DALY: Separating fact from fiction in organic gardening

Timothy Daly

Timothy Daly

Organic gardening has become quite popular among many gardeners; however, a considerable amount of confusion exists on exactly what it is and what it is not. Basically, organic gardening is utilizing a combination of methods and strategies to produce healthy plants. It requires a thorough understanding of the ecological relationships among soil, plants, and other organisms in the garden. Contrary to popular belief, organic gardening is neither a method of pest control nor is it avoiding the use of all chemical pesticides.

A long-term outlook with respect to soil preparation is required when gardening organically. The development of healthy fertile soil will help provide the plants with the necessary nutrients. Organic gardeners use natural organic fertilizers and mineral amendments to improve the overall quality and fertility of the soil. Most synthetic fertilizers provide nutrients that are immediately available to the plant. However, they do not contribute to the overall health and long term fertility of the soil. Organic matter in the soil is important because it breaks down and releases nutrients for the plants to utilize. It also improves the soil's water and nutrient-holding capacity as well as providing a habitat for beneficial microorganisms. Organic matter in the soil can be increased by the addition of manure, topsoil, peat moss, compost, and other suitable materials.

Pest control begins by purchasing healthy plants that are free of insects, diseases, and are of good quality. Encourage beneficial insects, such as lady beetles, lacewings, and certain species of wasps to stay in your garden. Certain herbaceous plants, such as dill, wild mustards, yarrow, and others provide shelter and food for these beneficial organisms. They should be planted among your vegetables.

Choose a plant that has varieties with known resistance to diseases and insects as a method to reduce pests. For example, some varieties of tomatoes have been bred to have resistance to certain fungal diseases.

Remove and dispose of plant material, such as leaves, branches and fruit, that has fallen to the ground. Reduce the incidence of disease by keeping the leaves and stems of the plants as dry as possible. Use drip irrigation rather than watering overhead to reduce the amount of time plants remain wet and also to conserve water.

There are several organic pesticides available. Botanicals, such as rotenone, pyrethrum, and neem oil products, are plant-derived materials. Microbial pesticides that control certain insect pests are formulated from microorganisms or their by-products. An example is Dipel, which contains a species of bacteria that target certain caterpillar pests. Minerals, such as sulfur and copper, are the primary organic materials used to control fungal and bacterial diseases. Always remember that even if a product is considered to be organic, it is still a pesticide. Exercise caution when using these products. Some organic pesticides are as toxic as or even more so than many synthetic chemical pesticides. Organic gardening has both its positives and negatives. Understanding the basics of this practice and what it involves will help you succeed in having healthy, productive plants.

If you are interested in learning more on this subject, Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension will have a class on organic gardening at 7 p.m. on June 27 at the Shoal Creek Filter Plant, 1755 Buford Dam Road, Buford GA 30518. The class is free but preregistration is required by Tuesday. To register, call the Extension office.

Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.