Many of us identify as organic gardeners and say we garden organically, but what does this mean? It may not be easy to define the term but having a basic organic ethos or personal philosophy about gardening can help steer every garden decision we make.
Healthy soil is an essential part of organic gardening. Perhaps no-dig gardening is right for you.
What is Organic Gardening?
Do you consider yourself an organic gardener or someone who aims to grow that way? Me too! But what do we mean by “organic gardening”?
Just for fun, before you continue reading, jot down your own definition. Then read to the end and see if your definition survives.
Some people describe organic gardening as chemical-free, perhaps avoiding things like pesticides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers.
But the problem is, everything is a chemical. Nutrients are chemicals. Photosynthesis is all about chemicals and chemical energy. So, we’re not going to get very far trying to garden without chemicals. By the chemical-free definition, not only would we avoid herbacides, pesticides, and fertilizers, but compost, water, and more!
What if we say gardening organically means avoiding synthetic or man-made pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? Some might immediately think of glyphosate or neonicotinoids and feel that definition gets closer.
But what about something like neem oil? It’s considered an organic pesticide and comes from a natural source—the neem tree. But it’s not like you just go collect neem oil from the tree. It requires extraction, processing, and formulation or mixing with other ingredients. So neem oil has a natural source, but it’s definitely man-made.
And, even though it is “natural” or “organic,” along with the pests, neem oil will kill butterflies and some bees and other beneficial insects in our garden. So, natural is not necessarily always good or desirable and the distinction between natural and synthetic or man-made can be blurry.
Besides neem, there are worse natural substances that would also qualify as organic. Nicotine is currently banned as a commercial pesticide in many places, but it was used by farmers for centuries. Neonicotinoids were actually developed as a safer, synthetic improvement to nicotine, which unfortunately replaced one problem with a whole other set of issues.
Some plants have developed their own nasty, toxic tools to use against pests, competitors, and diseases. Strychnine is an example. Rotenone is another ‘organic pesticide’ once widely used but now banned in different countries because of its toxicity.
So being natural and organic is certainly not the same as being safe and does not always align with what we think of when we say we are organic gardeners.
Here’s what we have so far:
Using the term chemical-free makes no sense because everything is made of chemicals.
Narrowing it down to things that are natural or organic doesn’t work because plenty of things derived from nature are highly toxic and harmful.
And it’s not always simple to separate natural from synthetic or man-made.
So what is this thing we call organic gardening?
Another term gaining traction is regenerative gardening, which derives from regenerative agriculture and regenerative farming.
While there is no one official definition, this is the basic idea:
Regenerative gardening practices center around soil and water health, carbon sequestering (by plants), and biodiversity as keys to viable, sustainable eco-systems within our yards and beyond.
In practice, as regenerative gardeners, we protect and replenish our soil, grow a diverse selection of plants suited to the location and climate, and avoid harmful practices like use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Organic Gardening as a Personal Philosophy
For many of us there is much more to organic gardening than a set of decrees or rules about pesticide or fertilizer choices.
It’s a philosophy or ethos—a mindset—that combines ecology and environmentalism, far beyond the borders of our individual gardens.
It’s about sustaining healthy ecosystems in the soil, water, and aboveground, where plants and microorganisms and pollinators and everything they need to survive are equally important.
It’s about taking a longer-term approach, trying to prevent problems rather than just respond to them. Maybe being less interventionist in general and more tolerant of imperfections.
But there will always be trade-offs.
Here in our garden we avoid all herbacides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, and use a lot of homemade compost. But we also buy some manure in plastic bags and who knows how that—and so many other choices we make—really fit in the greater organic vision.
With everything we use we can ask things like:
- Does this belong in a garden? Does it belong in the eco-system?
- Where was it produced? How far was it trucked?
- Are there herbacides in there?
- Is this plant non-invasive?
- Does it support local wildlife?
- What is the environmental cost from cradle to grave?
- What are the long-term effects? What else could it hurt or harm?
And weigh the consequences before making decisions. I find this really helps rule out many short-term solutions that are not beneficial in the long run.
It has also shown me that procrastination is one of the best organic garden tools of all—it’s amazing how many problems go away with time.
I don’t know if things like using bagged manure makes us less organic, but it does touch on related issues like sustainability, pollution, and waste, and these are also considerations when gardening “organically”.
As time goes on and more gardeners adopt this way of gardening, we may shift to a different term like eco-beneficial gardening or something similar just to make the goals clearer.
But for now I hope we use organic gardening as a shared compass point leading us toward sustainable, eco-beneficial garden practices that nurture life—and give us delicious, healthy food—for generations to come, even if the definition doesn’t work as a tidy sound bite.
So, how did your definition hold up?
I think I’ll be working on mine—as I garden—for years to come.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
PS: 10 Beginner Garden Tips That Avoid Bloopers (Great & Small) has more ideas for eco-beneficial gardening.