Who doesn’t think that natural and holistic methods of growing food are best? Nurse Amy and I sure do, but not everything that’s “organic” is without problems. There are a lot of natural things that aren’t that great for us; snakebites come to mind.
Still, the organic movement is truly a revolution for good, in that it has motivated gardeners to recycle natural refuse into compost and to think about amending soil to make a healthy garden. Other organic practices such as weeding by hand and picking insects off plants (rather than nuking them with pesticides) help as well. All this takes a much more patient approach than most novice gardeners are used to. Understanding some basics will help prevent them from banging their heads against the wall.
One basic truth is that starting with 12 inch high plants from Home Depot, even if labeled “organically sprouted”, is a recipe for disaster. Unless (and sometimes even if) you look at the underside of each leaf and test the soil the plant is on, it’s likely that there will be trouble brewing: Aphids, Fungi, Nematodes, etc. Starting your plants from seed (heirloom, non-GMO) will give you a much better chance to control the fate of your garden.
Insects and Organic Gardening
Having said this, even the best organic garden will have to deal with bugs. Some of these bugs, such as caterpillars, make a mess of your plants but will become butterflies. Butterflies will help pollinate your veggies. A good way to deal with caterpillars is to have a plant that is a good “larval” food source. Having such a plant (or several, to deal with specific species) will guide those pesky critters to parts of the garden that aren’t growing food, at least until they become butterflies.
Why not just use organic pesticides? One thing that’s important to remember is that “organic” is not the same thing as “100% safe”. Pyrethrim and Rotenone are natural products, but they’ll kill everything, including the beneficial insects. Copper Sulfate is an efficient fungicide, but it could poison your soil. Some insecticidal soaps or oils, such as Neem, are less likely to harm the good guys.
Same with organic fertilizers; not all are created equal. Many gardeners want to give their plants an organic “boost”, but there’s not a lot of organic stuff in the fertilizer itself. Amending your soil with “green manure” and compost in layers (the so-called “lasagna garden”) will help it hold nutrients and help with drainage. Mulch will also be an important addition to your organic garden. Too much organic fertilizer has the potential to seep into groundwater or other sources and can be as much a cause of pollution as any synthetic substance. With enough compost and mulch, you may not need to add anything else.
Lastly, don’t be an organic “snob”! Don’t hold your nose as you pass your neighbors garden just because it’s not as organic as yours. Encourage the use of natural techniques, but remember that the attempt to grow food is itself a commendable pursuit. Never discourage a novice gardener by “dissing” their efforts.