It used to be that organic gardeners were considered a bit out on the fringe, perhaps just a mite too zealous in their efforts to be all natural. But today more and more home gardeners are finding the advantages of using natural pest control and other organic gardening techniques such as adding compost to boost soil fertility and water-holding capacity.
Felder Rushing, a Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service horticulturalist who is one of the South’s best-known garden writers, said it isn’t necessary to be a hard-core organic gardener in order to enjoy many of the benefits of organic gardening.
“There is no need to be excessive,” says Rushing, whose book “Great Garden Shortcuts” was recently published by Organic Gardening Books. “One hundred percent organic is, to me, a little edgy. Just like growing all hybrid tea roses is a little edgy. It is like people who never miss a ballgame, and know all the statistics. I think we can back off a little, and have better gardens and more fun, without hurting the environment.”
Rushing said he believes a combination of organic and conventional methods is the most practical for most home gardeners. As he sees it, both organic and conventional gardening methods have strengths and weaknesses.
“I prefer the organic methods,” Rushing said. “You have less control organically. You have to work harder. But you know what you are getting. Chemicals are more economical. In some ways they are easier, but you lose control with chemicals. I don’t have a problem with a combination of both. In fact, I think that is the most practical. For example, with pest control, certainly organic methods can work.
“I have a sprayer, but I have never used it on my garden, and I have a complicated garden with hundreds of plants including flowers, herbs and vegetables. There are no pesticides in my possession. I simply don’t need them. The drawback is, because of that, there are some plants I can’t grow like hybrid tea roses. There are certain vegetables I couldn’t grow without spraying.”
Even pest-susceptible vegetables can be grown by harvesting the crop when it is small. Baby vegetables are also tasty, considered a gourmet delicacy by some.
Organic gardening requires more thought and planning than conventional methods.
“You have to be paying attention,” Rushing said. “You have to plan ahead, and be devoted to it whereas most gardeners are just hobbyists who want to plant and harvest something. Organic gardening is just good gardening. You need good soil preparation, and you need to choose good varieties of plants, preferably those that are disease resistant.”
He adds that it is also important to plant at the right time of year. People who try to extend the growing season by planting too early, for example, might be disappointed. Providing the correct amount of water, not too much or too little, also goes a long way towards keeping plants healthy for a good harvest.
Fertilizer and correct soil Ph are also important. Rushing said natural fertilizers work fine, but are more expensive than commercial fertilizer and can take longer to be available to plants. He sees nothing wrong with applying a little Miracle Gro or other chemical fertilizer at times when needed, particularly if you see that a plant is suffering. His favorite organic fertilizer is cottonseed meal, which feeds earthworms who then eat mulch and compost. The resulting worm casings greatly improve the quality of the soil. Animal manures and bone meal are also good sources of organic fertilizer.
Rushing believes that dependence on chemical fertilizer can damage gardens especially if the gardener neglects to feed the soil with compost and mulches.
“There is no question that chemical fertilizers alone are temporarily great,” Rushing said. “Ammonium nitrate is like cocaine to a plant. It is strong and effective, but it leaves the soil empty and dependent. To start from scratch from organic is very expensive and time consuming. So I would recommend people have their soil tested. If it is low in fertilizer, use some triple 13 or another chemical fertilizer to get started, and then maintain that with a high level of natural fertilizer from then on.”
He also recommends testing the soil’s Ph, and adding lime if necessary to raise the Ph to the ideal levels.
Mulch and compost can provide nutrients to plants, but take time to break down in order to be taken up by the plant. Mulch also helps keeps weeds at bay, saving the gardener time, and preventing loss of moisture so less watering is needed.
Rushing said when it comes to pest controls, being organic doesn’t mean doing nothing when pests start devouring the garden. Natural pesticides such as insecticidal soap and BT are available are most garden stores across the state.
But, unless you are a purist willing to give up a crop for principles, don’t worry about “cheating” on occasion.
“I reject anyone who sees a serious problem with using an occasional shot of Miracle Gro or using pressure treated lumber in flower beds,” Rushing said. “That is not based on good science. By the some token, some people garden using only chemicals, and that is a disaster waiting to happen. Sometimes it is good to use a chemical. Just don’t get addicted to it.”