Gardening tips: The Helpful Gardener promotes sustainable gardening that
is safe for the local environment. Read all of our articles about Organic
Gardening and start improving your garden today!
About Organic Gardening and Why it Should Matter to You
The definition of organic depends on your focus, but some define it as
of, relating to, or derived from living organisms. The chemist’s
version uses the word to designate carbon compounds, and that also plays
into our garden. But what do most people think of when you say organic?
Another definition is simple, healthful, close to nature. Sure, that part
fits too. Yet another definition is constituting an integral part of a
So what have we got? Organic gardening is a simple healthful way to convert
living organisms into carbon compounds in a way that considers the whole
of nature and its integral place in that scheme. There, all the definitions
in one sentence. I’ll consider that my mission statement for organic
Sounds good, but what does Organic Gardening mean?
When man started farming and raising plants, organic was all there was.
You put humus (partial/fully decomposed plant or animal material) back
into the soil to maintain fertility and you farmed until the soil gave
out. But farming was at the subsistence level, so not a big deal; they
moved on when the soil gave out.
Mass Production Comes to the Farm
Then as farming became organized, we didn’t want to move around
as much. People learned to rotate crops and use green manures and leave
fallow areas to help keep the soil healthy. Fast forward to modern times:
With the Industrial Revolution came a mass move to the cities and very
few people producing most of the food. The tractor answered the biggest
part of the labor issue and deep plowing helped with fertility, but fertilization
was still very labor intensive as it required huge quantities of manure
to get the yields to feed burgeoning cities.
Better Living through Chemical Fertilizers?
Then in 1918 a German scientist named Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel
Prize for Chemistry for synthesizing ammonia. Unfortunately Herr Doktor
Haber’s work was more focused on munitions, but the process eventually
led to producing nitrogen based fertilizers (This follows the natural
path of ammonia from decomposition being turned into nitrite, and then
to nitrate by little organisms known as nitrobacters). Suddenly hyper-fertility
was possible; the land could be made to produce far beyond what it had
been capable of. Many thought that better and better chemicals would surely
help feed the planet.
Exhausting the Soil
As the Okies of the Dust Bowl found out, this was no magic bullet. Higher
yields and deeper plowing burned out the soil faster than ever. More fertilizer
was required just to maintain yields at a current rate, and then when
the weather turned bad, the depleted, lifeless soil simply began to vanish
in the air as dust storms blasted through. When it did rain the dust would
hold the moisture to the surface so that yet more soil ran into streams
and rivers. Even in the Midwest, the topsoil of a thousand generations
of prairie plants was disappearing at an alarming rate.
How synthetic fertilizers damage the soil
Farmers were getting decreasing yields and having to spend more and more
to get even those. Soil conservation districts sprang up to advocate contour
plowing and fallow areas, but the real underlying problem, one that continues
to today is simply this: The chemical fertilizers are made from ammonia
salts. Synthesized nitrogen is salt based, and anyone familiar with what
salt build-up does to soil knows that isn’t a good thing . For those
not familiar, since Roman times salt has been used to eliminate soil fertility
PERMANENTLY. They salted Carthage when they conquered it and today modern
Libya is still a desert, despite the descriptions of Carthage as some
of the most fertile areas around the Mediterranean.
How chemical fertilizers harm the plants
So when we use chemical fertilizers, we sacrifice long term fertility
for short term gain. But it’s good for the plants, right? Not really.
Parts of the soil flora are strains of fungi known as mycorhizii, Latin
for little roots, and this name doesn’t miss the mark by much. Many
of these fungi do just that for our plants, acting as fibrous roots. Many
actually form symbiotic relations with the plants, actually meshing at
a cellular level to bring nutrients, water, and carbon dioxide, all depending
on which particular fungus we are talking about. Some plants can do okay
without these fungi, but some, notably many of our wildflowers, have very
specific mycorhizal needs and can’t live without them, and all plants
benefit from the exchange. So we are sacrificing that along with long
Why Non-Organic Fertilizers are Less Effective as Organic Fertilizers
Here’s the other thing about water-soluble nitrates, they’re
water soluble. That means as soon as it rains, as soon as we water, the
fertilizer we put down is really going down, washing through the soil
profile to ground water. Well, that’s why trees have deep roots,
right? Nope, trees have deep roots to anchor them, but tap roots do very
little to feed trees. Even the mighty oak, seventy feet tall with a tap
root half that length does all of its feeding in the top foot of the soil
profile. Mother Nature feeds by decomposing materials on top (carbon based
materials; try dissolving a piece of charcoal sometime) that slowly permeate
and help build the soil.
How Non-Organic Fertilizer Harms the Soil's Viability
Worms and ants help to slowly till and aerate that top layer, speeding
decomposition and creating aerated habitat for mycorhizii. Chemical fertilizers
kill worms as well as mycorhizii so we eliminate yet another part of the
chain. But the nitrates aren’t done yet. They move into our ponds
and streams, causing algal blooms that create stagnant conditions that
kill all plant and fish life, thus hurrying the eutrophication process
(when lakes become ponds become bogs become meadows, a very natural process
over decades, but not so natural inside a decade).
How Non-Organic Gardening Harms Your Community
The EPA determined that non-point source pollution is the leading cause
of water impairment in the United States. That is to say, no open pipes
from chemical companies, no spills from refineries, no industrial source
did anywhere near as much polluting as we the people. Estuaries, the sensitive
area where river meets ocean is an incredibly prolific breeding area for
bird, riverine, and marine creatures. Urban run-off was the leading cause
of pollution in estuarine areas in 2004.
Sure some of that is oil from roadways or pet wastes, but an increasing
use of everyday fertilizer and pesticide use counts for much of our run-off
problem (Did you know that because of all the impervious surfaces like
cement and asphalt, the average city block has nine times the run-off
of the same-sized wooded area?) So the question is
why do we continue to use these products? There is a better way,
one that accounts for all the integral parts of the whole… We explore
that in our next article in this series: Basics
of Organic Gardening