What does organic gardening mean to you? There are as many different views on what organic gardening means as there are people. Some interpret it to mean old-fashioned, some believe it involves the use of homemade concoctions, others believe it means complete chemical-free gardening. The basic meaning of organic gardening is that it relies on cultural practices and natural products rather than the use of synthetic or petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Crop rotation, cultural weed control, and integrated pest management for insect and disease control are emphasized and implemented.
Many people have a picture-perfect image of their flower beds, vegetable gardens, lawns and landscapes. And why not, advertisers certainly don't show us nature's imperfections. Organic gardeners tolerate small amounts of damage or imperfections. "Weeds" may be present in their lawn. However, they may also be enjoying dandelion greens for dinner. The clover in their lawn may have been planted to help provide nitrogen. Their apples may have some dimples or tracks through them. The sweet corn may have a section cut out where an earworm had been. The crabapple tree may be void of foliage because of apple scab or the lilac foliage white with powdery mildew. Maple trees may have red bumps on the underside of their leaves because of maple erineum gall. The trees may have a sticky substance (honeydew) being produced during the summer as a result of aphid infestation. These situations are tolerated by organic gardeners.
Fertile, well drained soil is the basis for organic gardening. Fortunately here in Iowa our good soils start us off on the right foot. However, we cannot garden continually in the same area without returning organic matter to the garden. Compost improves the soil's physical properties. Composted animal manures as well as green manure crops also improve the soil. Fertilizers are used by organic gardeners if there is a nutrient deficiency. The difference lies in the types of fertilizers used. Organic fertilizers such as bat guano, blood meal, bone meal, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, greensand, rock phosphate and soybean meal are organic, naturally occurring fertilizers.
Weed control is accomplished through repeated shallow tilling. As weeds begin sprouting, the soil is surface where they dry up and die. As desirable plants grow, they shade out additional weed growth. Mulches are also used to prevent weed seed germination and conserve water.
Organic gardeners select plant varieties carefully. Disease resistant varieties are important as is crop rotation and garden sanitation. The most difficult area of organic gardening is insect management. Cultural controls such as hand picking, non-chemical insect baits, release of beneficial insects, and organic pesticides are used to control pests that reach damaging levels.
Many people already implement organic gardening techniques without giving it a second thought. Popular terms for organic gardening today include sustainable agriculture, integrated pest management (IPM) or plant health care. All involve proper site and plant selection, adequate soil preparation, and supplying organic matter and fertilization. Pests are identified, populations are monitored, and control is done at the proper lifecycle stage and time for the pest with the least environmentally harmful product. Increased public awareness concerning long-term effects of chemicals has brought common sense gardening practices back in the limelight to show the important roles they play in a successful garden, lawn, and landscape.
This article originally appeared in the April 12, 1996 issue, p. 52.
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