By Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell
The organic gardening movement has taken over the gardening world and is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future as interest in organic gardening and the use of all-natural products continues to grow and accelerate. The National Gardening Association states that between 2004 and 2008, the use of all-natural lawn and garden products rose from 5 million to 12 million.
Over a decade later, the organic movement continues to gain ground in the world of gardening. In 2019, horticultural experts at Wyevale Garden Centers conducted research to show just how far eco-gardening has come. Wyevale researchers claim that more than three quarters of modern gardeners try to avoid the use of chemicals in their lawns and gardens and reveal that 46 percent of today’s gardeners use organic fertilizers instead of cheaper, more readily available chemical fertilizer options.
“The move away from chemical use and towards a gentler, more holistic approach to problems in the garden is one of the strongest trends in gardening,” says a Wyevale spokesperson. “It goes hand in hand with a greater awareness and consideration of garden wildlife, as well as a growing political understanding of the way [the “grow-your-own” movement] can decrease our food’s carbon footprint and air miles.”
Fertilizers and pesticides are not the only products that are on the market with an all-natural or organic label. These days, plants, seeds, and even items like mulch and potting soil can be found with an organic label. But just what does it mean to be all-natural, or organic? What are the benefits and drawbacks of using organic products compared to conventionally grown plants?
Organic Gardening Terminology
Plants found in a nursery that are labeled, “certified organic,” are grown without the use of synthetic products, such as chemically-based pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Any plant that is without an organic label is pretty much guaranteed to have been treated with some type of synthetic product during the propagation of the plant.
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has very strict standards that must be met in order for a plant to bear the “certified organic” label. The USDA performs an annual review of all companies producing such plants to ensure that they are continuing to use the accepted methods of organic production.
The “organic” label does not have the same standards required to place it on packaging, and does not guarantee that the product meets the criteria of organic certification. For example, it can be put on a potting soil label to reference natural ingredients contained within, such as organic matter, even when the potting soil mix is not 100% organic. This can make terminology confusing and finding true organic products a bit misleading.
Organic and Conventional Benefits & Drawbacks
Organic gardening is an obvious choice for people who believe in and value the benefits of eating organic food. Choosing organic plants is a way to support nurseries that choose to use the same growing methods as organic farmers. Organic nurseries, for example, use beneficial insects to control pests and practice regular crop rotation. To minimize the buildup of soil-borne diseases, organic nurseries continually rotate the cultivation of each type of plant from one growing area to another.
Organic plants usually cost a bit more than plants grown by conventional methods and tend to be a bit smaller in size. The methods used to grow organic plants are more labor-intensive and often require more space to produce the same number of plants compared to conventional nurseries.
Non-organic plants can usually be grown to larger sizes in containers by using synthetic fertilizers compared to organic potted plants which are raised with all-natural fertilizers. Non-organic nurseries are often responsible for polluting waterways by using tremendous amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.
It takes significant chemical inputs to grow gigantic plants in small containers and to make them bloom like crazy before they ever get placed in the ground. The downside is that once it is planted in the ground, it is no longer in the artificial soil environment that it was accustomed to and dependent on, and its growth may likely suffer because of this. These plants also tend to be root-bound which can add to the shock of transplanting.
Organic gardening is generally less harmful to the environment, pets, and humans. Though organic products are often more expensive than non-organic versions, natural gardening methods, such as hand weeding instead of using chemical weed killers, save gardeners a bit of money but require more time and effort to get the job done. Organic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are not only more expensive than their chemical competitors, but they are not always readily available, nor are they always successful against perennial weeds.
Non-organic products, on the other hand, are cheaper, readily available at all garden centers, work faster, and are effective for a wide use of diseases, weeds, and pests. Non-organic products are very useful for the task of clearing plots and garden beds, and can be a great help to sustainable methods, such as no-till or no-dig gardening.
Conventional gardening uses chemicals that can be dangerous to people, pets, and the environment, as well as the wider garden ecosystem. Products that contain neonicotinoids can be harmful to beneficial insects and pollinators, such as bees, and soil-dwelling creatures such as earthworms, which help to enrich and aerate the soil.
Non-organic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides can be difficult to store and to dispose of in a safe manner. The production of such products is energy and carbon intensive, and in many cases unsustainable. Overuse and misuse of such products can cause scorch, drift, and runoff, causing problems for plants, pets, and humans.
Organic and Conventional Plants
There is typically not a great selection when it comes to organic plants compared to non-organic plants. Plants that are cultivated for consumption, such as vegetables and herbs are usually the only types of nursery plants and seedlings that are available to purchase that are grown with organic methods. Any type of plant can be grown using organic methods, but plants that are grown for consumption are in higher demand in organic form. Consumers are also accustomed to flowering plants being large and covered in flowers, so the market for less-prolific organic flowering plants is dismal at best.
Gardeners can choose to grow their own plants at home using organic techniques with the help of specialty mail order nurseries that offer a full range of organic plants. Unfortunately, in most areas, nurseries and garden centers offer very little organic selection, making mail order nurseries the only reliable option for putting together a truly organic garden with a wide range of plants.
Seeds and Plants
Organic seeds are plant seeds that are organically grown, or cultivated using sustainable methods throughout the growing process. This means that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used and that the plants which the seeds were harvested from were grown on land that has been cultivated for at least three years using the standards established for “certified organic,” farming. Organic farmers abide by these standards and then allow their flower and veggie plants to go to seed, which produces the seeds that come to us in packets with the certified organic label.
Seeds that were grown using conventional methods were cultivated and harvested from plants that were treated with pesticides and fertilizers on land that was not cultivated in a sustainable way, and in turn, has an environmental impact as such.
Whether or not you choose to garden organically and to what extent you choose to abide by sustainable gardening guidelines, is completely up to you. In the modern world, it’s extremely hard to be truly sustainable without a great effort, but there are tricks of the trade that can lighten our load to an extent. Many people purchase organic produce, buy carbon offsets for trips or vacations, bring their own canvas bags to the grocery store instead of using excess plastic and paper bags to carry their groceries, and make an effort to buy recycled products. Buying organic seeds, growing organically, and cultivating organic crops are just other ways in which green-minded people can support sustainable practices at a production level.
Sometimes seed companies can’t afford the organic certification but still go out of their way to avoid chemical usage and cultivate their product using sustainable methods. Usually, these companies state in the introductory pages of their seed catalogues, that they grow their seeds without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. This is typically the case with small, family-run farms. These companies should be supported by green-minded gardeners just as if they were a certified organic company. As long as a seed company uses a holistic approach to providing seeds, we believe that you are still doing your part to support organic production.
Pesticide Options: Organic vs. Conventional
Just under 90 million pounds of pesticides that are used in lawns and gardens each year in the United States are actually banned in other countries. That accounts for over 40 percent of the pesticides that are used within US borders. Many people attribute the high rate of chemical pesticide usage in the US to the rise of corporate farming and large scale agricultural businesses in the farming industry, but it may surprise you to learn that home gardeners use non-organic pesticides more than anyone else.
There are many organic alternatives that you can put into practice to avoid using chemical pesticides in the future. Organic approaches to pesticides include choosing pest-resistant plants, using netting to cut down on garden pest damage, and hand-picking harmful insects off of garden plants instead of using sprays. Organic gardeners can also allow beneficial insects into the garden to aid in alleviating pest problems.
Though non-organic methods are still considered to be a quicker and easier approach to controlling insects, they come with their own set of downsides as well. Using chemicals can be very costly to both a gardeners wallet and to the environment. Not only is the environment at large affected by chemical pollution, the home gardener’s garden ecosystem is also at risk, as chemicals can be harmful to beneficial bugs and wildlife, as well as to pets.
Organic approaches to fertilizers have proven to be a better option when it comes to consumables, such as fruits, herbs, and vegetables, as it provides the best flavor and it offers a healthier option to people (and wildlife) consuming them. It is no surprise to learn that modern gardeners are for more likely to use organic fertilizers on consumables than they are on ornamental plants.
Ornamental gardening, on the other hand, can benefit greatly from non-organic methods of fertilization, as conventional synthetic fertilizers offer the strongest concentration of beneficial nutrients in the quickest amount of time, providing an opportunity for optimal growth and blooming. Non-organic fertilizers are generally sprayed directly onto plants or added to the soil. Unfortunately, some of these fertilizers do have a negative impact on local wildlife.
Mulch is another product that has both organic and non-organic options. Which is better, again, is something that should be left up to the individual gardener, and should be based on individual needs, such as maintenance issues, personal preference, and the overall purpose of what they need out of their mulch.
Organic mulch is the common choice for the gardeners of the world who enjoy getting their hands dirty during their work outdoors, as organic mulches vary from pine needles and wood chips to shredded bark and composted leaves, all of which break down and eventually decompose back into the soil, enriching it and improving its composition in the process.
Organic mulch improves water retention in the soil and allows water to more easily absorb into the ground beneath the mulch layer. If you use recycled organic mulch layer for your garden landscape, like pine needles and/or shredded leaves, you can be proud of the fact that your approach is not only saving you money, but it is more environmentally friendly than non-organic choices.
On the downside, organic mulches do tend to lose their luster after a few growing seasons, appearing dull after some time in the sun. If you are looking to add color to your landscape when selecting a mulch, organic options do not offer a lot of variety, whereas non-organic forms of mulch, such as rocks, plastic, pebbles, or shredded rubber, come in a wide range of color options that can help spruce up your outdoor decor.
Non-organic mulch is also a much more permanent solution, as the products used generally do not deteriorate over time, and usually never require any replacement. Non-organic mulch like stones can work wonders to enhance certain garden styles and create unique visual interests in garden beds and pathways. Stones, rocks, and pebbles are available in a wide range of colors and textures that offer so many choices that can complement nearly any style of decor.
Rubber mulches share the advantages of stones, rocks, and pebbles, but also have added benefits such as being permeable to water, unappealing to many types of insects, and perfect for areas where children are at play, as it provides a softer, more cushioned base to help minimize injury from falls.
Non-organic mulch has its downsides too, as one would expect. Stones and rocks create more heat which is drawn towards garden plants, and the soil they reside in, which increases the need for water, and requires more rain or manual irrigation. Unless you install plastic or mesh landscaping fabric, weeds are another factor to consider, as manual weeding can end up adding a lot of extra work in the garden.
Which Method is Right for You?
From the time organic marketing hit the gardening scene, a fierce debate has been ongoing about the advantages and disadvantages of organic gardening, with a wide range of support from champions on both sides of the argument. This article is not meant to take sides, but to lay out some of the facts available so that readers can make their own decisions in an informed manner. At the end of the day, it is up to each individual gardener to decide whether to grow, buy, and even eat organically.
The word organic has different meanings when connected with different gardening tasks. For seeds and plants specifically, organic means that they are grown without synthetic fertilization, genetic engineering, irradiation, or chemically based pesticides. Organic produce comes only from this type of cultivation. Organic meats come from animals that have only been exposed to organic plants, have only consumed organic food, and have not been treated with drugs that have synthetic ingredients, such as growth hormones and antibiotics.
Does organic mean better? Though gut instinct leads us to say yes, research in the field is more inconclusive than you might think. Recent studies have shown that organic food does not have any correlation to advantages in taste or nutrition. Organic produce is shown to have 30% less residue from pesticides than non-organic produce, but both are well within legally allowable limitations.
Environmental impact is one of the most persuasive arguments for an increase in organic growing practices, as concern rises about chemical and pharmaceutical runoff. Organic farms and gardens are generally more environmentally stable, and tend to practice better environmentally friendly gardening methods, such as crop rotation and planting cover crops to improve the soil. However, at the end of the day, it’s in your hands as to whether you choose to follow an organic or non-organic gardening practice, and it’s up to you to decide if growing, buying, and consuming organically is a good fit for you and your family.
There is also no strict rules saying that you should have to go 100% organic or 100% conventional in your garden, so use the methods that work best for you, and make the most sense for your priorities. You might decide to compost but still choose to spray for pests. Or you may choose to deter pests using natural means but still want to fertilize your plants with a synthetic mixture. There is no right or wrong way to go about gardening, so don’t feel like you have to agree with one side in totality. Either way, gardening is a wonderful hobby that will help connect you with nature and allow you an opportunity to create and nurture plant life right in your own backyard.
Common Questions and Answers About Organic Versus Not Organic
Can you buy organic soil?
You can purchase organic soil from garden centers and nurseries or make your own organic soil blend. Although some sources claim organic soil is hard to find, The Home Depot’s website states, “we carry tons of organic soil at The Home Depot.” When purchasing organic soil, look for “OMRI listed” on the label so you know the soil is approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Homemade organic soil can be made of a blend of one part mature compost, one part topsoil, and one part sand.
Can you make a non-organic plant organic?
When certified organic perennial plants are not available, farms may be able to use non-organic plants in organic farming as long as they have not been treated with prohibited substances. Annual plants must be from certified organic planting stock to be used in organic farming.
Can you use Miracle-Gro in an organic garden?
Miracle-Gro has a line of products called “Miracle-Gro Performance Organics” that are OMRI listed as organic. OMRI listed products are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute.
Does Home Depot have organic plants?
Home Depot carries organic soil, seeds, plants, and fertilizer as well as organic plant care treatments.
How are organic plants grown?
Plants and other products that are certified as organic are grown without prohibited materials, which include antibiotics, genetically engineered materials, irradiated materials, sewage sludge, synthetic hormones, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and toxic or persistent pesticides. Instead, organic gardens depend on cover crops, crop rotation, mechanical control, mulching, and weeding by hand. Land where organic plants are grown must have been cultivated without using prohibited materials for at least three years. Organic farmers use organic operating farm plants that are approved by their certifying agents and are subject to yearly inspections.
How do you fertilize an organic garden?
Lots of fertilization methods are available that fit into organic gardening practices. These include compost, fertilizer tea/compost tea, dry fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, growth enhancers, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, corn gluten meal, rock phosphate, cow manure, chicken or poultry manure, earthworm castings, greensand, soybean meal, blood meal, bone meal, feather meal, seabird guano, bat guano, fish meal, fish emulsion, shellfish fertilizer or shell meal, liquid kelp fertilizer, seaweed, and grass clippings. Look for products that are labeled OMRI listed or use methods you’ve cultivated yourself using organic gardening practices.
How do you make organic garden soil?
You can make your own organic garden soil by mixing one part mature compost, one part topsoil, and one part sand. The resulting soil will be organic if each component is created under organic conditions or is a commercial organic product.
Is Miracle-Gro organic?
Not all of Miracle-Gro’s products are organic, but the products that are “Miracle-Gro Performance Organics” are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute and are suitable for use in organic gardening and farming.
What are the three major types of organic fertilizers?
The three general categories of organic fertilizer include dry, liquid, and growth enhancers. Dry fertilizers are mixed into soil and take time to break down, so they are used on a long-term scale. Liquid fertilizers have more immediately accessible nutrition as nutrients are available in liquid form. Growth enhancers such as kelp help plants to absorb the nutrition that is already available in their soil.
What are types of organic manure?
The general types of organic manure include cover crop manure (also known as green manure), animal manure, mineral manure, and composting. Cover crop manure takes advantage of the benefits of growing a crop over the gardening land during the off-season. Animal manure utilizes the nutrients present in animal waste (such as cow and chicken manure). Mineral manures take longer to break down and release their nutrients, and these include Epsom salt, greensand, gypsum, hard-rock phosphate, soft-rock phosphate, and limestone. Composting allows gardeners to create their own fertilizer by decomposing different waste products from their everyday life.
What is meant by organic gardening?
Organic gardening is the cultivation of plants without materials prohibited by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which can include antibiotics, genetically engineered materials, irradiated materials, sewage sludge, synthetic hormones, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and toxic or persistent pesticides. Organic gardens instead use traditional farming methods, such as cover crops, crop rotation, mechanical control, mulching, and weeding by hand. The land used in organic gardening must have been free of treatment with prohibited materials for at least three years in order for plants grown on that land to be considered organic.
What is the use of organic manure?
Like inorganic manure, organic manure improves the fertility of soil it’s applied to and raises the amount of organic matter in soil while providing micronutrients and other nutrients plants need. Choosing organic manure allows farmers and gardeners to achieve these goals while using a product that meets the conditions for organic farming.
When should I use organic fertilizer?
Organic fertilizers should be added to soil a few months before planting for the next growing season, as they take time to break down and make their nutrients available for plants. However, these nutrients are immediately available in liquid organic fertilizers, which can be used at planting time or throughout the growing season.
Want to learn more about organic versus non-organic gardening?
Tamil Nadu Agricultural University covers Manures
Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Start an Organic Vegetable Garden
Capital Gardens covers The Differences Between Organic, Non-Organic and Sustainable Gardening
Conserve Energy Future covers What is Organic Gardening?
www.cs.mcgill.com covers Fertilizer
dengarden covers Organic vs. Non-Organic Soil
eOrganic covers Managing Manure Fertilizers in Organic Systems
Epic Fertilizers covers 21+ Organic Fertilizers and How To Use Them In Your Garden
Fifth Season Gardening covers Organic vs. Non-Organic Approaches
National Gardening Association covers Edible Landscaping – Using Organic Fertilizers
Home Depot covers 5 Ways to Fertilize Your Organic Garden
Gardener’s Supply Company covers Building Healthy Soil
Gardening Channel covers Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming
Garden Myths covers Epsom Salt for Plants
Garden Myths covers Why to Buy Organic Seeds
Grow Organic covers Non-GMO and Organic Seeds
Help Guide covers Organic Foods: What You Need to Know
Home Depot covers Organic Gardening
SFGate Homeguides covers Organic Soil
House Beautiful covers Why eco-gardening is one of this year’s most significant trends
Joy Us Gardening covers Best Tips On Organic Vegetable Gardening
Rice Knowledge Bank covers Using Organic Materials and Manures
Lifegate covers Organic Farming is More Profitable than Traditional Agriculture
Miracle Gro covers How to Grow Organic Garden
Miracle Gro covers Myths About Organic Gardening
Off the Grid News covers 4 Types Of Organic Manure To Improve Your Garden Soil
Organic Farming Research Foundation covers FAQ About Organic Farming
ORSER covers What is Organic Farming?
Organic Trade Association covers How is Organic Food Grown?
Planet Natural covers Preparing Garden Soil
Plant Care Today covers 5 Best Homemade Tomato Fertilizer Options
Safer Brand covers Why Choose Organic Gardening
SparkPeople cover Which is Better: Organic or Conventional Gardening?
Urban Organic Gardener covers Is Miracle Gro Organic? Who Cares?
Veggie Gardener covers The Best Organic Fertilizers for a Vegetable Garden