Why Garden Organically?

The reasons for being an organic gardener are many: concern for the environment, desire for self-sufficiency, and the joy of eating fresh food, to name a few. For me, gardening organically over the last twenty years has been both a cost issue and a nutritional choice. Organic, versus conventional, fruits and vegetables are less expensive to produce in the home garden, and they provide better nutrition.

1. First, let’s take a quick look at the price of using chemicals in a garden. With price, there are the obvious, monetary costs: $10 per gallon for all-purpose fertilizer, $156 per gallon for broad spectrum herbicide, $40 per half gallon of fungicide, $20 to $100 for a hand-held sprayer (prices are approximate and were obtained from a national retailer of garden and home products). Chemical costs can definitely add up over the years. Is the cost worth paying? I think not.

Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West (Fulcrum, $24.95, ISBN: 978-1-55591-725-8) by Jane Shellenberger (publisher and editor of Colorado Gardener) makes this interesting point: “Two world wars, plus the Korean and Vietnam wars, provided not only many of the chemicals adapted and marketed for postwar agricultural use, but also the mindset necessary to convince farmers and the public that we needed to do battle to overcome nature and her ‘pests,’ at every turn employing a chemical arsenal.” I definitely do not want chemicals in my garden that were originally designed to kill people, no matter what the agricultural adaptation has been.

In addition to the monetary costs, chemicals exact a very high price from the soil and its myriad organisms. Each teaspoon of soil holds hundreds if not thousands of living creatures, including microscopic worms, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi, such as the water bear (below): “Water bears are named for their slow-faited walk. Also known as tardigrades, these microbial extremophiles can survive a range of temperatures from near absolute zero to 304 degrees, plus 1,000 times more radiation than other animals.” (Organic Gardener’s Companion, p. 30).

When a gardener uses chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers, they may solve a garden problem, but the short-term solution destroys the biodiversity of plants and animals that make a self-sustaining garden possible. Soil and its creatures, weeds, and desirable plants create a biodynamic system in every garden. While occasionally the system can become unbalanced, resulting in a garden problem, an overabundance of dandelions is far better than a chemically burned yard full of “dead” soil.

2. Another reason to grow vegetables and fruits organically is that they’ll provide you with more nutrition than conventionally grown food. For years I didn’t have the scientific verification to prove the better nutritional value in organically grown versus conventionally grown vegetables. Then, on February 13, 2009, Science News published an article by Janet Raloff titled “AAAS: Stress Can Make Plants More Nutritious.” In the article, Alyson Mitchell of UC–Davis “compared identical cultivators grown on certified organic plots versus those where standard fertilizers and pesticides were being applied. And as a rule, organics far surpassed their conventionally grown kin for vitamins and beneficial micronutrients, such as antioxidant flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol.” Mitchell found that the extra stress that organically grown plants experience causes their “defensive secondary metabolites” to kick into action in order to fight off pests. These secondary metabolites are also the mechanism that plants use to produce “phenolic acids, flavonoids, alkaloids, and terpenoids”—these natural plant pesticides and sunscreens function as important micronutrients and vitamins for humans. “And one potential bonus: Better taste. Some of the secondary plant metabolites break down into flavor compounds.”

So, next time you’re gardening and see a moth nibbling on your cabbage, forgo spraying pesticide and remember, those little holes indicate a higher vitamin content! For additional information on organic gardening, I suggest you visit your local library and look for a copy of Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West by Jane Shellenberger. Copies are also available from the bookseller of your choice or at www.fulcrumbooks.com.

Posted by Ingrid Estell, veteran gardener and Special Sales Manager at Fulcrum