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What is organic gardening?

by Alan Gould

(originally published on www.nugget.demon.co.uk)

Main Sections are:


PART I - Background

PART II - How it is done


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.

Part I - Background


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.


Similarities and differences of standards:
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 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 recommended'.
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 fed.
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.


Garden Organic
[formerly Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA)]
Ryton Organic Gardens
Coventry CV8 3LG
Tel: 024 7630 3517
Fax: 024 7663 9229
e-mail: enquiry@gardenorganic.org.uk
Website: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk
[Garden Organic issues factsheets about all aspects of organic gardening]
The Soil Association
South Plaza
Marlborough Street
Bristol BS1 3NX
Tel: 0117 314 5000
Fax: 0117 314 5001
Website: http://www.soilassociation.org
[The Soil Association deals with many organic issues and is the leading
UKROFS recognised certification body]
Usenet groups:
uk.rec.gardening (URG)
Organic-L mailing list: http://metalab.unc.edu/london/orgfarm/net-resources/organic-l.mailing-list
Nettle Manure
Making and Using Organic Compost
Email alan@agolincs.demon.co.uk for enquiries about these FAQs.

Part II - How it is done - presented as an 'over the fence' discussion

"Why is it called organic?"

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.

"So 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 What 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 system.

"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 uses.

"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 sick.

"So an organic garden doesn't need any weedkillers, pesticides or fertilisers then?"

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.

"What 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 depletion.

"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 healthy.

"What's wrong with using chemical fertilisers, insecticides and weed- killers, gardeners have always done that, and it's so much easier and quicker"

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.

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