Organic Gardening Defined

By Barbara Perry Lawton

Organic GardeningA big garden trend in recent years is organic gardening. Yet the term organic gardening covers a wide range of practices. The most restrictive definition comes from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which implemented a National Organic Program in 2002.

The aim of the program is to provide consumer assurance as it supports organic farmers and processors. The steps required to become a certified organic operation include following national organic standards, keeping records of practices and materials used, and having an annual inspection. A three-year transition period is required unless records prove that no prohibited substances were used in or near the production area during the previous three years.

Organic Gardening

Although they could not fulfill the USDA requirements for organic gardening certification, many gardeners are conscientiously trying to garden in what they consider safe and healthful ways. They won’t use any potentially harmful products – chemicals, preservatives, etc. – in their gardening practices. Common sense and environmental concerns are at the heart of their philosophy. They compost and use green manuring techniques. They work at improving soil texture and composition through organic soil amendments, including grass clippings, animal manures, leaves and so forth.

Natural Gardening

Natural gardening is a looser definition that is also called organic gardening by some. These gardeners have a similar basic philosophy to those in the above group but they aren’t as strict in their choices of soil amendments. They will use natural products that are basically organic even if they contain a minimum of preservatives, dyes, etc. Natural soil amendments include such materials as blood meal, bone meal, fish emulsion, kelp spray, and cottonseed meal.

Permaculture and Sustainable Gardening

These terms refer to those growers and gardeners who practice a form of organic gardening that calls for only using materials from their own farms or gardens to recycle by composting and using to improve the soil. They make compost, fertilizers and soil amendments themselves. They will not buy or get organic materials from outside or commercial sources.

Where Does That Leave Most of Us?

Most of us with strong interests in organic gardening practice a combination of things and seem to be heading more toward more strictly organic methods each year. We have learned that healthy soil produces healthy plants. We are learning to substitute compost and low-till practices for deep digging and chemical additives.

We no longer use pesticides, except in extreme cases, preferring to treat harmful insect problems with low impact solution such as sprays of cold water and hand picking. Most of us find that hand weeding and mulching now substitute successfully for herbicides. We are learning that healthy soil life – earth worms and all the many other kinds of soil life – will go far in helping produce vigorous plant life. At the same time, we are learning that excessive soil disruption and chemical fertilizers do not support and encourage healthy soil life – instead, they will destroy it.


The pluses: Organic gardening practices are less expensive and more lasting than those based upon commercial inorganic products. Gardening is good exercise and there is an exuberant satisfaction in both gardening itself and in seeing the beautiful and tasty results of gardening.

The disadvantages: At the same time, organic gardening takes more time and skill than industrialized gardening practices. Further, dedicated organic gardeners will not use genetically modified seeds that are able to resist pests, a major advantage for both farmers and gardeners.

The final disadvantage to organic gardening is that the majority of consumers do not truly understand the ramifications of organic gardening methods. They often think of organic products as more expensive. Most consumers say they would use more organic products and methods if they knew that they could get effective results for little or no additional cost.

Obviously, there is a need for better education, so take the time to explain to gardening friends why and how you use organic methods.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis MO.


Organic Gardening Defined — 2 Comments

  1. There are some disadvantages of “organic” gardening which were not covered in the above discussion. Everytime a lettuce leaf or a radish is harvested, we are removing nutrients from the soil which are required for plant growth. In our culture and in this area, those nutrients are flushed and mosstly end up in the Mississippi River headed for the Gulf of Mexico, where they contribute to the dead zone. Until the loop is closed so that all nutrients which are removed from a field or garden are returned to the same field or garden, the process is not sustainable in the long run. Composting waste does not increase the amount of any plant nutrient in the material. It only makes the nutrients which are present more readily available by pre-digesting the plant material. Additionally, nitirogen is quite often the element which limits growth in plants and animals. But, nitrogen disappears from the soil even if it is not removed by harvesting a crop. Nitrogen leaches out of the soil with movement of water. Additionally, there are microrganisms in the soil which convert “fixed” nitrogen (the form in which plants can use it) into unfixed nitrogen which returns to the air. So, to keep a plot of ground producing, nitrogen must be continually added by one means or another.

    One last point. A study which was carried out by researchers at a Canadian University followed production at “organic” farms over a period of years. They found that the crops grown “organically” produced an average of 75% of what was accomplished using conventional agriculture. With food on this palnet already being in short supply, who doesn’t get to eat if we all go “organic”?

    • Hi Bill,
      Sorry for the delayed acknowledgement of your contribution to the discussion on organic gardening. This website laid fallow for a long time as I focused on the magazine in the peak of the season. Now that I have the Nov/Dec issue behind me, I have a month to concentrate on web stuff, and am working on a redesign of this website, during which I came across your comments, which are insightful and considered. I’m not sure I agree with them, or perhaps I’m not following your argument. In the first comment on nutrients leaching into the water and contributing to the “dead zone” effect in the Gulf, I’m confident that much more of that effect is a result of synthetic chemicals leaching into the waters than nitrogen as a result of plant decomposition, which is much more slowly available and thus more likely to be taken up by plants than leached away. Furthermore, synthetic (especially water-soluble fast release) nitrogen is much more volatile and quick to be lost to the atmosphere than the more slowly released forms of organic-sourced forms. Plus one can’t discount the advantages organic matter has in encouraging microbacterial activity, buffering and improving the overall health of soils.

      As to your second point, I think some recent studies have pointed to greater production from organic methods, but I don’t have those studies at hand so can’t argue them knowledgeably. I think it is true that initial production rates from synthetics are greater than with organics, but over time the health of the soil suffers and in the long run I think organic production is more sustainable. Finally, one must take into account the use of petrochemicals and natural gas in the production of synthetics.

      I’m not a scientist and can’t argue any of the above with skill or great confidence; perhaps others out there can. In any case I appreciate your contribution to the discussion and your interest in our magazine and this website!