An Organic Attitude
As gardeners, we are tenders of plants. We talk to our plants, eat the fruits of our plants, laze in the shade of our plants, bask in the oohs and aahs of admirers of our plants – we simply appreciate plants. If we put our plants in context, we’d classify them as part of a natural environment. When we approach this environment with an organic attitude, as a gardener we will “strive to produce the healthiest plants possible with minimal risk impact on the environment and minimal risk to all creatures - human and otherwise – who enjoy using the garden.” Well, as gardeners we all want ‘the healthiest plants possible’. But ‘risk’? What’s risky about growing plants? Some of the things we do to our environments are risky without us even realizing it.
An organic attitude toward healthy soil and fertilizers
Healthy soil makes healthy plants. In most cases, we’re trying to create an ideal environment for our plants, which means we want to give them great soil. To achieve this we’re going to add amendments to our soil, keep it mulched, and let nature do its job! The soil will become home to earthworms and all sorts of other beneficial creatures. The structure of the soil will become more plant-root friendly, fast draining and moisture retentive. While we’re helping the soil, we’ll be helping our plants too! Its great if we can give our plants all the nutrients they need through clean soil amendments (at the least, no heavy metals or salts) and mulches – Kudos to all you home composters! However, the majority of us will have plants that need an extra boost, such as an added fertilizer. When we fertilize with a highly soluble high nitrogen fertilizer, the plant only uses a small portion of that fertilizer, and the rest, being so wonderfully soluble, now migrates through the soil and into our water table. That fertilizer becomes, yes, water pollution. One of those ‘risk’ factors. Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. When we use organic fertilizers, they have much lower nutrient contents which provide a more sustained release of nutrients and encourage beneficial soil-dwelling organisms. Organic fertilizers often will also include micronutrients and minerals, adding to the health of our soil. Now, the plant can’t tell the difference between organically produced nutrients and synthetically produced nutrients, but the way these nutrients act in the soil is very different. Our soil can tell the difference, and healthy soil makes healthy plants. As an added benefit, healthy soil makes anything else impacted by that soil healthy; by using an organic attitude toward our soil we’re taking care of our local environment.
An organic attitude toward pests and diseases
Most of the time, our healthy soil will help to keep our plants free of pests and diseases. And most of the time, our healthy plants can sustain some small amounts of damage from these pests and diseases. But sometimes we need to be on guard, and we just might need to help our plants. The best organic tool we have in our arsenal to fight pests and diseases is our own good observation. If we know what our plant looks like when it's healthy, we might notice when the plant has a few hundred mites (or even have figured out what a mite looks like), or notice that this particular plant got powdery mildew in July last year. Then we have a chance to be proactive BEFORE our pest or disease becomes a problem. We have a much better chance of successfully treating a small issue than a large problem (and that is true with chemical treatments as well). We also have a much bigger effective tool chest, with some tools as simple as blasts of plain old water. Gone are the days of the one-chemical solution, those products have just about all been banned (and for good reason, they were so bad for us and our environment). Identifying the problem will be the first step, and then we can figure out the best way to treat the problem. Just know that if we're too heavy-handed with our treatment, we might make our problems worse. For example, if you decide to use a broad-spectrum insecticide on your insect problem because you didn't have the patience to identify the pest and then do a bit of homework on the internet, you'll probably kill all the predatory insects too. Those bad bugs will hatch again soon, and now there aren't any predators to help control them (the good ones NEVER breed as fast as the bad ones). Your bug problem is now worse. And then you complain that your treatments didn't work. I have worked at a garden center for more years than I like to admit, and that scenario has repeated itself many more times than I like to hear. There are usually no simple answers to a problem in your garden, but once you observe or understand all the participating actors in a problem (the type of plant, the type of bug or disease), the solution is often very easy to institute.
Most ornamental plants rarely have problems that require treatment of any type of product in our area. Plants that do suffer from pest or disease problems most often are food-bearing plants, like fruits and vegetables. You will become an accomplished observer of plants as you become an accomplished gardener. In the end, our efforts at growing should be sustainable. We should be familiar enough with the products we use so we don't injure the environment we are attempting to be a part of.