Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Building Blocks: Organic or Organic?

"Organic" is a word we hear a lot these days, whether we're gardening or shopping for food or, in the latest trend, buying clothes. We see organic t-shirts and organic fertilizers, organic tomatoes, organic gardening, organic beef, organic certification, organic cosmetics, and probably a few organic things I haven't heard about.

As is often the case with words, "organic" does not always mean the same thing, depending on the context in which it's used, and depending on how rigorously the definitions are being applied.

So, lets look at some definitions of organic:

  • In chemistry, organic refers to any compound containing carbon
  • Organic can refer to anything that was once living, or any part of something that was once living.
  • In commercial food production, organic is a legal term, meaning that the food has been certified to meet certain standards.
  • For the home or traditional gardener, organic generally refers to produce raised without the use of man-made fertilizers or pesticides, whether or not it meets any standard.
  • In livestock, organic can mean meat or other products from animals raised without artificial hormones or antibiotics.
  • Some people use the term organic to mean food produced from heritage seeds or animals, or from plants and animals that have not been genetically modified.
  • At least one group has decided that to be organic, food production must "promote fair relationships and a good quality of life."
  • I have seen a definition of organic food that says it must be produced in a "100% natural environment." Try that in the Desert.
  • I haven't the foggiest idea what "organic cosmetics" means, though I'm sure they're lovely.
Back to the real world: what do you do with all this? As a gardener, or as a food-eater, it's worth paying attention to the context in which the word "organic" is being used.

If I suggest that you use an organic mulch on your vegetables, or add organic materials to your compost pile, I mean you should use some sort of plant material: straw, wood chips, grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.

Organic fertilizer usually means something such as cow manure, chicken manure, blood meal, bone meal, or rock phosphate, as opposed to processed granulated fertilizers.

Organic pest control usually means using certain "natural" substances and methods. As a side note, do not ever confuse "organic" with "harmless." Vinegar (acetic acid) is a wonderful organic weed killer that can scar your skin and permanently blind you in a heartbeat.

When you buy organically certified produce, milk, eggs, meat, pasta, or the like, that food has been certified to meet certain government standards. Government standards can and do change, and generally reflect political consensus rather than any specific and unchanging regimen.

Some farmers or stockmen, especially smaller ones, sell food that you or I would think of as organic, but it isn't labelled as such because they choose not to participate in government certification programs.

In short, "organic" can mean variations on the same thing, or very different things, and, as far as food is concerned, is a label of convenience. If you have a very specific interest in the details, you need to dig a little deeper to uncover the specific standards that underlie the label.

If you asked me if the produce I grow at the Ranch is organic, I would say yes, because I don't use dangerous pesticides. I can say that without being certified because I don't sell what I grow; I just eat it and share it with my friends and neighbors. I find that it promotes fair relationships and a good quality of life.


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