What is organic gardening?

Honeybee on Eryngium
Honeybee on Eryngium (Sea Holly)

What exactly is organic gardening?

For decades, we as a society have been growing things in our gardens with one thing in mind: “How to I feed my plants?” Well, the general answer has been that plants need certain nutrients, divided into a few different categories—macronutrients, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients.

We are all familiar with the macronutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, & potassium (The “NPK” we see on the front of all the fertilizer packaging. A lot of people are less familiar with the other two categories, although they play a critical role in plant growth. The next category of nutrients often referred to as “secondary nutrients”, and consists of calcium, sulfur, and magnesium. The third nutrient category is the micronutrient category, and consists of 9 different elements: boron, chlorine, copper, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc.

Conventional gardening methods usually involve adding various concoctions of fertilizers to the soil that contain different amounts of these elements, usually in a water-soluble form so that plant roots can uptake and utilize them. The problem with this method, however, is that it’s only thinking about the immediate needs of a plant, and not the long-term needs of the soil that a given plant is growing in. Long term use of these synthetic fertilizers can actually end up degrading soil health to a point where it is nearly completely sterile and void of any nutrients at all.

That brings us to a question that gets asked a lot: What’s the difference between dirt and soil? Well, dirt is a non-living medium that lacks any sort of life, health, or nutrition. If you’ve ever picked up a handful of “dirt” from a parking lot or construction site, it’s just that – dusty, dirty, with no life to it whatsoever. Soil, on the other hand, is a living medium, full of life and decomposing organic matter. The life in the soil ranges from things we can see like earthworms all the way down to microscopic bacteria, and they all play a crucial role in the life of the soil.

So – Back to our original question, what is organic gardening? Well, Organic gardening methods involve feeding the life within the soil instead of simply pumping synthetic nutrients into a plant’s root system. You see, all of the elements required for plants to be vigorous and thrive are found naturally in healthy, living soil. If we use methods that promote the long-term health of the soil and the life within it, plants will grow and thrive in perpetuity, without the need to add synthetic, salt-based fertilizers. Yes, the elements plants that need are the same whether we use conventional or organic methods. However, if we don’t nurture the soil then we end up losing so much biodiversity and life that more problems can arise. Whether it’s in landscape design, permaculture, backyard gardening, landscape maintenance, or simple container gardening – Soil health and vitality is crucial!

I get a lot of people who ask me things like “what can I do to be organic but have a healthy garden on a budget?” I always tell them the same thing: Compost, compost, compost! If you as a gardener could do one thing every year to promote the health and vitality of your soil it would be to apply a nice layer of high-quality compost to your gardens. No need to till it into your soil, just apply the compost as a topdressing (try for a layer of 1-2”). Now, there’s always more you can do, but just getting that compost down once every year will result in noticeable improvement in your soil health and plant vigor after just one season and will continue to snowball in the years to come. Additionally, the nice thing about compost, is that you can make it yourself!

Happy gardening!

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