Wednesday 28 September 2016

Good gardeners don’t have to be organic

We all like the worms
Some people imagine I must be ‘organic’ and then read on to find I use ‘Roundup’. When they delve further they find me somewhat scathing about organic mores and I suggest the word ‘organic’ to be the territory of snake oil salesman and wide eyed innocence. 
It is not my purpose today to debunk organic growing. Indeed some of the very finest gardeners are organic. It is more that I wish to find common ground that good gardeners share.

People used to ask why hostas in Bolton Percy cemetery garden were slug free when in that garden I have never used insecticides, fungicides or slug pellets

I must first briefly explain my own stance. I am no longer perplexed by the ancient meaning of the term organic to describe some substance ‘that has lived’ and to have been animal or plant. Even in the face of the organic movement regarding certain inorganic chemicals ‘organic’ if they are ‘natural’ and dug out of the ground! Organic in a kind of honorary way!
The modern meaning of ‘organic’ is to describe materials that contain carbon and are the ones you might have studied in organic chemistry at school. (It might appear on the syllabus as biochemistry today!) 
Most of the vast array of modern  chemicals of everyday life are organic when defined in this way. Perish the thought - if you are an organic gardener - that glyphosate is an organic chemical! We have as gardeners learned to deal in both currencies of meaning.
Cathi’s neglected rose would qualify as organic if I did not use glyphosate

I refuse to accept that modern synthesised chemicals are less safe or less effective than those naturally derived. Frequently the reverse. Take fertilisers. A modern balanced fertiliser containing almost all the plant nutrients in balanced proportions and sometimes slow release is far superior to such as bonemeal. Even useful ‘organics’ such as seaweed extracts need to be inorganically fortified to be really effective - and don’t get me going on to scouring the natural environment to find commercial organic products for the garden.

If you use a complete fertiliser like this not only will your soil build up its nutrients from year to year so will your perennial plants
I fail to understand why people who are happy to use a whole array of modern chemicals, not all safe ones, in every aspect of everyday life, refuse to accept the same in their garden. Thousands of manufactured chemicals are used to cover our bodies, ingest, clean our houses, maintain our cars, provide recreation and keep us alive. Some people actually smoke.

You might be surprised the hear about chemicals I don’t use! Not that I fear them although for example certain cosmetics that you might plaster over your body to make you smell or look nice are almost always far less safe than manufactured chemicals you might use in the garden.

Both organic or inorganic insecticides are bad for the bees

With my little rant over I now want to examine what might constitute natural and ecologically/culturally sound ways to manage a garden. Labels as to what kind of gardener you are mean nothing to me.

What good gardeners share

Soil health
All good gardeners care for their soil and many organic gardeners lead the way with the notion that the best way of doing this is to leave soil alone and adopt minimum cultivation. We both agree that bulky organic matter will vastly improve soil structure. We agree that organic matter produced on a site should be preserved and recycled. Eve Balfour that great founder of the organic movement was adamant that other than her crops no organic material should leave her farm. Our own gardens don’t share a traditional farm’s diversity but in my opinion everything entering the green disposal bin is a mark of failure. It is not necessary to buy in manures and bulky organic material - but it does help. I recently purchased two lorry loads of bark mulch for my borders…
I am not sure the meaning of organic gardeners desire to ‘feed the soil’ but I emphasis that the organic content of organic fertilisers (as distinct from bulky manures) is far too small to make any difference to the soil store of organic matter. I don’t understand anyone’s objection to adding valuable nutrients as fertilisers (organic or inorganic) that feed healthy plants which in turn return organic matter and nutrients to the ground. Either as compost or directly returned.

I write all the time about preserving a soil’s organic matter by such as not oxidising it away by too much cultivation, by covering the ground with plants all year round  which helps to maintain good structure and all things that encourage beneficial soil life. In the case of the latter I am fascinated by the contribution of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi and their production of long lasting glomalin that binds soil particles together. Alas fertilizers inhibit mycorrhiza. There are many parts of the garden that do not need fertilisers at all.

Neither of my cemetery gardens ever receive fertiliser

Healthy plants resist pest and disease
Some pests and diseases are so virulent that this is just not true. In the majority of cases however if you are a good grower and can ensure that your plants are well grown with avoidance of stresses such as inappropriate nutrients, excess or insufficient water, too much or too little heat and light, I firmly believe that your plants will resist weaker pathogens such as aphids, moulds and mildews.
Organic growers sometimes claim they never get aphids with their highly organic soil. Neither do I - except perhaps on a stressed house plant in Winter and I don’t grow lupins and...

Maintaining plant diversity in a garden increases natural control of pest and disease
This goes together with providing healthy habitat for predators and parasites and not slapping on insecticides all over the place. My cemetery gardens have never been treated with insecticide or fungicide. I might get my hand sprayer out in my own garden two or three times a year. Brenda sometimes applies a few slug pellets very lightly under the hostas. In a diverse garden, plant health is the norm. My frogs, other amphibians, birds and invertebrate predators and parasites control most of my pests for me. I think organic gardeners and I sing from the same hymn sheet.

Let them get on with it

Cultural pest and disease control
I have written before about the huge array of cultural wrinkles such as pruning out aphids for example on broad bean tips. No quarrel with organic gardeners here.

Green manures
I have my own take on this and include retaining plants on my vegetable garden all the year round. I agree with organic gardeners that plants are good for the soil

Naturalistic Gardening

It's been a poor year for butterflies
Many folk imagine me to be organic because of my naturalistic methods that allow plants to establish themselves and generally seed and vegetatively spread around. ‘Take care of the weeds and the plants will take care of themselves’ is my motto. A weed is a plant in the wrong place and many traditional weeds are also wild flowers. I completely agree. There is too much to say about this for my article today but I emphasise that in my opinion naturalistic gardening is not the exclusive domain of organic gardeners

Are you organic?
Many gardeners casually claim to be so.
If you do any of the following you are not.
Use proprietary liquid feeds such as tomato feed on you house plants.
Spray or water your house plants with generally available pest killers
Use insecticidal, fungicidal or bactericidal domestic products in your home
Use growmore
Use lawn weed and feeds. Especially those that kill lawn weeds!
Use harsh chemicals to clean stone surfaces
Treat path and road surfaces with proprietary herbicides to clear weeds
Use slug pellets (be aware that the none metaldehyde types are NOT more environmentally friendly than the normal kind)

Buying Vegetable and Fruit produce
A small grower in the next village has polytunnels in which he grows fabulous strawberries and raspberries - the latter, I imagine mainly outside. Other fruits and tomatoes too. Through the Summer he has a covered ‘help yourself stall’ at his gate. His strawberries come in a wide range of delicious varieties, are blemish free and taste vastly superior to the ‘turnips’ at the supermarket.They come over a very long season and other than cheap supermarket ‘offers’ are priced the same.
The small-farm lady in the village buys-in vegetables from local, or not so local, producers to sell at her little farm shop. Her onions are firm and huge and far superior to anything I could ever grow. Her very large almost red ’dirty carrots’ are superb. The grower sells most of his carrots ‘for processing’  but those she buys-in have not yet been harmed. 
Swedes never do very well for me and I can’t really be bothered although I really do love to eat them. Rejected by supermarket grading systems they come to my lady in a wide range of sizes but are priced the same for each ‘turnip’. You will divine that I buy the huge ones. The cauliflowers are fresh and come over a very long season. Those in my garden all come together and tend to be misshapen and blemished.
None of the above vegetables are claimed to be organic. Nor are they or do they need to be.

His produce is perfect
A few weeks ago I was shopping in Sainsburys and noticed that cucumbers were 35 pence each. Next to them were organic ones at £1.10 which looked exactly the same. The organic ones were imported and carried several air miles. Had I had not prolific home grown ones you can guess which I would buy.

My home grown tomatoes are wonderful and have never been sprayed
Some of my very early posts are still relevant today
I had aphid on my peppers

Benefits of worms


  1. Nice Articel, Garden and organic informaation, Thank

  2. I looked into the term organic when we had manure problems and was surprised to find organic when plastered on gardening products doesn't necessarily mean what we think. Manure isn't necessarily organic even though some gardeners would imagine that it was. I think my principle is to avoid anything that may harm the good guys.

    1. Fascinating how words change Sue.
      In practice a label these days describing something as organic is meaningless.Admittedly the Soil Association has stringent standards for things under their own label but as I said some of their permitted materials are inorganic!

  3. These days the term "organic" seems to be used simply for marketing purposes - in some strange way suggesting that the product is better.

  4. I never shout it out that I am not exactly an organic gardener, probably because I see it as a failing. Neither would I be so blaze to say I was a good gardener, but I am not to shy to tell that our front garden was selected by the judges to be the best in the village. Terrific post which makes us all think.


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