Green Peeves

There is no reason to garden with chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

We’re in the middle of a renaissance, one in which the only color that matters is green. Having written about organic gardening for 25 years, it’s wonderful to watch the wave of environmentally concerned gardeners swell over the past few years.

Get ready to learn something every gardener should know; there’s absolutely no reason to garden with chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. That felt good to say. It might seem like a radical statement, but look at the great gardens created by our grandparents and ask any modern gardener who switched to organic and he or she will tell you the same.

Many gardeners were taught to garden by their parents, so it’s a habit to use chemicals, and there’s nothing harder than breaking bad habits. Then there’s the deluge of advertisements appearing every season hawking the latest and greatest garden poisons guaranteed to provide the perfect green space. I wish those advertisers were required to label each product with this warning: "We all live downstream."

Organic gardeners aren’t much different from conventional ones. They just have a different mind-set. Organic growers use natural products to fend off disease and pests when needed. They diagnose a problem and use a product that affects the target specifically and not much more.

When you douse a plant with chemicals, you not only eliminate the perpetrator, but also every other living thing in the kill zone. You’re destroying the balance of nature. Success is always easier when working with nature, not against it. When we let the good bugs eat the bad bugs, they do a pretty good job. When they don’t, there are many options, one being mechanical-just pick them off the plant.

The big question to ask, is: Why garden without chemicals? Are they really that bad? I think so, and would never use them around my family. There are lots of studies that link pesticides and herbicides to cancer, but as in all things, it also depends on whom you talk to. Not everyone believes those studies, and the chemical companies have their own studies telling us not to worry.

Regardless of whom you believe, what’s better for everyone concerned: a garden with chemicals or without? Given a choice, most of us would say, "Without." Besides their possible carcinogenic properties, chemical pesticides and herbicides can destroy the web of life that inhabits our soil. Everything that goes on underground affects what’s happening above ground with our plants. There’s incredible activity in healthy soil, from earthworms all the way down to the microscopic fungi.

And the great thing about making the switch to organic is that once weaned from chemicals, the garden becomes cheaper and easier to maintain and is actually more prolific.

There’s one thing that you need to know to calm your nerves during the big switch and it’s simple: Plants want to grow. And when you provide a soil that’s rich in nutrients, they will thrive, fighting off just about any pest infestation or disease. The problem is, most of us don’t have fertile, crumbly loam; we’re battling heavy clay soils.

But clay in itself isn’t bad if it can be mixed with organic matter. That’s where the difficult part of organic gardening begins: improving the soil by adding organic matter such as well-aged animal manure, compost, mushroom soil or dehydrated manure. By mixing these amendments into the soil, we’re taking advantage of the clay’s ability to retain water, and the addition of the organic matter lightens the soil, provides nutrients and makes the soil more viable. Your municipality might even give away compost made from fall leaves, a great soil builder-and it’s free.

Improving and maintaining the soil is not something that happens overnight. Adding lots of organic matter will give you a great garden right off the bat, but each year organic gardeners add at least an inch of "the good stuff" to keep fertility high and to replenish what our plants used the season before.

Chemical fertilizers are the junk food of plants; yes, they can turn leaves green and produce fruit, but plants growing in soil that’s healthy will produce better flowers and vegetables and will generally grow stronger.

When I made the switch, it was cold-turkey. The impetus had been watching my 3-year-old walk down the garden path barefoot, headed for some cabbage that was just dusted with Sevin, a nasty nerve agent manufactured after World War II.

I made a pledge that day never to use chemicals again in the garden. Not only was that the easiest promise I every made but also my garden has never even required any organic sprays.

Feed your soil, and it will feed you.

Doug Oster is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s "Backyard Gardener" and co-author of the best-selling book Grow Organic and A Gardener’s Journal.