The Truth About Organic Gardening: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews, Peonies

image of The Truth About Organic Gardening book coverIf 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.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

june April 4, 2008, 8:36 pm

Thanks for reviewing this book! Its now on my wish list. My husband and I have often gotten into mini squabbles about what is organic. He’ll often value my opinion more if I have a print resource to back it up. So this will be a great book for both of us!

Nan Ondra March 13, 2008, 8:30 am

Excellent review, Kathy, as we’ve come to expect from you. I can see that I definitely need to check out both of Jeff’s books!

Dee/reddirtramblings March 13, 2008, 7:58 am

Really good review Kathy. I have peonies, and they aren’t massed together, and they still get botrytis. This is in spite of the fact that I clean up their debris too. I’m not taking my peonies out, and I hope you don’t either. I love them for their early spring cheer.~~Dee

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 12, 2008, 10:53 pm

I enjoyed your review and now I want to read this book. I don’t have problems with botrytis on my peonies, thank goodness. One of them is one that my Dad grew on the side of our house and it would not be possible for me to get rid of it no matter what disease it ended up with. Not Possible.

Would this make a good read for the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club sometime, maybe in the fall?

Benjamin March 12, 2008, 6:48 pm

Very helpful review, Kathy. Thanks. Since I’ve just started my 1500 square foot garden, I’m concerned how to start right, to get myself in the habit of doing x and x every year. Sometimes I think that yes, which is better, organic or the other? I especially struggle with this as concerned to my silly lawn, wanting it to be green enough out front to fit in and not let on what’s going on behind the fence.

Annie in Austin March 12, 2008, 12:21 pm

Hi Kathy – I now have a visual of you squinting with covered ears.

The book sounds interesting but after nearly 9 years here, I wonder how much of the specific advice would work in Austin… a substantial proportion of the available organic garden products are made in Texas, and advice for us tends to not be found in the main paragraphs, but in the comments attached to an asterisk.

Your post does make me wonder about my success in avoiding peony botrytis in Illinois. I’d assumed that cutting the stems below ground each fall and getting rid of the foliage made the difference. Maybe the real reason was that I didn’t like peony hedges and planted them all over the place, making small vignettes with other plants.

No way could I rip out that 20-year old ‘Bev”, but I might use a poacher’s spade in fall to sneak out a chunk from one edge, cut off the stems, wash off the soil and plant it somewhere else as an experiment.

Unfortunately there can be no experimenting with peonies in Austin!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Gail March 12, 2008, 8:39 am

I am with you on the not wanting to dig up your peony bed…right now I am trying to save the phlox in my garden. something is disfiguring this beautiful plant and I just can’t bear to dig them all up and trash them.

As others have said, this is a great review. Very personal and real.

clay and limestone

Ellis Hollow March 11, 2008, 8:59 pm

I’m ambivalent on the issue of garden ‘sanitation’. I’m sure with certain diseases under certain conditions, it helps. But I tend to also think that inoculum (like weed seed) is pretty much ubiquitous.

Sure, you can reduce the amount of inoculum. But if the conditions are right for disease (susceptible host, right temperature and moisture), the spores are there ready to exploit the situation.

So being a somewhat laissez-faire gardener, I tend not to fret too much about dead plant material and whether it died of ‘natural causes’ or was killed outright before its time. If I had Kathy’s botrytis problem, I might behave differently.

I wish I could remember the title so I could quote it properly, but a fairly recent book on insects in the garden (I seem to recall by some California entomologists?) recommended not being so darn fastidious. If you want to develop populations of beneficial insects, it’s best to leave most of the dead plant material right where it falls. So if you keep things clean to prevent diseases, are you at the same time setting your garden up for insect infestations?

mss @ Zanthan Gardens March 11, 2008, 4:38 pm

Great review! I love your confession, “I confess to plugging my ears and squinting my eyes shut…” What an honest and personal take on reading a book. Your writing is so refreshing, a great example of why blogs are so interesting compared with many garden magazines which are essentially infomercials.