Sunday, September 5, 2010

Organic Agnosticism

I'm going to take this opportunity to confess that while I do try to practice some organic gardening techniques, I also spend some time looking at the whole organic gardening tidal-wave with a bit of a hairy eyeball. 

I try to follow most organic techniques recommended to improve soil fertility and conditions, right up to the point where it becomes manual labor. I'm happy with deep mulching of organic sustainable materials and letting the worms move the carbon into the soil, but I don't double-dig.  If you'll observe carefully, most of the gardening "authorities" who propose that double-digging and deep soil amendment are the solutions to all evil are either a) standing next to and employing the young guy who actually does the digging work, or b) gardening in a soil that has the tilth and mass of sifted flour and where a shovel actually penetrates the soil without jumping on it repeatedly with both feet. Neither of those conditions exist in my garden. The laborer here is me and the Flint Hills soil resembles the consistency of pound-cake with imbedded boulders. I'm a big proponent of mulches to prevent weeds instead of herbicide use, whether the herbicides be synthetic or corn gluten meal. And I'm good with the important idea of selecting plants adapted for your climate and conditions, rather than trying to grow an orange grove here in Zone 5.

I believe we should decrease our use of pesticides and herbicides, but I'd push further for decreasing the use of all garden chemicals, whether natural or synthetic. We've learned over the past few decades that while DDT was perhaps not the best choice to release into the environment by the millions of tons, it's also true that so-called natural substitutes aren't always safe either, as seen with the recent EPA banning of a number of the pyrethrin derivatives. Nature, at its heart, is really nasty, folks, and there are some really nasty chemicals being produced outside your window by the most benign-looking of plants. Still, even while proclaiming that I support the decreased use of chemicals in my garden, I will use them in limited quantities and where necessary for efficiency. I don't mind spots on my apple skins (I peel them), but I don't like finding worms inside. I don't like using pesticides, but on the other hand, I don't know anyone in Kansas who can grow squash consistently without them. I'm not the guy who prefers to spend hours hand-picking bagworms off my Mugo Pine instead of 20 seconds of spraying with an approved pesticide. In truth, I'm the guy who got rid of his Mugo Pine because I didn't want to do either.

The organic gardening movement has many thoughtful and useful aspects, including the concepts of decreased use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, decreased overall water usage, increased and deep mulching, and local food production and consumption.  I'm with the WEE* people on all of those and I try my best to be a good locavore.  But, you see, where I fall out from the Kool-Ade drinkers (look it up) is when reason, knowledge and logic give way to zealotry and fighting over issues of faith. Show me that increased mulching moderates soil temperatures and decreases watering needs and I'm your huckleberry.  Go off on a rant about how the wearing of sack cloth and the double-digging of beds halfway to China will decrease Global Warming and you're going to lose me within minutes.

In most instances, it's because I don't agree that "natural" necessarily means "good", any more than "modern" necessarily means "bad."  I don't really want to go back to "natural" if it means forsaking steel tools, automobiles, and computers in favor of stone tools, caves, and starvation. There's a reason that life-expectancy and personal productivity increases go hand-in-hand in developed countries and there's a reason that modern pharmaceutical's are more effective than bat-wing and newt's eye stews in treating disease.

In short, the true road to gardening Shangri-La is by applying organic methods in moderation. Zealotry without Reason is the Devil's tool.

*WEE = wild-eyed environmentalists, the natural constituency of idiot ex-Vice-Presidents who fly around in private planes, live in energy-burning mansions, and doesn't have the slightest idea of what constitutes scientific inquiry.


  1. OMG!!! This is what I profess every time someone asks me about organics!! (though you said it WAY better.) I get labeled 'organic' because I'm a bit of a hippie at heart, and I use very few chemicals. The ones I do use, I use judiciously and sparingly ... systemic fungicide, and the odd application of soluble fertilizer, for example. I explain to people that organic doesn't mean safer OR chemical free ... it only means that your chemicals came from natural sources. Lots of natural things will kill you just as dead as synthetic chemicals. Few people get it.

    Learned something interesting the other week. Did you know that a farm probably can't get a govt organic certification if they use manure? Gotta be able to certify the feed and conditions of the animals that produced the manure. How ridiculous is that?

  2. Yes, I'm a veterinarian (former dairy practitioner), so I know about the controversy. That's a perfect example of where the organic movement goes too far; we're worried that there might be growth hormones in the milk and that the hormones get in the manure and then we feed it to our plants and the plants give the growth hormones back to us. That's a pretty long trip for an organic molecule to remain intact!

    And all the while, we're getting xenoestrogens from the bisphenol used to make our drinking water bottles.

  3. I am so glad you left this link on my rose post on the Antique Rose Forum!

    You have voiced my opinion beautifully and so much better than I could have put into words.

    Loved the WEE acronym.

    The pillar rose is beautiful. I wonder if I could tame my Awakening in the same manner.
    If not, it will have to be removed from the front porch where it sends out 20 foot thorny canes. It is a good thing we never use that porch.

    I am a retired dairywoman and I recall the lunacy with all that! I found another group of fanatics when I bought my Shorthorn milking cow.
    There is a group who are so sure you will kill a cow or make her milk unfit for comsumption if you feed grain, that I am astonished. I never get in nutritional discussions with them.

    I even failed to grow cucurbits this year with an application of Sevin. Do you have a secret thing you use?

  4. Thank you Professor, well said.
    In discussions on the topic of natural products, I have reminded them there are natural elements (in the periodic table) such as mercury. This seems to help them understand that natural doesn't always equal good for you.


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