The purpose of this FAQ is to present the background and practice of
recreational organic gardening either by e-mail or web-page for use by anyone
who wishes to read about the subject on the Internet.
The FAQ's aim is to collate and present known principles and methods of
recreational organic gardening, not to propose new ones or conflict with those
currently accepted. Because it is not possible to fully detail all aspects of
this gardening system in one document a number of other sources of information
are provided at the foot of the first section.
Grammatical notes: Some organisations and individuals use upper case
(capital) 'O' to begin the word 'organic' where it describes the gardening
practice, others do not. This FAQ uses lower case 'o' mid-sentence in compliance
with the Chambers English Dictionary 7th. Edition definition: "...produced
without, or not involving the use of fertilisers and pesticides..."
Where the expression 'organic gardener' is used it indicates 'a gardener
carrying out organic practices'. 'Natural' for the purposes of this document
means 'not done by humans'.
This FAQ may be updated from time to time as requested, or in the light of
new information received.
AUTHOR: Alan and Joan Gould (ret'd) are lifetime organic gardeners who
currently garden two acres in North Lincolnshire. There they qualified for and
held a Soil Association Organic Grower's Certificate. They produced and marketed
a wide range of horticultural crops carrying the Soil Association Symbol for
8-10 years, working individually and in co-operation with their local Organic
Growers Group. Alan has long written and lectured about this and associated
topics and is an HDRA member.
ASSOCIATIONS; Soil Association Regulations and Standards for Organic Produce
and Henry Doubleday Research Association Guidelines for Organic Gardening (1999
reprint) form the basis of technical, biological and horticultural information
in this FAQ.
GROUP: Draft and final versions of this FAQ are subjected to public and
private scrutiny by contributors to the Internet Usenet group uk.rec.gardening
(urg). Their contributions have greatly influenced the construction of this FAQ.
Further input from any relevant source is welcome.
COMMERCIAL: Rules and standards laid down for commercial growers originate
at the European Union. The UK Government has set up the United Kingdom Register of
Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) to oversee the production of organic food.
Certification bodies who regulate and monitor production are responsible to
UKROFS. There are six UK certification bodies in all, of which the Soil
Association at Bristol is the largest and best known.
Food described as organic for purchase by the public must carry a symbol
which indicates that it has it has been produced by a certified organic grower.
The commercial organic grower is obliged by law to conform to the requirements
of the regulating authorities.
Separate standards are laid down for the organic production of livestock and
arable crops and for the importation of produce.
RECREATIONAL: Recreational gardeners are not legally bound by any rules or
standards of organic practice. This freedom of choice can lead to differing
interpretations of what is and is not organic. In general, recreational organic
standards are understood to at least match those expected of commercial growers
and are very often made more stringent by choice. Because of the very different
operational circumstances between recreational and commercial growing, gardening
practices have to be expressed in a different way, but standards of organic
practice are expected to be equally high.
Many government, commercial, voluntary and other bodies have contributed to
the organic debate, the best known being the Henry Doubleday Research
Association (HDRA) (now known as Garden Organic) who have issued a booklet called 'Guidelines for Organic
Gardening'. HDRA state that their guidelines match European Union commercial
organic standards in almost all cases. Because recreational gardeners need to
adapt the standards to their own circumstances, they are expressed in four
categories: 'Best practice'; 'Acceptable'; Qualified acceptance'; 'Not
A recreational gardener following best practice in HDRA terms, will be
operating at as high an organic standard as a commercial grower obeying EU
Rules, but will be applying organic methods in a different way.
An organic gardener aims to work with nature, not against it. In a natural
environment, all things are inter-related and inter-dependent, soil, plants,
living beings, weather and seasons. In an organic garden the equation is the
same, but with the addition of the gardener who shares the privilege of
participation in garden life.
Organic gardening involves treating soil as a resource to be husbanded, and
plants as living beings to be nurtured and respected. It recognises that natural
plants, living organisms and wildlife are part of the whole garden, and
understands the part they can play in its management. It recognises the effect
of horticulture on the general environment beyond the garden. It is conscious
that only by sustainable methods can world human population be satisfactorily
Organic gardening could be expressed as simply as "no fertilisers, sprays or
weed-killers" or it could be described as a way of life in partnership with the
planet. It depends upon the person doing it.
[formerly Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA)]
Ryton Organic Gardens
Coventry CV8 3LG Tel: 024 7630 3517 Fax: 024 7663 9229
Website: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk [Garden
factsheets about all aspects of organic gardening]
The Soil Association South Plaza
Bristol BS1 3NX Tel: 0117 314 5000 Fax: 0117 314 5001
e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.soilassociation.org [The Soil
Association deals with many organic issues and is the leading UKROFS
recognised certification body]
Organic refers to the system of gardening. It conveys the idea of working
with living organisms rather than artificial substances. Some people call it
natural or traditional gardening.
"Some call it muck and mystery gardening don't they?"
That's an easy phrase for detractors to use. Muck is a well known term for
manure which is often used in organic gardening, mystery just indicates that
gardening is not an exact science.
"What sort of gardening does it apply to, mostly vegetables?"
No, the connection with vegetables and fruit comes from seeing organic grown
food produce sold in green-groceries and supermarkets. Organic methods are
applicable to the whole of the garden, flowerbeds, trees, shrubs, lawns,
vegetables fruit and herbs.
it's a holistic approach, 100% organic or nothing?"
No, organic methods cannot be absolute. The gardener chooses to work with
nature as far as possible, but gardening does not occur in nature, so it has to
be a compromise. Each gardener takes it as far as they wish to or can do.
"Working with nature means losing control of your garden doesn't it?"
Having made the decision to carry out gardening means that some control over
natural processes has to be practised. Organic growing necessitates that those
controls will be a symbiosis with nature rather than a coercion of it. Organic
gardening is about seeking reward rather than victory, participation with nature
rather than predominance over it. It is using natural processes rather than
trying to replace them, allowing growth and development to take their natural
course rather than trying to force them by artificial means. It means
recognising that the gardener's own choices are not the only deciding factor,
and that some things happen of their own accord if allowed to.
"Too right, weeds and pests will happen whatever the gardener thinks
do you kill those off with before they ruin all the cultivated plants and turn
the place into a jungle?"
An organic gardener doesn't kill anything off if they can help it. Weeds are
natural plants growing where the gardener did not intend them to. They grow
there because they are the types best adapted to do so. Not every one of them
needs to be destroyed as an enemy or seen as an unwanted intruder. Plants are a
necessary part of soil management, without them an area of land would quickly
turn into a desert. A domestic gardener does not wish to have either a jungle or
a desert for their garden, so a balance is found where natural and cultivated
plants can live together.
In an organic garden, weeds form part of the growing plan and soil
management, but they are not allowed to smother crops, or to spoil the visual
appearance of ornamental areas. In growing areas like flower beds or vegetable
patches, natural plants often act as companions to cultivated plants. As they
grow larger the gardener will cut the green tops from them allowing the herbage
to remain on the surface as a mulch. In lawns, shrubberies and more outlying
areas, they are either cut off and left as mulch or used for composting.
Nettles, thistles and comfrey make excellent compost or liquid infusions to be
used in an organic system. In parts of the garden which are naturalised they are
left almost completely alone other than to remove seed heads from plants like
thistles etc. which may cause problems elsewhere. In a smaller garden, comfrey
may be more convenient to manage than nettles and are every bit as useful in the
"But what about the really persistent and invasive weeds like Bindweed,
Ground Elder, Mare's Tail, Japanese Knotweed and so on. They won't go away just
by hoeing and hoping."
That kind of plant is a problem in any gardening system and they are just as
resistant to chemicals as they are to organic methods. In growing areas where
they may become a nuisance, they can be kept in control by hoeing, though seldom
fully eliminated. Where they are not actually causing any harm or unsightliness,
they can either be restricted or allowed to take their place with all the other
plants. Very often, the appearance of that kind of plant in quantity is an
indication of something being wrong and of nature's healing process beginning to
work. Many of those plants are herbs which have medicinal, culinary and cosmetic
"There are still pests and diseases to be dealt with.
They need pesticides and
sprays, don't they? Are those organic?"
A well established organic garden uses no pesticides or chemical sprays. A
lot of the problems in non-organic gardens arise from trying to make plants and
soil do things they are not meant to do. An organic gardener will keep soil in
good healthy fertility and will see that all growing equipment is hygienic. Only
organic seed should be used and where there is a choice, pest and disease
resistant plants are chosen. Companion plants and plants which provide
sustenance for wildlife take the pressure off the cropping plants.
Well planned watering and air provision help to keep all the plants healthy
and happy. A lot of predators and parasites feed off each other when they are in
natural surroundings. If a plant does become sick, and seems to be incurable, an
organic gardener will pull it out and dispose of it rather than spray it.
Spraying introduces chemicals compounds and harbours resistant strains of the
disease treated. The natural order is survival of the fit and elimination of the
"So an organic garden doesn't need any weedkillers, pesticides or
It shouldn't do. Cultivated plants need management and control, they need
sufficient nutrients in the soil for healthy growth and the soil needs to be in
good order to sustain that growth. In an organic system we can make plants and
soil work together without artificial aids to provide all of those things. A
garden is an eco-biological area where life and death of flora and fauna are
taking place all the time, there is seldom any good reason to add extra killing
to that. An organic garden is a self contained unit practising regeneration and
replenishment in a sustainable system.
"When you take fruit and vegetables or other crops from the garden, or cut
trees for wood, or take turf etc. the resources used to grow them don't all go
back to the soil."
No that's right. In a mainly ornamental garden with lawns, flower beds,
herbaceous borders, shrubberies and so on, compost from expired herbage plus a
little extra from kitchen waste will maintain a balance of soil nutrients. In a
vegetable growing area, or where crops are taken, not everything is going back,
so the deficiency needs to be made up. That is often done using stable or
farmyard manures, or other acceptable organic materials.
is acceptable? There are regulations for that aren't there?"
There are no regulations for recreational gardeners, but there are recognised
organic practices. A recreational organic garden is under much less pressure to
produce crop results than a commercial one. It seldom needs much additional
resources other than the compost heap and liquid infusions from its own
resources and some well composted animal manure to make up for crop or produce
"So when you put manure on the garden, how do you know how much is needed
for each plant?"
One of the principles of organic growing is that you should feed the soil
then let the soil feed the plants. That way they take up just the amount they
need for their growth. Another organic principle is that whatever is taken out
of the soil, should be returned to it. In organic gardening that is done with
compost made largely with herbage from the garden and stable or farmyard manure
added if needed. The natural sources of fertility in soil are decaying plant and
animal matters and animal manures. An organic gardener duplicates those
nutrients by recycling compost and well-rotted manures back into the soil
"How much of it?"
There's no exact measure, manure is usually applied as a mulch spread on the
surface in wintertime. A rule of thumb is to put on a thick enough cover so that
no soil can be seen peeping through it. It works into the surface over the
winter, making the plot ready for spring cultivation.
"Is that done every year?"
It shouldn't need to be. In an organic system a vegetable area will be used
several times, cropping on a rotational system, then it is fallowed, or rested,
for a year. At that time the soil can benefit from green manuring, which is
growing plants of a different type to usual garden vegetables, then turning all
of the herbage back into the soil. If that is done and a mulch of compost added,
the soil should support several crops before needing anything else to be added.
"What is a rotational system?"
A kitchen garden will require a wide variety of crops to be grown in fairly
small quantities. If the same type of plant is grown repeatedly in the same
place, the soil will build up a resistance to it and the crop will suffer from
pests and diseases. To avoid this, the crops are rotated so that they grow in
soil fresh to them each year. The main groups of plants are the potato/tomato
family; brassicas, that's all the cabbage range; legumes, i.e. peas and beans;
roots and salad crops etc.
Ideally the plot is split into five sections and the crops rotated round
those, giving each section a rest after four years of growing. If the amount of
crop grown is less intensive, the plot could be split into four quarters, but
close attention should be paid to soil health and fertility. Companion planting
and selection of disease resistant crops can help towards keeping a busy garden
"What's wrong with using chemical fertilisers, insecticides and weed-
killers, gardeners have always done that, and it's so much easier and
It may seem easier and quicker in the short term, but it doesn't save any
time or trouble in the longer term. Those products create a dependency in the
soil, the plants, the gardening system and the gardener. There is never any real
need to use them in a recreational garden and their use on food plants means
that the produce will not be organic grown. Organically cared for soil is rich
and teeming with microscopic life which benefit plants. Artificial fertilisers,
weedkillers and pesticides disrupt this balance and natural cycles. They
eventually make life harder work for the plant and the gardener, and quite
incidentally they make gardening very costly compared to organic.
Gardeners have not always used those products. Mankind has been carrying out
cultivation and cropping for over six thousand years. It is only in the last
half-century or so that non-biological methods have seemed to be normal
gardening. Now organic gardening is showing the way forward to a better
relationship with flora, fauna and natural elements; it is enabling us to work
with the planet on which and from which we live; by those methods we can raise
healthy plants and maintain healthy soil in a sustainable system of
horticulture. We can be at one with the planet which is our source of being and
with all the species of life who share it with us.