What is organic gardening?
Organic gardening means different things to different people. All agree that it means avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But the philosophy and practice of organic gardening often goes far beyond that simple concept. Growing organic food, flowers, and landscapes represents a commitment to a sustainable system of living in harmony with nature. For many people, organic gardening is a way of life.
The way that people use – and misuse – soil, water, and air affects the lives and habitats of plants, insects, birds, fish, and animals, as well as humans. Dedicated organic gardeners adopt methods that improve soil health and fertility, decrease erosion, and reduce pests and diseases through cultural and natural biological processes. They encourage plant and animal diversity in their landscapes.
Observing your natural environment – watching the weather or noting the arrival of migrating birds and emerging insects – helps you choose the most appropriate ways to plant and nurture your vegetables, flowers, and landscape plants. When you see white butterflies fluttering around your garden, you know it’s time to protect your cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower from cabbageworm. Instead of sprinkling on a pesticide after the caterpillars hatch, you can cover the plants with special fabric to prevent the butterflies from laying eggs in the first place. That’s what organic gardening is all about: preventing and treating problems in the least obtrusive, most non-toxic ways.
Many people assume that ‘organic’ means ‘non-toxic’, but that’s not really correct. Some commonly accepted organic pesticides are just as toxic, if not more so, than some synthetic chemical pesticides. Organic pesticides are derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources. Synthetic chemical pesticides come from petroleum and other chemical sources, and that’s the main difference between the two types.
Traditional farmers worldwide have used some plant, animal, and mineral-based pesticides for centuries. Indeed, home gardeners continue to use concoctions of garlic, hot peppers, onion, and other plants and substances to discourage pests. Although organic pesticides generally have far fewer health side effects than synthetic pesticides, that’s not always the case. Nicotine, for example, although derived from a plant and used as an organic pesticide, is highly toxic to humans and many other species.
Pesticides pose another problem. Some hang around in the environment long after their job is done. Chemists measure this persistence of chemicals by their half-life, or number of days it takes for half of the original quantity to break down into its components. Sunlight, water, soil microorganism, and composition of the pesticide influence the half-life of these chemicals. Organic pesticides, and some synthetic ones, have half-lives of only a few days. Others, however, remain toxic in the environment for months or even years after the farmer or homeowner sprays or sprinkles them on a pest.
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