Designing Landscapes: The real deal, organically speaking – part 2

By James Young

This is part 2 of my article on organic gardening. You can read part 1 here.

What is organic growing?

Organic growing is about working with Nature. I don’t mean beating drums in the middle the night within a circle of candles during a solstice festival. Although, that should be done purely for entertainment value. And there’s really nothing wrong with requesting some spiritual help in these things.

However, organic really means focusing on the health of the natural system and doing no harm. Nature’s existing systems contain all we need, if we only take the time to understand them. When we grow organically, the land we work gets healthier year by year, not more barren as it does in Industrial Farming.

Organic growing is based on a deeper knowledge of the ecosystem. This includes plants, pests, animals, soil, the lay of the land, the water, the exposure to sun, the movement of air, harnessing seasonal effects, the cycle of nutrients, and the physical and biological interactions between all of these. And a little appeal now and then to a higher power doesn’t hurt one bit.

Example of the different approaches

As an example: How does the organic farmer approach weed problems differently than an Industrial farmer?

The industrial approach is pretty simple.

Industrial farming’s motto could be: “Spray Baby Spray”. (Photo by TJ Martins).

Crop sprayers are loaded up with the right mix of the appropriate chemicals and the crop is sprayed until the problem subsides.

Newer chemicals being marketed actually require spraying the ground beforehand, every time you plant, to prevent weeds from appearing. So instead of applying chemicals only when needed, chemicals are being added every time a crop is planted from the very start.

This is a great profit advantage to the chemical company but this has been scientifically proven to be bad farming policy. By always spraying before a problem arises, the constant exposure to the chemical is now creating “superweeds” resistant to the chemical.

What’s the chemical company’s solution? Why, spray even more chemicals and even more powerful concentrations of the chemical.

In an intelligent world, this would be called madness. Lucky for us we don’t live in that world. Wait. Huh?

The organic approach is more complex and multi-faceted.

An organic farmer would employ several of the following techniques to not only keep down weeds but defend against all sorts of pests and disease:

Plant good weeds. The organic grower knows that not all weeds are bad. In fact, some plants considered weeds in industrial farming are, in reality, beneficial.

The best example is probably the clovers. These legume family plants have roots that form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil. Without getting too detailed, this relationship allows unusable nitrogen to be turned into a usable form available to plants, making the soil more fertile. Also, clovers tend to be deep rooting, bringing nutrients up from lower soil strata and improving the soil structure.

An organic grower will actually plant these “weeds” among their crops intentionally after the crops have a head start of about four to five weeks. This head start results in no root competition between clover and crops, but you gain all the advantages of clover’s nitrogen fixing fertility. And to top it off, the clover protects the soil from leaching, like layer of mulch, and blocks out other less helpful weeds.

Again, we can see the organic techniques are based on a deeper knowledge of long existing natural systems.

Build healthy soil. Year after year, a good organic farmer builds healthy soil.  Building healthy soil makes for healthy pest-free plants. Plants have built-in defenses that become more effective the healthier the plant is. Healthy soil gives plants a diversity of nutrients for plants to draw upon. Getting as much organic matter as possible into the soil builds a healthy soil, emulating what nature does on her own when uninterrupted by those pesky humans.

Fertilize with natural ingredients. Organic farmers will make sure an adequate supply of macro and micro nutrients are present and available to plants. Organic fertilizers provide the nutrition a soil needs through natural materials that support soil micro-organisms and break down and deliver their ingredients more gradually than chemical fertilizers.

Some people say there is no difference between the basic nutrients you get from organic fertilizers vs. industrial. Nitrogen (N) is nitrogen, phosphorus (P) is phosphorus, and potassium (K) is potassium. Same goes for elemental micronutrients.

While it’s true the basic elemental nutrients are the same, the method of delivery and the source of material makes all the difference. Organic fertilizers complete a natural microbial cycle of nutrients and cause no harm to the system.

For example the nitrogen in organic can come from composted animal waste, composted plant parts, food material, blood meals, nitrogen fixing plants and “green manure” crops. When these are applied to the soil, it is already part of the natural process. Nature takes care of the rest.

On the other hand, industrial fertilizers most often come from imported petroleum and they come in a very concentrated form. Their method of delivery creates salty soil because of this unnatural purity and concentration. The plants can’t take up all the nutrients and their roots will even burn when in direct or near direct contact with the ‘salt’. The saltiness also kills off much microbial activity which is essential to natural soil health.

Crop rotation. By planting a different crop every time on a particular plot of land, or letting it grow over with a green manure crop, an organic farmer introduces biodiversity into the biological system and let’s the soil heal.

It seems like it would have a minor effect but this turns out to be a critical step that has many positive benefits. Some effects include: a large reduction in the buildup of crop-specific pests in the area, increases in soil nutrition and diversity, better soil structure, reduction of weeds, and more.

Analogy: Crop rotation is like a square dance where you change partners all the time so you won’t get tired of dancing with the same clumsy partner who keeps stepping on your toes and elbowing you in the gut over and over again. OK, bad analogy.

Season extenders. Microclimate enhancers allow a farmer to grow crops out of season or grow crops from warmer climates. They can also improve plant health by buffering temperature fluctuations such as a late or early frost. Examples of extenders include:

  • Plant or fruit covers such as cloches or cold frames.
  • Row covers made of a permeable material that are held directly above the crops by hoops or wire stands.
  • Larger walk-in structures such as hoop houses or greenhouses

Crop pest barriers. The season extenders above not only adjust microclimate but can act as physical barriers to pests. Pest barriers can also be very small including:

  • Fruit barriers such as sock or bags place over fruit to protect them from pests.
  • Plant rings or sticky paper placed around anything from seedlings to tree trunks to keep insects from crawling onto the plant.

Seasonal/life cycle control. By growing a crop during a period that crop-specific pests are in a non-feeding life cycle or dormant, an organic farmer can prevent these pests from being able to feed on their crops.

First you have to understand the insect’s life cycle. Then, maybe in combination with a season extender, you can grow crops when the bugs ain’t in their heavy feeding stage (usually the larval stage). You can even grow some crops in winter when pests are completely dormant.

Analogy: It’s like avoiding drunk drivers on the roads by knowing the life cycle of the drunks, i.e., stay off the roads just after closing time at the local bars.

Hand weeding. While this adds labor costs to the price of the crop, it also gives the organic farmer advantages as well.

The use of hand weeding keeps the farmer in tune, up close and personal with his crops, able to spot problems sooner. It allows him to plant tighter crop rows and plant cover crops among his main crops.

There is an advantage being down on the ground instead of riding blind 10 feet high in a crop sprayer shaded in a chemical mist.

Selection of resistant seed. Cultivation over centuries of farming to choose the best seeds that have a natural resistance to pest and disease and are adapted to the local climate is always an organic option.

Organic pest controls. Organic growing is more about creating a healthy environment rather than using controls after a pest problem has occurred.

Organic should not be thought of as just using organic versions of industrial pesticides. That is poor organic practice. Certainly there are some organic farmers that may farm this way but it is bad organic farming. Using any pesticide should only be thought of as a last resort.

This is not a complete list but illustrates how there are multiple organic techniques that can be employed in unison to confront the everyday problems that occur on the farm.

Higher price but higher value Too

The drawback of organic growing is that it is more difficult. The deeper knowledge and skill required and the use of hand labor increases the price. And because of the difficulty, sometimes there are some poorly grown organic produce out there, too. I’ve bought bags of “organic” apples, taking them home to discover I actually bought a bag of brightly colored balls of mush. I’m not saying it’s rainbows and sunshine all the time.

Knowing who the farmer is begins to mean something again with organic food because talent, skill, knowledge and development time of the farm itself will result in a better product. Organic farms keep getting better and better over time when well farmed.

Organic food costs more but it has more value than Industrial food. Most people get hung up on price alone. It’s a national obsession. I say stop! Drop it! Sit! Price is not the most important factor, it’s “Value.” It’s what you get for your money, not just the amount you spend. Good boy!

Besides, in the space of a half-hour TV news program I might hear a story of how organic food is too costly for ordinary people followed by a story on the obesity epidemic across America. Let’s put 2 and 2 together; and I don’t mean a 2-pound burger with 2 pounds of fries. Most people can stand to buy better food and just eat less. Seriously.

Americans can also stand to buy better quality in times of recession because in this case it’s healthier and saves on long-term costs. Quality, like that old advertising slogan, really should be Number 1.

Studies show organic is better for you (Photo by the UW Farm)

For example, you can see an organic strawberry is about twice as infused in red color as its industrial counterparts. This indicates more healthy anthocyanins, a group of natural flavanoid compounds that give color to plants and act as healthy anti-oxidants when ingested. They are a sort of visual indicator as to the healthy quality of your food.

If you’re unsure, perform this test:

Buy a locally grown organic strawberry vs. any non-organic strawberry. Cut them in half and see how far the red color goes to the center. The one with more color has more anthocyanins in it. I’ve seen organic strawberries where the red goes to the center but never in an industrial strawberry.

Then, do a taste test and decide for yourself which is better. Then, consider the industrial strawberry most likely has been sprayed by methyl iodide of which there have been no long-term health studies performed on this chemical, yet approved anyway due to the strong arm influence of industrial farming.

The delicious flavor of organic can’t be denied. It’s not a mistake that great restaurants seek out organic produce. It’s not about being fancy or bourgeois. (Whatever that means. I think it means wearing a very fancy, large pair of pants… like MC Hammer is so bourgeois.) No, it’s about getting more for your money.

With industrial food I get pesticide residue and bland food. I open the gate to future cancers and other health issues. Recent studies show pesticides make children dumb, literally. They might even start to use the word ‘literally’ when they mean ‘figuratively’. I’ve seen it happen. This is not a schooling problem, it’s a chemical problem. Just say no.

Birth defects can be traced to a number of farm chemicals. Cases of autism and ADHD are skyrocketing and many suspect a chemical cause. The persistence of modern chemicals finds them ending up in our aquifers and streams. Studies show pesticides showing up in children’s urine in 100 percent of random samples. The same studies also show children whose parents feed them organic food have significantly lower amounts of pesticides. The list goes on.

I hope I opened the door further to the true advantages of organic. It’s not just about the produce we buy from the store but the way we treat the earth and future generations.

We can apply the same techniques to our home gardens, too. Next article, I will focus on organic methods you can use at home.

In the meantime, buy organic and buy local.

James Young

James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscaping in Edmonds.


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