The term “organic farming” was first used in England in the early 1940s, emerging from the biodynamic movement in which a farm was perceived spiritually as a dynamic, living “whole organism.” The concept was brought to the United States in the mid 1940s and widely promoted by J.I. Rodale, founder of Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine (now Organic Gardening) and author of Pay Dirt: Farming and Gardening with Composts and How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables by the Organic Method. Rodale strongly believed in the relationship between living soil and healthy food was achieved by returning animal manures and plant debris to the system by way of composts. The United States Department of Agriculture defines organic as as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
The growing and selling of produce and products labeled “Certified Organic” is strictly monitored by the United States Department of Agriculture involving a rigorous certification process and complicity with federally mandated regulations for exclusion of non-approved crop management materials, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Many home gardeners would like to reduce synthetic chemical use around their children, pets and environment. While they won’t need to certify their backyards, home gardeners may adopt some of the recommended practices to grow flowers, vegetables, fruits and even lawns by using biological and cultural controls, composts, and organic fertilizers along with conventional methods. Some gardeners may choose to completely exclude the use of inorganic fertilizers or growth regulators to reduce dependence on non-renewable resources. Whatever the desire and intent, there are some universally applicable concepts that will help the organic gardener succeed.
Organic vegetable gardening promotes and enhances natural diversity and biological cycles. Rather than relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic gardening is based on making the garden self-sufficient and sustainable. You can ease your gardening practices into the organic arena by starting with some of the easier aspects of organic gardening, such as mechanical control of weeds and insect pests.
The first step in this transitioning a garden to organic is improving and maintaining soil fertility and quality. Healthy, fertile soils are basic to successful organic vegetable and fruit production. Management and addition of organic matter, in the form of composts, manures, green manures, and plant residues, is the most important principle to understand for maintaining soil productiveness in an organic system. Organic matter in various forms should be added to the soil annually. There are also many organic fertilizers that can be used to supplement plant nutrition, especially to meet the need for nitrogen and phosphorus. Utah State University has published an excellent organic fertilizer guide, Selecting and Using Organic Fertilizers.
Pest management is the most challenging aspect of organic gardening. Weeds can be controlled with cultivation, pulling, or smothering using mulches. Insects must be closely monitored and controlled using various mechanical methods, predator insects, baits and traps, mild soaps or directed water streams. There are several organically certified insecticides that are useful in the control of insect pests, including Bacillus thuringenisis, insecticidal soaps, rotenone, or natural pyrethrins.
Diseases are best managed through the use of resistant varieties. It is also important to purchase and plant disease-free seed to avoid introducing disease pests into the garden as well as remove and discard diseased plants, rotate annual crops to different places in the garden each year, and keep the garden area free of weeds and dead plant material that may harbor disease organisms. Some leaf-infecting fungi can be controlled using organic fungicides.
A comprehensive list of approved organic materials can be found on the Organic Materials Review Institute web site.
Organic gardening can be simple or complex, depending on the desires of the gardener. There is plenty of good information available on the topic from numerous authoritative sources. Here are some of the best:
View a simple introduction to organic gardening concepts from Mississippi State University
For information on a straightforward, but more detailed approach to organic vegetable gardening, visit this list of University of Florida publications.
For an in-depth discussion of organic soil management principles, read Producing Garden Vegetables with Organic Soil Amendments from the University of Florida.
If you wish to move beyond a cursory understanding of organic gardening practices, select from a series of publications from the University of California, Davis describing detailed organic production principles.