Organic Vegetable Gardening

vegetables in a gardenQuestion: I want grow my vegetables organically.  I thought organic meant I shouldn’t spray for bugs on the vegetables but I’ve seen ads in catalogs for organic bug killers. I’m confused. Please help me understand organic. B.G.

Answer: Organic continues to be one of the most misunderstood terms in gardening and food production. Many people think organic means no sprays or “chemicals”, but that is not true.

The federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national list of allowed and prohibited substances which identifies synthetic substances that may be used, and non-synthetic substances that cannot be used, in organic production and handling operations. These standards are applicable only to commercial food production.  It does not apply to home gardens. There are no national organic standards or policies for lawns, trees or flowers.

Policies for commercial organic food production are very specific.  All criteria must be met before vegetables, fruits and other food products can be called organic. Misuse of “organic” carries with it a hefty fine.

USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards include all aspects of growing. All components (e.g. compost and fertilizers) must meet NOP standards. Growers need to use organically produced seed and transplants. Prohibited substances cannot be used on garden or field for at least 3 years. All natural products are allowed except those prohibited by NOP. Examples of prohibited natural substances are tobacco dust and treated seed.

NOP standards state no synthetic chemicals can be used, but there are a number of exceptions. Copper and sulfur-based compounds (most are fungicides), bacteria toxins (Bacillus thuringiensis and similar insecticides), pheromones, insecticidal soaps, dormant or summer oils, fish emulsions, vitamins and minerals are allowed.

Non-synthetic pesticides are acceptable.  Examples are the insecticides pyrethrum, neem, and spinosad, fungicides neem and sulfur, and herbicides corn gluten and limonene.  Due to additives in some products not all formulations or brands are strictly organic so organic growers must carefully consult lists for approved products.

As home gardeners, most of us are not going to completely adhere to NOP standards. However, we can adopt organic guidelines in our gardens. Improve your garden soil physically, chemically (correct nutrients) and biologically. Combat insects, diseases and weeds by growing resistant varieties, crop rotation, proper watering and mulching, using floating row covers, picking and squishing bugs, pulling weeds, and encouraging beneficial insects. In other words, use good gardening practices.

ATTRA National Sustainable Information Service has an excellent website on organic and sustainable practices at www.attra.org. The USDA National Organic Program website, which is not user friendly, is www.ams.usda.gov/nop .