Much like “green” and “natural,” “organic gardening” is the new catchword for gardeners and shoppers. It means not using chemicals and fertilizers, enriching the soil with natural ingredients and using natural methods to control pests. As practiced today by successful gardeners, it combines old-fashioned farming methods with new scientific growing methods.
The term can refer to a container gardens on an apartment balcony, a backyard vegetable garden or a big farm growing fruits and vegetables for market. What makes it organic is the emphasis on chemical-free growing methods and natural pest control.
Here is an overview of where it started, what it’s like today and how you can get started.
What Is The History of Organic Gardening?
In the mists of time, when humans first started cultivating the land, all farming was organic. There were no chemicals available for use. Farmers worked with what was available to control pests and diseases because that’s all they had. That continued for millennia.
But farmers were always looking for ways to make the backbreaking work of farming easier, to ensure that pests didn’t devour their crop before harvest and to increase yields. After all, their families didn’t eat if the farm didn’t produce food.
They experimented with different types of plough designs, all pulled by farm animals. Even 2000 years ago, farmers were using pesticides like sulfur. In the 1500s, some farmers in parts of Europe used arsenic, lead and mercury to control pests, but it was limited in use. It wasn’t until the 1950s that DDT and other chemical-based pesticides became the norm.
In the late 1800s nitrogen-based fertilizer was first sold cheaply enough to become popular. These increase yields on many crops significantly. About the same time, mechanization started making an impact. The cotton gin, threshing machines, tillers and plows started a revolution in farming. Today it takes about two hours total to plant and harvest about 100 bushels of corn. But 100 years ago, it took 35 to 40 hours. That’s the impact that machinery had on farming.
Almost from the beginning of the revolution, in the early 1900s, people started speaking out against the damage they saw from nitrogen fertilizers and a more mechanized approach. Sir Albert Howard, an English botanist, wrote papers insisting that traditional farming methods were vastly superior to the new ones.
In Germany, Rudolf Steiner insisted that there was an almost mystical connection between the farmer, his land, the plants and the organisms that naturally occur in a garden. In effect, he said that the entire farm was a living, breathing organism. He is sometimes called the Father of Organic Farming.
But very little attention was paid to all this by consumers and growers until Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, wrote Silent Spring in 1962. That is considered the effective date of the organic gardening movement. It has moved ahead hand-in-hand with the environmental movement.
Since the 1980s, many groups have insisted on the need for regulating organic produce. The term now has official meaning. The United States Department of Agriculture now certifies organic food with an official label, as do many states.
Organic gardening is now considered mainstream. Consumers are willing to spend the money to buy organic, which has increased the amount of land devoted to organic farming. Backyard growers are using pesticide-free and chemical-free methods to grow their own food.
Organic Gardening, Health and the Environment
The chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that were so popular in mid-century America have been associated with a wide range of health risks, some proved, some just assumed. These include cancers, Parkinson’s disease, brain dysfunction, infertility, miscarriages and even depression.
It isn’t clear whether all of these are the result of the chemicals. But many families aren’t willing to take the risk. For that reason, they now buy organic and use natural methods to raise fruits and vegetables.
When natural pesticides and nutrient-enriching methods are used to grow food, fewer toxic chemicals flow back into the groundwater to harm the environment. In areas where natural farming methods are used, residents note that wildlife is more abundant. Bees, birds and insects that help control pests are able to thrive, which contributes to the natural cycle of healthy growing.
Specific ways that organic gardens help the environment include:
It reduces chemical runoff into soil and ground water, thereby reducing the poisoning of the environment.
Nothing is wasted. Old plants are tilled back into the soil. Compost from food scraps enriches the soil.
Plants of all types help convert carbon into oxygen, so necessary for life on the planet. But carbon is one of the greenhouse gases that is contributing to climate change. Reducing the levels of carbon slows the negative impact of these gases down.
Organic gardening makes a habitat safe for a variety of life forms, from bees to birds, butterflies to worms. This contributes to an ecosystem that is self-sustaining. Small, healthy ecosystems in backyards collectively contribute to a healthy, global ecosystem.
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How Organic Gardening Benefits You
Here is a look at five ways organic gardening benefits you and your family.
- It’s healthier
When you eat organic fruits and vegetables, you don’t have to worry about ingesting toxic chemicals from pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. If you’re raising your own, you also benefit from the exercise required to prepare, plant, weed and harvest the garden.
- It has more nutrients
Organically grown produce has more vitamin and mineral content than those grown in fields that use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. According to the Soil Association, organic food has higher levels of 21 nutrients, including Vitamin C, calcium, iron, chromium and magnesium.
- It is eco-friendly
When you buy organic, you are supporting farmers who use natural methods to produce the food. It helps prevent toxic runoff, the loss of topsoil, soil contamination, water pollution and preventing insects, birds and other wildlife from thriving.
- It tastes better
Commercially raised products from standard growing methods often have little flavor. When you eat fresh fruits and vegetables grown organically, the taste can be surprising. It is fresh, with surprising bursts of flavor.
- It saves you money
Organically raised fruits and vegetables are often more expensive in the grocery story. But the cost is coming down as more land is converted to organic production.
However, you can save substantially by growing your own. Even a small container garden can provide tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic and basil for an entire season. All you pay is the cost of the seeds and potting soil.
Impact of Technology
Growing food naturally doesn’t mean turning back the clock. Modern technology can make the arduous work of farming and even backyard growing much easier and more efficient.
For example, digital moisture meters and electronic soil testers let growers know when to water and what type of soil they have. The more information a gardener has, the better use she can make of the local growing conditions.
Currently, farmers are excited about the possibilities of solar powered monitoring. A sensor takes readings from the soil, like moisture, humidity and pH. This data is sent to the grower’s smartphone. It also triggers an automatic irrigation system, which turns it on and off in response to the reading from the sensor.
Drip irrigation systems use thin hoses, often just one-quarter inch in diameter, above the root systems of their plants. Drips of water go directly to the roots. Other systems have sprayers that send a gentle sprinkling onto the plant above ground. The computer systems that run them are able to monitor the humidity in the air and the moisture levels in the soil. This tells them with precision how much and when to water.
Even if you don’t get enough light where you live, you can still grow organically. Supplement natural light with fluorescent lights, hot bulbs or temperature-specific systems. If you use them for a small container setup, they are affordable, though advanced systems controlled by software are expensive.
Many people confuse hydroponic gardening with organic gardening. Hydroponics is high tech and popular for people to want to raise food all year round. This method doesn’t use soil. Instead, plants are bathed in a mix of liquid chemical fertilizers. With no contact to the soil, these plants can’t be considered part of the organic gardening trend. In fact, many experts consider it the exact opposite of everything that organic gardening is trying to accomplish.
Going Organic: Tips and Tricks
Are you ready to start raising your own food using organic gardening methods? It’s a three-step process: planning, setting it up and planting.
When planning, select a spot gets as much sun as possible. Seven hours is ideal. Planting in the ground allows fruits and vegetables to connect with more elements in the soil. But if you live in an apartment, don’t despair. Container gardens can grow healthy, great tasting tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers and other produce.
Experts suggest starting small. You may want to feed your family all year from your garden. That’s a good goal. But start your first year with the idea of raising two or three vegetables successfully.
Use organic seeds. There are many sources online and at local plant nurseries. If it’s late in the season, buy organic starts at your local garden center. Buy organic potting soil for your seeds. Add some to your garden soil to enrich it. You can also buy organic compost to give your garden a good start.
When setting up the garden, pick a site that has good drainage and enough sun. Decide if you want to plant right in the soil, build raised beds or use containers.
Plant your seeds and cover with soil. Water them and keep them moist. Weed when you see obvious culprits invading the garden. Enjoy watching them grow and harvest when they are ready.
Take the time to learn from experts when planning and planting your garden. Check out beginner organic gardening sites online. Rodale has a good one, as well as Mother Earth News. Both are old hands at organic gardening. It is so mainstream that even Martha Stewart offer a free tutorial.
The organic gardening trend is changing the way Americans eat. It’s a major factor in a cleaner, healthier environment. The organic food you and your family consume contributes to your overall health, so much better than ingesting toxic chemicals. When you plant an organic garden, you are a part of the healthy, self-sustaining cycle of life on the planet.
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