Principles of Organic Gardening

The Principles of Organic Gardening

Guarding and increasing the life in the soil is the first and most important principle on which the others depend. Without healthy soil teeming with life, civilisation as we know it will disappear. We are dependent on our topsoil to feed us. If it is overworked and abused it will erode away. The only way to maintain, foster and increase the fertile topsoil is by actively encouraging the multitude of organisms in the soil which convert inactive minerals and water into the building blocks of life. It is the dead bodies of all these forms of living material and the by-products they generate that build up the humus-rich, water-holding loamy soils that we all desire for the healthy plants they produce. Chemical fertilisers and over-cultivating burn off this store and destroy the very organisms that could create more — in return for extremely short-term gains.

Principles of Organic Gardening Organic gardening uses the policy of feeding the soil not the plants. We do this with organic material instead of soluble chemicals which destroy life and then uselessly run off to pollute our water. The burgeoning life in the soil utilises the organic material, minerals and moisture to produce more life. Our plants then feed on the by-products and breakdown materials to help them grow. The effect of adding organic material is cumulative – as more is introduced, it further encourages increased populations of soil flora and fauna. These larger populations then support yet more tiers and chains of life pre-dating and living off them. This, in turn, increases and raises the fertility of the soil. The plants living off this balanced diet are healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases than those living in denatured soil pumped up with cocktails of chemical fertilisers and kept going with poisonous sprays.

In order to protect this life in the soil we use no poisonous substances that can harm them except certain, mostly ‘natural’, ones as a last resort. The permitted substances are determined as safer because they are less wide-ranging in their toxicity than other chemicals and break down rapidly and naturally after use. However, it is not their ‘naturalness’ but their effect on soil life that is important. Thus nicotine – a plant product – is no longer allowed as it is too harmful to many forms of life while Bordeaux mixture, a combination of copper sulphate and lime, is allowed. Although a chemical, it is relatively safe to soil life, so it is admitted but only if needed as a fungicide when other measures have failed. Similarly, basic slag – an ‘unnatural’ phosphate by-product from blast furnaces – may be used because it aids soil life, but the very natural guano of petrified seagull droppings is not permitted because it is so soluble it can burn off humus and damage soil life.

The increasing life in an organic soil then goes on to support more and larger forms of life in the garden and surrounding environment. After all, if you want blackbirds you have to have worms. The effects on this bigger scale are also cumulative. As more larger forms of life come to the table of your soil, they concentrate and bring in minerals and nutrients, further enhancing the soil’s fertility. For example, birds shed feathers, eggshells, nesting material, copious droppings and eventually their bodies, all of which contribute to the soil fertility as they are broken down and reabsorbed into the chain of life. At first glance this may not seem like much, but if you add up the daily amounts then the annual production of just one extra bird family encouraged to live in your garden is a whole bucket-full of very rich fertiliser, distributed for free.

Other creatures, such as frogs, toads and hedgehogs, all take part in the same processes, adding to the overall fertility of your soil and giving off precious carbon dioxide. This is a problem when it is pumped into the upper atmosphere, but released slowly in little breaths, it is rapidly reabsorbed by the plants in the garden. It is not often realised how important this gas is for their growth. It exists in the air in only minute amounts and growing plants can extract it all from still air in a very few minutes of bright sunlight. Animal life of any size in or on the soil gives off carbon dioxide continually and thus helps to promote plant growth. Indeed, commercial greenhouse management now supplements the natural levels of carbon dioxide with bottled gas in order to achieve the same purpose.


Good husbandry – growing plants well

Good methods and conditions set the plants off to a flying start, and keep them growing without hindrance. Plants that have ever received a check in their growth never do as well as those growing consistently: their tissues harden and further growth is restrained. The aim of the organic gardener is to give plants the best conditions that can be maintained and to prevent them ever coming under stress. Freedom from extremes of heat and cold and, most importantly, freedom from water stress are essential. The latter is most effectively aided by increasing the organic matter and thus the humus content of the soil, which then acts like a sponge, retaining rain from times of plenty.

In many ways growing plants is a bit like caring for a baby – it is critical to get them through their earliest stages, but later on they are tough enough to endure less gentle treatment with little risk of permanent damage. Thus the good gardener ensures freedom from early stress and keeps down the competition from weeds and other plants. This then produces healthy, robust plants that grow well despite any later pest and disease attacks – in much the same way as we shrug off colds and scratches.


Natural methods of controlling pests and diseases, using wit and cunning

This third principle is derived to some extent from the first two. We wish to guard and foster the life in the soil and also to give our plants the best conditions we can. We therefore need to control pests and diseases without resorting to harmful pesticides. Organic gardeners aim to prevent pests and diseases ever reaching the point where they need to use even an organically approved pesticide, by building up a wide variety of plants to create ecosystems that supports the predators and parasites which then naturally control the pests. By growing a more varied selection of plants and mixing them together we also help prevent the spread of diseases, and encourage pollinators and recyclers such as butterflies and beetles, which further add to the fertility and health of the garden.

Perhaps our most important skill in this area is our ability to use our wit and cunning to outmanoeuvre pests and diseases. Simple traps, sticky bands, careful timing and mechanical barriers can defeat many pests, while techniques such as good hygiene and crop rotation prevent pests and diseases building up. But these come after our primary task of growing healthy plants that resist attacks in the first place.


Minimising ecological damage and making best use of resources, time and money

The fourth principle is to minimise any bad effects we may have on the environment. After all, everything we do is using resources and creating waste. Even gardening is not exempt, as left to itself the soil would produce much more plant growth, though not of a form suited to our requirements. Given a season or two of neglect, bare soil disappears under a tangle of weeds and, in time, brambles, tree and shrub seedlings would turn it into dense woodland. All of this growth increases the soil fertility underneath. A healthy, natural soil can, however, be destroyed by bad practice in a few decades or less. Organic methods aim to increase plant cover as much as practicable, interplanting between crops and using green manure both before a crop is planted and after it is harvested. This approaches the natural soil cover as nearly as possible and ensures soil stability, preventing wind and water erosion while annually building up the soil. The increased mixture and variety of plants not only aids pest and disease control, but it also improves the local ecology by providing a conservation area from which beneficial wildlife can spread out to recolonise the surrounding environment.

The organic system further aids the world environment as it is far more sustainable than other methods. Home-grown fertility from green manures and compost is easily as effective as bought-in chemical fertilisers, and with subtler pest and disease control, there ceases to be a need for direct intervention with ecologically expensive agrochemical pesticides. This saves not only direct, but also indirect pollution — because the waste caused by these products’ manufacture, packaging and transport will not be created at source. Similarly, sensitive gardeners would not buy plants robbed from the wild or vast amounts of bedding plants that need replacing annually, since these consume excessive peat, heat, light, plastic, fertiliser and sprays during their production.

25. January 2011 by admin
Categories: Organics | Tags: , | Comments Off on Principles of Organic Gardening

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