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Gardening Columns

What It Means to Grow Organically

First published on on April 9, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

Someone asked me the other day if the requirements for growing organically are different for home gardeners than for commercial growers. And a while back, I heard a natural foods' store clerk tell a customer that "organic means it hasn't been sprayed with pesticides." These got me to thinking that despite all the interest in organics, people aren't clear on exactly what the term means. 

First, let me address the two comments I mentioned. First, there aren't any "regulations" for growing organically in your home garden. However, if you want to sell produce described as organic, then you must follow the rules set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP), as outlined in a 500+-page document. These rules include steps to nurture soil and protect the environment, as well as regulations on what can and can't be sprayed on crops. And this brings me to the second comment, which is false: Farmers DO spray pesticides on organic crops, but they use materials that have been approved for organic growing. 

You could say that the "organic movement" originated back in the mid 1900s, when synthetic pesticides and fertilizers became readily available to farmers. Before that, crops were grown organically but no one called it that. The organic movement remained relatively small and community-based until large agribusinesses discovered that consumers were willing to pay a premium price for foods labeled as organic. However, there weren't any regulations governing the word (just as there aren't now for "all-natural"). So in 1990 the US Department of Agriculture stepped in and collaborated with organic farmers to create a set of standards for USDA-certified organic production. These standards continue to evolve.

Because a good part of the rules describe what can and can't be applied to fields and crops, the nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) was formed to evaluate products to determine if they are acceptable under NOP rules. If you see "OMRI-listed" on a product label, you can be confident that it's been approved for organic growing. 

But the essence of organic gardening goes beyond what to spray. Organic gardeners and farmers also take steps to:

-- nurture the soil ecosystem.
-- encourage a diverse above-ground ecosystems.
-- use pesticides only as a last resort, instead trying to manage pests with cultural controls like crop rotation and pruning, and techniques like barriers and traps. 
-- take special care to protect pollinating insects, upon which so many of our food crops rely.
-- conserve water.
-- minimize all forms of pollution.
-- recycle nutrients by composting.

For more information on organic gardening, check out newly published 2nd edition ofOrganic Gardening for Dummies (Wiley, 2009), which I recently revised and updated.



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