When farmers learned after WWII that they could replace a truckload of manure with a sack of
easy-to-disperse pellets they gave up on organic agriculture. But who wants to eat traces of toxic
chemicals on their broccoli?
Chemical fertilizers make growing easy because the quality of the land is immaterial. As long as
their roots have something to hang on to all their nutrients, at least after a few years, come from the
chemicals. In the beginning of cultivation the land has stored nutrients, but healthiness tapers off
after a couple years. The soil gets used up, becomes lifeless.
Organic growing is just the opposite, without constantly enriching the soil with organic matter, you
won’t get much yield. If you want to produce a decent crop you have to throw everything at it. On
top of manure you need composted kitchen scraps, leaves, chipped up yard waste, straw. I use spent
cat litter, it’s just gypsum and cat stuff far as I know.
What you’re looking for is tilth, soil that is light and fluffy, where roots have an easy time
penetrating, where you can stick your finger in regardless of season. Compost is not considered a
fertilizer because the nutrient level is too low. It’s called a soil amendment, but does provides trace
minerals and a perfect medium for roots. If you cover your garden with chipped up yard waste and
leaves in the fall by springtime it’s mostly biodegraded and when turned under makes the soil light
and fresh. I have a friend in the Portland hills who has yard maintenance people drop off truckloads
of chips, the yard guys are happy to bring it for free, otherwise they might have to drive a distance
and pay to be rid of it.
Organic gardening takes more effort, but the rewards of healthy, tasty, chemical free food make it
well worth it. Rather than poison weeds, you place a thick layer of straw on the ground making it
difficult for weeds to push through. By the next season, you won’t even hardly see the straw, it’ll be
part of the earth. There are also excellent manufactured natural ground covers that do the same
Yard chips work fine as a cover, but they take a long time to break down. The process of breaking
down takes nitrogen out of the soil but as soon as it has fully degraded it gives the nitrogen right
back. Meanwhile you’d need to apply extra manure to compensate if you’re using it as the plants
are growing. By constantly enriching the soil, you’re balancing off the need for nitrogen to naturally
process the organic material. You can always compost it, but it’s easier to spread it out and let
western Oregon’s long wet season to break it down.
There are lots of ways to deal with pests; spraying garlic, tobacco, chili water on them are favorite
remedies, for instance, but sometimes you just have to get out there with a hose, take each leaf in
hand and blow them away. They’ll return, but it’ll set them way back. Many people believe that
bugs only attack weak plants, so if you’re having problems with certain plants, heap on extra
manure and also check the info and see if they have special needs. Many times we will grow
veggies that aren’t totally suited to our climate so those plants will be vulnerable. Nonetheless with
a little extra work we can enjoy those special healthy veggies.
Part of the joy of gardening is the ability to grow unusual varieties that are never or rarely seen in
the markets. One of my favorites is broccoli romanesca, it has a beautiful castellated head and tastes
like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. Lemon cucumbers have a wonderful taste. Malabar
spinach is a prolific vine that can grow all through the summer.
There’s a wide variety of tomatoes that can be grown. They come in all colors, including variegated
ones, and in all sizes. Many can’t be grown commercially because they are too delicate to travel far
or don’t keep very long, but they’re the best tasting and as you are wandering through your garden
you can just grab one and enjoy its wondrous taste. Could you do the same if you spray them with
poison? Tomatoes are very special to grow in your garden since no matter how much commercial
growers try, they can’t seem to get one to taste half as good as a homegrown.
One of the greatest aspects of organic gardening is how much plants have to teach us. I’ve been
doing it for 50 years and every year plants will respond in some way that really surprises me.
Sometimes I’m just scratching my head thinking, Now what do you want? I gave you this, I gave
you that and you’re still not happy.
There’s lots of organic produce available in the markets, but for many people it’s just too expensive
to go strictly organic. That’s because much of the cost of commercially grown food is externalized.
Not only are fossil fuels subsidized, but the damage to the environment of excessive applications of
chemical fertilizers and crop poisons is not part of the cost at the point of purchase. The whole
society pays for cleanup that should be reflected in its price. On the other hand growing organically
has no negative impact on the environment. It’s labor intensive and all costs are included so it
naturally costs more. Being as the extraction and use of fossil fuels is destroying the planet, it’s
imperative that we move toward organic.
To save the planet we essentially need to move back to the past when everything was organic.
Clean, green organic.
By Stan Kahn