There are as many definitions of organic as there are farmers in Iowa. So it is up to you to select your own level of purity and focus. You may choose to be absolutely chemical-free or to accept some level of commercial intervention. Much will depend upon your available time as well as your willingness to get down and dirty with the gross and smelly.
Any organic intervention in your life is better than none, so take the information that fits your needs and begin. Who knows? That first step into the world of independent gardening may free you enough to catapult you into full-fledge organic farming at its best.
What is considered one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. For organic purists composting is almost canon, although not absolutely necessary for organic gardening. Because it is messy and aromatic, some may choose to purchase composted soil or products already composted rather than to learn this age-old method.
The process of composting is the science of decomposition in a controlled environment, such as a big garbage can, a 5 ft. x 5 ft. hole in the ground, or an expensive purchased drum that turns automatically. It provides a faster process of breaking down once-living matter into enriched soil and nutrients perfect for the health of your garden. The compost gardener does all possible to recycle appropriate wastes of any living matter, along with a healthy supply of bacteria (purchased or naturally available in the soil from hard work and time.)
To compost, use and accumulate all fruit, vegetable, and grain scraps throughout the year. Yes, this takes time and might not produce a parfum de toilet that tickles your nose, but you will reap the benefits by producing fruits and vegetables that are packed full of the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Recycling left-over food wastes, leaves, grasses and hay is at the core of organic gardening at its finest and well worth the effort.
Compost must be turned faithfully to oxygenate the matter. The oxygen is required to heat and decompose the food into nutrients and soil in a timely manner. Without the oxygen that is provided by turning, the material will have to take its natural time to change into soil. Although this is acceptable, many gardeners want to use the recycled wastes within the next six months and are willing to put in the biweekly labor of turning the compost. Some may roll the drum of “brown gold” around the yard while others may enjoy turning it by hand with a pitchfork.
Without fertilizing additives (natural or chemical), plants will be stunted and unhealthy. Organic gardeners may use compost to augment the nutrients in the soil and to improve the texture and good bacteria, but most compost should not totally replace fertilizing additives. Cynthia Boruff, a gardener of fifty years, told us that she annually adds to her garden: compost, chicken manure, alfalfa tea (after the plants are at least six inches tall), and her special formula for fertilizer.
“Since I do not rely on commercial chemical fertilizers, I vary my organic methods to insure a broader spectrum of nutrients,” states Cynthia. “My formula that replaces purchased fertilizer is a combination of blood meal, bone meal, and dolomite (or agriculture lime) in equal proportions. I mix it into the soil at the time of setting the young seedlings or planting the seed. It has never failed me yet! My corn is the biggest in the county and my vegetables are award-winning.”
Gardeners who don’t use chemical fertilizers practice crop rotation—a common technique to lessen the amount of fertilizer needed. This will help to prevent depletion of nutrients specific to individual species of plants by rotating vegetable beds or rows. As an example, organic gardeners will plant carrots in a specific row one year and plant a different vegetable in that spot the next season. Since different plants require different amounts of key nutrients, the soil will not be depleted and less organic fertilizer is needed.
Depending on your definition of “organic,” you may choose to purchase seeds from a universal standard seed catalog or from an organic seed farm. The differences vary from multi-generational hybrids and genetically engineered plants/seeds on one end of the spectrum to heritage or heirloom seeds on the other.
Purists on the organic side religiously purchase only heirloom seeds because these seeds have had little change over decades, sometimes even centuries. Pure high-protein bean seeds used by the Anazasi have managed to survive in tact these past centuries and have been handed down generation to generation for hundreds of years. Heritage farms have kept the purity of the bean and offer the seeds by catalog purchase. The same is true of a bean variety that the Pilgrims brought over on the Mayflower. The catalogs usually boast seventy-five to one hundred different plant seeds, sometimes with very interesting histories.
Heirloom seed catalogs are available via the internet, but it is more fun to collect the seeds or catalogs from other organic gardeners or heritage seed club members. Once seed has been acquired, it is necessary to learn how to harvest and store the seed properly to maintain quality control for the next season and to protect the purity of the heirloom seed. While it is interesting to think of an entire garden of only heirloom plants, gardeners may find themselves disappointed with the final product. Without the science of hybridizing, some historic products may be small or not as tasty.
Winifred Meidinger, a 90-year old gardener, collects her heirloom seeds each year for the following season’s planting. She especially loves her tomatoes and zucchini that have been handed down generation to generation for the last one hundred years. Ms. Meidinger enjoys the taste and texture of her produce and has a sense of pride in knowing she is one of the few gardeners holding to the heirloom philosophy. Many find it fascinating to keep in touch with the past by using the same seeds the pioneers used—unadulterated by modern science.
Heirloom seeds are absolutely organic, but not all organic seeds are “heirloom.” Organic seeds are not genetically engineered and are not chemically treated prior to purchase. Most organic farmers purchase mainly from organic seed catalogs. But they will also buy seed from standard catalogs if it is the best way to get the desired taste or texture of a particular fruit.
Standard seeds, from the store and most catalogs, are frequently powdered with chemicals to prevent mold or fungus growth and to ward off deterioration in the soil before germination. While there are organic methods to do the same precautionary measures without chemicals, few gardeners know the techniques to protect the seeds. These methods should be researched in organic farming books and magazines. Such approaches include planting in paper towels, or how to properly collect and dry seeds.
The benefits of organic gardening far out-weigh the work load. But the amount of time down in the dirt is far greater than standard chemical gardening. It requires time picking bugs off of plants, time placing jars of natural attractants and boards on moist ground to trick insects into captivity, time working manure and teas into the soil—all of this instead of the easy chemical fix. The advantage is health from chemical-free produce for you and your family, as well as physical and spiritual balance from the daily physical exercise required to nurture your garden.
In years past the knowledge of organic gardening was handed down from generation to generation, as well as a basketful of tricks to make the job easier. Today, it is a risk for good produce the first season or two if you are a beginning organic farmer — unless a mentor is nearby to offer helpful hints. However, there are hundreds of books, articles, and internet resources to help the new gardener become successful. Even that takes time, though.
Organic farming is a noble pursuit that requires perseverance. This resolve will remind you of your ancestors and your past each time you pick up a handful of composted soil or preserve an heirloom seed. It will keep you looking to the future — jumping over and around your present day problems — to the seeds that you will purchase, the produce that will be picked, the new recipes and uses you will concoct. For that you won’t mind a few scrapes, an aching back, or bruised knuckles. It will all be worth it because philosophically, it is where you want to be.