Almost 40 years ago now, a co-worker explained to me how he had grown strawberries successfully and continuously in the same bed for 17 years. That was very different from the two-year system that I knew about, so I was curious. It turned out he was growing strawberries organically, and was using a light layer of wood chips to cover the beds. I tried his system, it worked, and I began following organic gardening practices. It took until the last few years for me to fully understand why his system for strawberries was so successful. In short, the organic system was keeping the soil system biologically healthy and the wood chips favored the correct balance between beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi that are ideal for strawberries. I use this example to demonstrate that change often only comes after we see results for ourselves. Taking that first step is often the hard part of making a change.
When I teach organic gardening classes, I explain the rationale for going organic in this manner. Do it for the benefit of creating a healthy, pollution-free environment, and for the benefit of growing produce that is free of toxins. Chemical pesticides are toxic. They are designed to kill and they continue to compromise human health. There are many bona-fide medical studies to support this contention. Furthermore, the organic approach leads you much more in the direction of sustainable production. In fact, the history lesson from chemical farming in this country is that we have depleted organic matter and minerals in our soils, and allowed most of the top soil to wash or blow away.
It is not more difficult or risky to garden organically. Given that you understand and follow the common organic principles and practices, growing vegetables organically is not more difficult. It may take a few years to make the complete conversion, but with a little patience, you will be rewarded for your efforts. In short, you need to adopt the philosophy and work in harmony with the Laws of Nature, and relinquish the "control nature" attitude (management with arrogance, I call it). Your focus becomes building a healthy soil, which produces healthy plants, produce, and consumers.
It is not more expensive to garden organically. Gardening costs will depend on the organic matter and mineral content level that you have in your soil. For the first few years, you may have more costs as you concentrate on building up the soil. It's important to think about costs in relation to value received, not just the pounds and bushels of produce. Agriculture consultant and medical doctor, Dr. Arden Anderson, puts it this way, "With chemically grown produce, your first grocery bill installment is at the supermarket. Your second installment is at the medical Doctor's office. "
How about organic yields? Just as in any type of farming or gardening, the yield and quality of produce in organics depends on the management practices and the skill and diligence of the grower. There are many organic approaches, and the minimum approach to qualify for "organics" is rarely adequate to get the highest yield and quality. That is why I insist on "Organic Gardening and More." My approach is to concentrate on keeping the soil biologically healthy and getting the minerals to proper levels and proper ratios. The application of compost plays a major role in developing the potential in the soil. My garden plot is roughly 1500 square feet, and last year my production was right at 1500 pounds. I get about 100 pounds of tomatoes per plant, and have had as much as 150 pounds. I regularly monitor nutrient density (Brix readings) of my produce and, as a rule; they exceed that of store bought produce.
Special equipment is not needed. I have been using raised beds, without sideboards, and have no problems. The beds drain quickly and warm up a little faster in the spring. I double-dug my garden the first year, and incorporated organic matter into the lower soil layers. That has paid off in increased water holding capacity of the soil and increased production. I have never used a roto-tiller, which is hard on soil structure and beneficial fungi. Those who visit my garden see the deep, mellow, crumbly soil that has never been tilled. I believe strongly in keeping a crop, mulch, or cover crop on the soil at all times. It is the primary factor in promoting a biologically active and healthy soil.
Crop rotation is important, but difficult to manage when growing 25 different kinds of vegetables each year. I try to move things around, avoiding tomatoes and corn (heavy feeders) in the same place each year. I use a few companion plants in the garden, and if soil conditions are right, I use the energy cycles of the cosmos (moon signs) to guide planting dates.
The organic movement is the fastest growing segment in world-wide agriculture today. It is also a growing segment in USDA, with 100 scientists currently involved in research. In 2003, there were about 9,000 acres of cropland in organics in Arkansas. Though relatively small, it is good to see an organic horticulture program at the University of Arkansas, with Professors Dr. Curt Rom and Dr. Donn Johnson leading the research effort. The University student Organic Farm group has started vegetable gardens on the University Farm, and they sell at the Fayetteville Farmers Market.
My Organic Gardening Course is an all-day session (or more). The goal of the course is to help people make a smooth transition into organics, with emphasis on growing nutrient dense produce. Topics covered in the course include sustainability concepts, soils, fertilizers, composting, watering, timing, variety selection, cover crops, and many tips to make gardening effective, easy, and efficient. There are many good references on organic gardening. You can start by getting on the web and/or contacting me if you have questions. I will be doing a Garden Tour at my place on June 7 and all are welcome. See my web site for details. For Master Gardeners out of the area, let me know if I can be of assistance as you deal with organic programs and training.
Just as in farming, there are options for the approach you use in gardening. I encourage all gardeners to take a leap of faith and get on board in sustainable gardening using the organic methods. The long-term benefits include healthier produce, a healthier environment, and peace of mind that you are a part of the solution to the world's soil pollution problems. In the end, it all adds up to being responsible stewards for our home, our Planet Earth!