of the best ways to add nutrients to the soil is with compost. Compost is garden gold. It’s full of nutrients that your plants can use. It’s also relatively cheap and can even be free if you have livestock on your property.
In fact, chicken manure is something that I put on my garden religiously. Chicken manure is lovingly called chicken litter (sounds better than manure, right?). It’s a perfect soil amendment for vegetable gardens and adds nearly perfect amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the soil.
If you’re gardening and you have chickens, then you need to be making them work together. Grab your free copy of Gardening with Chickens to make gardening with chickens easier, create healthier gardens and happier flocks.
Manure and compost are wonderful soil additives. Again, they are cheap and easy to find. You can usually source local manure for cheap or even free if you ask around. Call local dairy farms, petting zoos, horse barns, or cattle farms to find manure.
Start saving your food scraps and start a compost pile. If you don’t have a composter or don’t want a compost pile, you can simply toss your vegetable scraps and eggshells into the garden itself. They’ll break down over time.
If you’re looking for a more done-for-you option or a more targeted fertilizer, then you’ll want to look for bagged organic fertilizer. Most organic fertilizers have a low ratio of NPK: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
The gentle nature of these fertilizers means that you won’t have to worry as much about burning your plants as you would with synthetic fertilizers. The best way to build up your organic vegetable garden soil is to continue to add to it over time.
Bone meal, blood meal, fish, and kelp fertilizers are popular choices to add to your soil. They can add calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other micronutrients to the soil to build it up. These are popular choices that are easy to find.
You can also find bat guano or feather meal if you look a little bit harder.
All of these fertilizers are naturally based, sustainable, and add valuable nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
Natural Pest Control
A common question I get about organic gardening is about pests.
“How will I keep pests out of my organic garden?” “How do I get rid of pests in my organic garden?” “How do I protect my organic garden from bugs?” “How do you control pests in your organic vegetable garden naturally?”
And I totally get it. Nobody wants to deal with bugs if they don’t have to. I certainly don’t.
No gardener wants their garden demolished by bugs either, so what do you do?
My suggestion is to use a method of pest control called integrated pest management. Rather than dousing all of your plants with harmful chemicals that will wipe out all insects, integrated pest management involves taking a holistic approach to pest control.
Integrated pest management can be thought of as a series of steps. You start with the basic steps and gradually work your way up to more powerful pest control methods. Chemicals are always the last option.
Start by observing your plants daily. If you notice a pest, remove it by hand. That’s often the quickest and easiest way to break the life cycle of the pest. If you see squash bug eggs, use a piece of duct tape to remove the eggs. Remove any adults and drop them into a pail of soapy water.
If hand removing doesn’t work, you can use beneficial insects, like ladybugs or predatory wasps. These predatory insects feed on the bad insects. For example, ladybugs will feed on aphids. Aphids are one of their favorite foods. Some ladybugs can eat several hundred aphids PER HOUR.
That’s pretty powerful. And guess what? That ladybug is going to hunt out the aphids and won’t bother your good insects like the pollinators.
If beneficial insects aren’t cutting it, you can start to use organic pest control methods. Use diatomaceous earth to create a barrier around your plants to prevent insects from crawling up the plant. Spray leaves with neem oil, hot pepper wax, or insecticidal soap if you need to.
The benefit of using integrated pest management is you can target the bad bugs and leave the good bugs alone. If you were to coat your garden with pesticides, you’d wipe all insects out. This would create an environmental hole.
Guess which insects are going to come back and fill that hole first? The ones that you don’t want. The bad bugs.
Organic Gardening Challenges
There’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to organic gardening, especially if you’ve been relying on non-organic methods.
It can be tempting to grab a bottle of Sevin Dust and coat all of your tomato plants at the first sign of a hornworm. It can also be tempting to buy that bag of triple 13 for $10 rather than the small, expensive bags of bone meal or other organic fertilizers.
Creating a healthy organic garden can take time. Remember that you’re building soil. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your organic garden. You can expect to see dramatic differences in your garden in a couple of years.
Keep learning and trying new things with your organic vegetable garden.
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How do you practice organic gardening? What are some tips you have for organic vegetable gardening? Let me know below!