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The Garden Decoder: What Does ‘Organic Gardening’ Really Mean?

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The Garden Decoder: What Does ‘Organic Gardening’ Really Mean?

February 14, 2019

It occurred to me recently that I don’t really know what “organic gardening” entails. And when other colleagues during our weekly staff meeting also expressed some confusion about the term, I knew I was on to something (a.k.a. that feeling of relief when you realize that others are just as ignorant as you are). Below, what I learned when I investigated organic gardening.

Organic gardener Colum Pawson tends to a plot in an old Welsh estate. The garden had incredible soil that had been improved, over generations, with manure and compost. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista, from Walled Gardens: An Organic and Picturesque Plot at Old-Lands in Wales.
Above: Organic gardener Colum Pawson tends to a plot in an old Welsh estate. The garden had incredible soil that had been improved, over generations, with manure and compost. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista, from Walled Gardens: An Organic and Picturesque Plot at Old-Lands in Wales.

Is organic gardening just gardening without chemicals?

Not exactly. Chemicals exist in both organic and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, so it’s a bit of a mischaracterization to call organic gardening “chemical-free” gardening. That said, a basic tenet of organic gardening is the avoidance of using manmade fertilizers and pesticides.

What is it then?

Organic gardening encourages pollinators like bees. Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from Landscape Ideas: What to Plant for Pollinators? Choose Milkweed.
Above: Organic gardening encourages pollinators like bees. Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from Landscape Ideas: What to Plant for Pollinators? Choose Milkweed.

Broadly speaking, organic gardening is a holistic approach to growing plants that focuses on the health of the whole ecosystem. This entails committing to four priorities, starting with nutrient-rich soil. Compost, natural fertilizers (think animal manures, wood ash, seaweed, and eggshells), and cover crops (which can be tilled back into the soil) can all enrich your soil, which ultimately leads to healthier plants and crops. Second, organic gardening emphasizes biodiversity; birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife all have a role to play in organic gardens. Third, the organic gardener is mindful of growing only plants that thrive in your region and your specific garden conditions (i.e., you wouldn’t want to grow a moisture-loving plant in a dry, hot climate). And last, of course, organic gardening eschews all manmade chemicals.

How do you get rid of pests without pesticides?

Did you know? &#8
Above: Did you know? “Ladybugs feed on thousands of aphids in their lifetime, even laying their eggs on the underside of leaves that are under attack,” writes our contributor Kendra Wilson in Your Garden’s Best Friend: The Life and Times of a Ladybug.

The organic gardener focuses on prevention. The best way to avoid pests and plant diseases is to grow disease-resistant varieties that are adapted to your region and growing conditions. Such plants tend to be happier and more robust, which helps them resist pests and diseases should they have to deal with them. And simply being in tune with your garden, observing it as often as you can, means that you’ll be able to catch potential problems before they get out of control. Spot some diseased leaves? Pinch them off before they spread. See aphids? Aim a hose at them and spray them off.

For more on organic gardening see:

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