To some people the term organic means returning to the old ways of farming prior to industrialization. To others, it simply means having food that is "natural." Organic gardening does not simply mean avoiding synthetic herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers, although this is an important component. The organic system creates an environment that reduces the population of potential pests (insects, diseases, weed, rodents, etc.) and promotes plant health to increase resistance to pests. This requires the gardener to provide the right soil conditions, select healthy plants and follow proper cultural practices. It also requires the gardener to 'scout' the landscape regularly, checking for pests and addressing problems while they are manageable.
A primary focus of organic gardening is to improve the soil. Biernbaum of Michigan State University writes, "Organic growing or farming is based on maintaining a living soil with a diverse population of micro and macro soil organisms (the soil food web)."
The concept of "feed the soil, not the plant" is a critical part of organic growing. Otherwise when soil is only provided nutrients in the form of synthetic fertilizers, and crops are harvested from the land each year, eventually there is no organic matter and the soil food web falls apart and the soil will eventually "die," compact or blow away. Soil structure is lost and the nutrient value of the food crop is reduced. Organic agriculture is about feeding the soil for the very long-term health and quality of the soil (www.safs.msu.edu/soilecology/pdfs/OrganicFarming.htm).
Since 2002, there have been national U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for certified organic production. The term "certified organic" is a legal description, but the word "natural" doesn't mean anything. If a farm is to be certified "organic," it must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years. While these specific regulations are geared toward commercial producers, the overall principles can be applied to small farms and home gardens too. The national standards document can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/.
Organic standards do not permit the use of seeds or plants that have been genetically modified ("bioengineered"). They do not permit the use of sewage sludge or irradiation. Because the use of synthetic weed killers is not permitted in organic production, organic gardeners often rely on mulch in addition to cultivation as their primary means for weed control. Synthetic fungicides cannot be used in organic practice, so removing sick plants and keeping the plant's environment clean is extremely important.
If you want food that is truly organic, look for the "certified organic" label.
• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 887-2252.