If you can have only one of Jeff Gillman’s books, The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line is the one to get. Don’t get me wrong, The Truth About Garden Remedies is an interesting and informative read, but it mostly tells you what doesn’t work, or what only “sorta” works. The Truth About Organic Gardening makes you think about what you should be doing–and why.
Jeff encourages you to think critically from the first chapter. What exactly does organic mean? Why did we stop growing organically in the first place? Is there anyone around today who thinks growing things organically is a bad idea? You might think you know what it means to grow plants organically, and why that is a good thing, but after reading the first chapter, you’ll realize things are not as simple as you thought.
First, do no harm
And you’ll soon find out that this book is really about getting the best results while doing the least harm, regardless of whether the technique is labeled organic or synthetic. Jeff’s benchmark is the environmental impact quotient (EIQ), which he calls “the only way I know of to provide a single coherent value that summarizes the potential risk a chemical application poses to both the environment and us.” No matter what chapter–soil enrichment and fertilization, weed control, insect control, disease control, and so on, Jeff gives you the full range of commonly available choices–organic and synthetic–and evaluates them in light of scientific studies. For the most part, he sides with the organic solution, but not always. And he doesn’t hesitate to point out that sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing–or something that requires observation and diligence rather than buying something. What a concept!
Guilty of poor cultural practices
Thus I found myself tried and guilty as charged when I got to the chapter on disease control. My beloved peonies struggle with botrytis, a disease that Jeff doesn’t address. (I wish he had, just so I would know if the sample of GreenCure I sprayed on my plants was worth the time and effort.) Jeff tells us that the first principle of organic disease control is cleanliness:
Remove diseased plants and plant materials such as diseased leaves (whether or not they’ve fallen from the plant) . . . This will greatly diminish the need for other disease-control techniques. If a disease isn’t around, it can’t infect your plants.
I took care last fall to cut down and remove all the peony foliage, and I picked up all the fallen leaves as well. But last spring and summer I wasn’t out there every day trimming off any leaves with a hint of trouble.
Another good thing to try is polycultures and companion planting. “. . . In many cases diseases are host specific, meaning that they only infect some types of plants and not all.” So the idea is to mix it up, with a variety of species in the same area. By planting all my peonies together in one bed, they are more likely to get infected by each other. I happen to like the idea of a peony “hedge,” and am reluctant to consider alternatives. Let’s face it, massing one plant for dramatic effect is a pretty common ornamental landscape technique, but we have to face the fact that we are making it more difficult to control diseases by doing so.
As you might imagine, proper watering and fertilizing is another principle of good organic cultural practice. Here my sin was one of omission. Beyond preparing the soil well before planting, I don’t think I’ve ever fertilized those peonies, and I don’t think they need it. But I’ve never watered them after the first year they were planted, and in some of our dry years, I’m sure they would have appreciated it. With our shallow well it just wasn’t possible, though the stress of drought could be what made them vulnerable to fungus in the first place.
I never checked to see if any of my named peony cultivars were bred to be disease resistant. It never even crossed my mind. But here’s a thought: “It’s actually a good thing that some people choose to plant varieties that aren’t resistant to diseases; if we all planted the same resistant varieties of any plant, the disease the plant was resistant to would adapt to this resistance faster . . . and the resistance would be rapidly overcome.” So I guess I’m doing my part for the continued survival of the plant kingdom, even if it’s not helping my own particular peonies.
I can’t follow this advice
I confess to plugging my ears and squinting my eyes shut against the advice Jeff opens the chapter with: “The best thing you can do with a diseased plant is to remove it from your garden to prevent the spread of disease to other plants.” I fell in love with the peony ‘Bev’ over twenty years ago, spent several pre-internet years tracking down a source for her, paid a premium price to bring her home, and then lovingly prepared the soil before planting her. And you’re telling me I should just end it, dig her up and toss her in the trash (and not even the compost because she’s infected)? Dismantle the peony bed entirely? No, I’m not ready to hear this. I’ll just try to improve my cultural practices and hope for a good peony year, weather-wise.
What does organic really mean?
The chapter on disease control gave me a lot to think about, but the last two chapters of the book give us all a lot to ponder. Did you know that
. . . the requirements to test synthetic chemicals in order to insure safety are extremely stringent but the same requirements aren’t in place for natural compounds; . . . natural pesticides are exempt from some of the rigorous testing that synthetic chemicals must undergo, such as mandatory testing for pesticide residues.
Organically grown food that you purchase at a market is probably free from synthetic pesticides, but no one is testing it for residues from organic pesticides. Not much research has even been conducted in this area, but the studies that are available indicate that both rotenone and pyrethrin can remain on food longer than was formerly thought, up to two weeks in the case of rotenone and its byproducts. This is but one of several issues concerning organic food that Jeff raises.
Finally, and most importantly, he encourages us to rethink the whole organic vs. synthetic dichotomy:
If we start to divide pesticides by natural versus synthetic rather than by their safety and efficacy in controlling pests, we’re just fooling ourselves into thinking that we’re making rational decisions when in fact we’re making a meaningless and artificial separation that could well be to our detriment.
More thinking, more research, and less grandstanding, is his plea. If you want to let go of your prejudices and garden with your eyes open and your brain in gear, pick up this book and start reading.