Some facts about organic gardening

July 6, 2011

By Debra Levey Larson
Media/Communications Specialist, University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

URBANA, Ill. — People who are investigating organic gardening often do so because they wish to garden while providing healthier food for their family and protecting the environment and their communities, said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Nancy Pollard.

“There is a lot of confusion about what it means to garden organically,” Pollard said. “The term ‘organic gardening’ was first used in the United States by J.I. Rodale about 1940. The foundation of organic gardening is the use of composted organic matter to keep soil healthy and productive. There are many additional principles. Organic production allows the use of hybrid plants with desirable traits. It generally disallows genetic engineering methods for recombining DNA into genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).”

What is organic matter?

“When once-living material thoroughly decomposes under healthy conditions, it is called compost,” Pollard explained. “Some examples of compost are decomposed grass clippings and cow manure. Naturally decomposed material like sphagnum peat moss is also organic matter.”

How does organic matter help?

“Organic matter helps the soil act like a sponge to retain moisture in a way that is usable for plant growth,” Pollard said. “It also improves drainage, allowing the soil spaces to hold some oxygen for healthy root growth.”

Various sources of compost contain different kinds and amounts of nutrients, depending on what organic matter decomposed.

“As a result, different composts have different values as fertilizer,” Pollard said. “Well-composted organic materials build soil quality while adding nutrients that are not easily washed away. Choosing organic fertilizers over synthetic ones can reduce pollution in streams and lakes and other sources of drinking water.”

Certified Organic is a legal term. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 governs the use of the term Certified Organic when the sales of products are involved. Its rules usually exclude the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but allow for pesticides and fertilizers derived from naturally-occurring materials, with some exceptions to both rules.

For more information, visit http://www.ams.usda.gov.

Pollard offered a history lesson about chemicals: “Applying organic matter was the primary way to fertilize crops until the 1930s,” she said. “At that time, chemical plants making nitrates for World War I munitions were repurposed to produce synthetic chemical nitrogen and other fertilizers to help farmers feed a growing population.

“Erosion of exposed soils and concerns about nutrient-rich runoff from both organic and inorganic fertilizers polluting water supplies resulted in shifting interests toward sustainable environmental stewardship,” she said.

Naturally-occurring pesticides like sulfur, mercury, lead, arsenic and ash were used for centuries. Clearly not everything produced by nature is friendly to life, she said.

“Synthetic pesticides production began around World War II,” Pollard said. “While these new pesticides saved lives and reduced crop failure due to pests, it soon became evident that broad-spectrum pesticides killed more than the target pest. Unintended consequences have led the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate risks and remove many pesticides from the marketplace. Both organically approved and synthetic pesticides have some level of toxicity.

“Looking to manage gardens in the least toxic, most environmentally friendly way is in the best interests of everyone,” Pollard said.

From the July 6-12, 2011, issue

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