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Re: How organic is your garden?

  • Subject: Re: [cg] How organic is your garden?
  • From: Dboek@aol.com
  • Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2001 00:39:13 EST

Hi, Jim,

You raise some good questions about 'organic' as a standard. There are a 
couple of ways to look at the issue. One is to consider the ecological and 
biological side of 'organics'. The other is to realize that the term 
'organic' (acknowledging our unquestioned debt to Organic Gardening Magazine 
and the Rodale family, who coined the phrase) is not a scientific definition, 
but part inspiring slogan and part marketing device.

>  The problem is... we extensively mulch our garden from the City of
>  Huntsville's leaf collection program.  We use 2 year old mulch to 
>  mulch our garden...Even though we use
>  organic fertilizers and pest management, the use of the mulch will disallow
>  us to state the fact that "Yes, we operate an organic garden".You see,
>  because we don't know if the collected leaves have been sprayed with any
>  toxic chemicals or the yards where they orginate have been sprayed with
>  toxic chemicals (fertilizers, weed killers, etc.), that is the problem.  
>  are either completely organic or you are not.  One or the other.

On the bio-ecological side, most of pesticides and fertilizers used in yards 
are, to the biochemist, 'organic' (carbon based). This means that the right 
microbe can break them down. In a well-run municipal composting operation 
(like Huntsville's?), leaf-based composts are probably very low in residues 
thanks to the composting critters. Even 'fresh' mulches are probably pretty 
dilute, since they are made from leaf drop. You can test the mulch and 
compost to verify this.

On the 'practical' side, some organic certification agencies allow use of 
municipal leaf composts in light of their low residue, and because this 
important soil building resource would otherwise end up in the landfill or be 
burned, both terrible decisions ecologically. See what the federal organic 
standards say, and check with your local certifiers to see what they allow. 

>  I never heard anyone say "Yes, we are 95 % organic".  Thats like someone
>  saying, "I feel that since I only smoke 1 cigarette a day, I'm 95 %
>  smoke-free".  Yeah, right!

Actually, there are 'transition' categories for farmers in the process of 
moving to 'organic' status on farms. You could make part of your garden 
'fully organic', while using leaf mulch on the rest (if the leaf mulch isn't 
acceptable as 'organic') and making that part 'sustainable/ecologically 

In my opinion, sustainability and ecological soundness are more fundamental 
than 'being certified organic'. Are you building and protecting your soil? 
Are you being very careful about how you use any concentrated form of 
nutrient or biocide, whether its origin is 'chemical' or 'organic'? Are you 
considering and strengthening the ecosystems and natural communities that 
border and interpenetrate your garden -  for example, by creating habitat and 
encouraging native plants at least along the borders of the garden? Are you 
building community with your human neighbors? Does it make sense to turn away 
a senior citizen who loves to garden, simply because she wants to slip her 
tomatoes a little 5-10-10? These are the key issues, more than seeking the 
appealing sounding label 'organic'.

Though I think using municipal leaf mulch or compost on community gardens is 
a great idea, you might want to check Elaine Ingham's work on suitability of 
different composts to different purposes, based on the 'feedstock' and 
microbial makeup of the compost. Second, do be careful if grassclippings are 
included in your municipal compost or mulch blend. Some new herbicides used 
on lawns are horribly toxic to legumes and reportedly can persist, even 
through composting, to kill off your peas and beans. 

Though it would take more effort, you could mobilize your volunteers to 
collect your own mulch by picking up bags of leaves from yards that don't 
spray, and then aging and composting them yourselves at the garden. Local 
waste-reduction programs (often sponsored by county engineering departments) 
may be delighted to help do this.

Good luck! Keep building that soil, son, you're doing good.

Don Boekelheide
Charlotte NC

>                            Best regards,  Jim Call, CASA Community Garden
>  Volunteer Director
>                                                     www.casagarden.com

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