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Organic gardening more than avoiding pesticides

One of the most common questions we receive at the Extension Office is for information on organic gardening. Many gardeners are confused as to what this type of gardening is.

Organic gardening is centered on the view that the garden, the surrounding landscape and the organisms they contain are part of an overall system in balance. Organic gardeners combine methods and strategies based on those views to produce healthy plants.

It's generally more labor-intensive than traditional gardening. It requires more thought and planning, and more knowledge of the ecological relationships between soil, plants and animal organisms associated with the garden.

Organic gardening is not a method of pest control, nor is it gardening without the use of pesticides. Organic gardeners use natural fertilizers and mineral amendments to improve soil fertility.

The key to being successful at organic gardening is to improve the soil with organic matter, which feeds the plants, rather than using inorganic fertilizer as in conventional production.

Organic matter in soil is important because it breaks down and releases nutrients that crops can use, and it helps the soil to hold more water and nutrients.

An excellent source of organic material for your garden is compost. All organic kitchen and garden waste can be composted, except for animal products, which can attract vermin, flies and scavenging animals.

Most soils can be improved and made productive with some planning and work. Natural fertilizers and mineral amendments are used to improve soil fertility. You should have the soil tested through the Extension Office to determine its nutrient levels.

Not all vegetables do well in all locations. Those commonly grown in your area are your best bet for success.

Also, look for plant varieties that are resistant to diseases and insects. Choose plants labeled the letters VFN - meaning they're resistant to fusarium and verticillium fungal diseases as well as nematodes, a microscopic worm.

Insect control begins with healthy plants. Buy insect- and disease-free plants. Timing is also important. Some insect pests tend to increase as the season progresses.

Planting early can avoid many insect problems. Encourage beneficial insects, such as lady beetles, lacewings and certain species of wasps, to stay in your garden.

Gardeners can choose from several types of organic pesticides, including botanicals, microbial pesticides and minerals.

Botanicals are plant-derived materials such as rotenone, pyrethrum and Neem products. Microbial pesticides are formulated from microorganisms or their by-products. Minerals such as sulfur and copper are the primary organic fungicides and bactericides used to prevent disease.

But remember to use caution when using organic or natural pesticides. Just because a pesticide is organic, or natural, does not mean that it is not toxic.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.