We don’t know exactly how life on earth got started.
Some people believe God created it all about 10,000 years ago.
Others believe it evolved – starting 3.5-4 billion years ago – as bacteria, microscopic organisms that are composed of only 1 cell.
(For comparison, our current best guess is that the average human body has over 30 trillion cells, and incidentally, there are in the neighborhood of 40 trillion microorganisms living in our bodies – more of them than cells – most of them bacteria, and most of them probably integral to our health.)
This article about gardening organically is based on evolution, and is open to a God who created that evolution, but for most of the article, that’s not really what matters.
Whatever you believe, this page is still one of the most important for you to read on this site because it teaches you what to always keep in mind when you’re growing an organic garden.
If you can internalize these ideas, you’ll be much more successful with your garden and you’ll enjoy the process so much more.
According to evolutionary theory, bacteria came first, and then:
- Between 1 and 2 billion years ago, they joined together to form multicellular organisms.
- About 500 million years ago, animals and land plants evolved.
- About 2-3 million years ago, humans (the genus Homo) evolved.
- About 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (that’s us) evolved.
- About 12,000 years ago, we started gardening – growing our own food instead of only hunting and foraging for it.
Here’s a cool overview:
The reason it’s so interesting to look back at this is because it reminds us that:
- Although bacteria and other microorganisms are small and simple, they’ve been around for a long time, and they still rule the world – and our gardens.
- Animals and plants evolved together and depend fully on each other (as well as on microorganisms) for survival.
- When you look at the whole history of planet earth, we sapiens were practically just born, and although we’ve learned a lot about how microorganisms, animals and plants function, we don’t know as much about how they function as they do.
And what all of that says to me is we should work with them (rather than against them) – that’s what gardening organically is really all about.
We’ll come back to this point later, but first let’s look at when growing our own food started 10,000 years ago. Was it good for us?
On the one hand, agriculture helped our population explode and is one of the main reasons we have modern civilization, with art, science and everything in between.
Lots of cool advancements came from that, although also more war, disease and environmental destruction.
And in many ways, the main food crops we developed haven’t been all that great for our health. We started eating a lot of grains (which may have their place, but are relatively nutrient poor) and a less diverse diet overall, and we got less exercise.
So again that means more disease, teeth problems, obesity, and on and on.
And when it comes to modern agriculture in the last hundred years, while we do get more calories (so our population continues to grow), our food is much less nutritious (over 60% in some cases), and we get even more environmental devastation, with more pollution of everything – the land, water, air, animals and plants.
Of course the human repercussions of this are even more sickness – and even overall unhappiness.
At this point we could get into the facts about all of these environmental and human health problems, and it’s certainly worthwhile to learn about them because it gives you that extra motivation to do something about it, but this is Smiling Gardener and I have more fun spending time on solutions, so let’s do that.
My solution to all of this is organic gardening itself, as long as we:
- Grow the foods that improve our health – the vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and mushrooms that are highly nutritious.
- Grow them so they’re not toxic to us.
- Grow them in a way that maximizes their nutritional content.
The word organic has many definitions. For example:
- In chemistry, organic refers to a compound whose molecules contain carbon. Some of these are good for us (e.g. glucose) and some are toxic (e.g. formaldehyde), so this definition alone isn’t what we’re referring to in the gardening world. Also note that in chemistry, an ‘organic pesticide’ is just a pesticide that contains carbon – some of these organic pesticides are highly toxic.
- In biology, organic refers to anything that’s living (like a dog or an apple tree) or was once alive (like cow manure, which at some point was living plants). Some of these are good for us (e.g. kale) and some are toxic (e.g. sewage sludge), so this definition alone isn’t what we’re referring to in the gardening world. Also note that in biology, an ‘organic pesticide’ is just a pesticide that’s derived from plants – some of these organic pesticides are highly toxic.
- In gardening, organic is used more broadly. It means “using practices and products that preserve and support the health of ecosystems and human communities,” according to the SOUL Organic Land Care Standard… Basically, it means growing healthy, non-toxic gardens.
Then there are words like ecological/biological/sustainable/natural that are not legally defined like organic is, but should also mean “using practices and products that preserve and support the health of ecosystems and human communities,” even if those practices and products are a little different for each camp.
Personally, it doesn’t matter to me what we call it – all of us are trying to grow gardens that are good for us and the environment.
On this website, I mostly focus on teaching you how to grow organic food, and I take it a step further by focusing on highly nutrient-dense food, which is where things get a little more advanced.
Although organic food is often higher in nutrition than conventional food, and lower in toxins, most of it still falls far short of where it could be, and that’s what this site is for – to help you grow food to its full nutritional potential.
And may I just say – that is EXCITING!
I can think of nothing better to improve my own health and happiness – and the health and happiness of my family and friends – than to grow a nutrient-dense organic vegetable garden.
It means whoever eats from that garden and spends time there gets better nutrition, more exercise and more time in nature (even if your nature is only a few hundred square feet).
All of those are exciting to me, and that nature part may be the most important of all, but what especially gets me up in the morning is the nutrition part because for some nutrients, we’re talking about getting 100s of times more of them into our own food than we can get from grocery store food (including organic food).
Okay, so how do we successfully garden organically?
That’s the purpose of this whole series of lessons I’ll be creating over the next while.
Today I want to share with you a couple of key points to keep in mind as you spend time in your organic garden. These are often skipped over, but they’re huge!
One of the most important shifts to make in our thinking is around the concept of health in the garden. To look at that, it helps to consider how we deal with garden pests.
The ‘eco-friendly’ approach that’s been adopted by the conventional gardening industry is called integrated pest management, or IPM. A simplified explanation of IPM is that it means we take a multi-faceted approach for controlling insects, diseases and weeds in the garden – including using the least-toxic methods available.
It seems like a great idea on the surface, and although it does ultimately allow gardening professionals to jump right to their favorite tried and true synthetic pesticides (which may be why the conventional gardening industry is so supportive of IPM), for the people who use it correctly, it certainly has provided them with a framework for reducing the use of toxic chemicals.
The problem, however, is that it stops people from fully understanding why the pests are there in the first place, which is because of some kind of imbalance in the system.
We try to fight to pests – who have been on this planet for thousands of times longer than we have – instead of understanding why they’re there, and working with them.
Incidentally, we do the same thing in conventional medicine for human sickness – cutting, burning and drugging the disease, hopefully choosing the least invasive method for each patient, but often skipping over why the disease is there in the first place.
Fortunately, we have naturopathic doctors and other ‘alternative’ practitioners who can help us get to the root cause of our health problems, and we have organic land care professionals who can help us get to the root of our garden problems.
And for the do-it-yourselfers like you, there are books and websites to help with all of this, too, which I suppose is why you’re here.
That root cause, in people and plants, is always some type of imbalance, whether it be nutritional, biological, physical or other.
That’s not to say it’s always our fault if we (or our plants) get sick – on the contrary, health is a complex thing.
But it is important to remember that there is a reason somewhere in there, and if we can figure out that reason, we can often solve the problem.
Here’s the most interesting part to me:
Insects and diseases eat only unhealthy plants!
I’m not talking about deer, rabbits, or humans – we all prefer healthy plants (if our brains are working properly).
But disease and insect pests evolved differently. They evolved to eat the imbalanced plants, which is a good thing for us because it keeps the genes of the healthy plants in the food supply.
If the pests didn’t eat them, nutritionally-poor plants would continue to reproduce, which would be bad for the survival of their species and the animals who depend on them, which ultimately means all of them.
On top of that, many of these pests are actually beneficial for plants at one point in their life, such as the plant-feeding caterpillar who becomes the plant-pollinating butterfly.
Really, we call them pests because they eat our gardens, but they’re not considered pests in nature – they’re just part of the system, and an important part. They’re more accurately called plant predators, like a lion is an animal predator.
I’ll share more of this intriguing topic with you in an upcoming lesson on organic pest control.
For now, let’s take a tomato as an example.
It seems most everyone love to grow tomatoes, and I don’t blame them – tomatoes from my organic garden that have been sliced and sprinkled with sea salt and pepper taste better than just about anything, while tomatoes from the grocery store taste like the cardboard box they were shipped in from Florida.
It’s important to note that the great taste also signifies great nutrition. The phytonutrients responsible for flavor and aroma can only be manufactured by plants if they have adequate nutrition from which to make them.
So how do we get that nutrition? It’s useful to look at how we deal with disease to understand how we can get more nutrition into food. As we go through the following example, just keep in mind that nutrition and disease are related.
Tomatoes in the home vegetable garden sometimes get eaten by diseases like blight and insects like tomato hornworms.
Let’s look at the blight for today.
How do we get rid of it?
- A conventional gardener might spray it with Chlorothalonil, a very common fungicide that’s a human carcinogen, implicated in the decline of honeybees, highly toxic to fish and many other animals, and when it eventually gets broken down in the environment, it becomes 30 times more toxic. It does help kill the blight, unfortunately along with the thousands of other species of beneficial fungi on the plants and in the soil, and like most pesticides, it probably harms the plants to some degree as well.
- An IPM gardener might eschew the Chlorothalonil and instead spray the blight with Copper, another common fungicide, also highly toxic. As an aside, some of us in the ‘ecological’ gardening world think the copper may not only be suppressing the fungus directly, but also correcting a deficiency of copper in the plant, thereby making the plant less susceptible to the blight in the first place. So if you have a documented deficiency of copper, then using a copper spray might very well make sense – it’s just than the vast majority of users aren’t using it this way, and although there are even a couple of copper products allowed in organic growing, it’s easy to bring about a copper toxicity in the plant and soil if you rely on it too frequently, which will tend to happen if you aren’t addressing the reason the blight is there in the first place. So yes, use copper as a nutrient, not just as a pesticide. Actually, this is a good glimpse at where we’re heading with this discussion.
- A casual organic gardener might spray them with Actinovate, a non-toxic, organic product made up of a beneficial bacteria called Streptomyces lydicus. The bacteria will outcompete the blight on the leaf surface and may also do something to boost plant health at the same time. Wonderful! Except… the product is made by Monsanto, which most organic gardeners don’t want to support, and more importantly, it’s still by and large missing the point I’ve been working towards here, which is that the reason the blight is there in the first place is because of a deficiency in plant health. I will say though, that like the copper, we are on the right track, even if we haven’t quite made it yet.
What would a more educated and experienced organic gardener do with tomato blight?
First, I want to reiterate that ‘organic’ is just the main word I tend to use to describe a gardener who’s thinking in more of a holistic way – I’m a certified organic gardener, so that’s the word that’s stuck with me. A certified organic farm wouldn’t have any synthetics sprayed on it, while a holistically-minded farmer may occasionally spray them on his non-certified farm, but with an understanding of how it fits into the overall health management plan – and that’s okay with me. What matters is the final impact on the whole environment – soil, microbes, plants, animals and humans – not the techniques used to get there.
So how would someone who thinks holistically go about handling blight? Well, I’ll tell you how I would go about it. I find it very useful to think about things in terms of physics, chemistry, and biology:
Physics. To be fair, many experienced gardeners also look at physics when there’s a disease problem – not just organic gardeners. The main areas I think of are sun, temperature, air and wind. For example, have my tomatoes been sitting in a little too much shade since the mulberry leafed out? Has it been too hot for them this summer? I also think of other physical things in the environment, like the mulch. When soil gets on the leaves (even organic soil), it often brings disease, so can I increase my mulch layer to stop that, and/or can I prune the bottom branches without harming the plant too much? When it comes to air and wind, a lot of disease crops up under moist, stagnant conditions, so can I somehow improve the airflow, if not this year than at least next? Speaking of moisture, now we’re onto…
Chemistry. The importance of proper watering is often undervalued in the garden. Whether too much, too little, or getting water on the leaves – all of these are common contributors to disease. Even blossom end rot of tomatoes, which is often partially the result of a calcium deficiency, is not necessarily because of insufficient soil calcium, but often because of improper watering that caused the plant to not be able to take up enough calcium. But beyond water, where a more experienced holistic-minded gardener will start to really separate from their neighbors is in linking plant health, disease and insect pest problems to chemical imbalances in their soil and plants. For example with blight on tomatoes, that points to a deficiency of phosphorus and vitamin C, according to soil consultant Dr. Arden Andersen. Get more P into the plant and you very well may not have any new blight tomorrow.
Biology. The other science to which organic gardeners are looking is biology. A garden is an ecosystem with many plants, animals and microorganisms all interacting. Sometimes they’re competing, but often they’re cooperating, and even when they are competing, there are many more winners than losers. For a garden to be healthy and free of pest problems, it needs to be bursting with a huge diversity of beneficial organisms. One of our main jobs is to encourage as many of these organisms as possible, and sometimes, we benefit from bringing in the right ones for the types of organic plants we’re trying to grow. The Streptomyces mentioned up above was definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s still coming from a mindset of “give me an organic product so I can kill this disease” rather than “how can I make this plant healthy so it doesn’t get disease?” On top of that, it’s just one species, but we need tens of thousands of different species in the soil and on plant leaves. Well-made organic compost and compost tea are two examples of inputs we can make ourselves to bring in these species. Organic gardening has been shifting in the last couple of decades from a chemistry focus to include more of the biological focus as well.
Each plant has preferences for sun/temperature/air (physics), water/nutrients (chemistry) and microorganisms/animals/plants with which to cooperate (biology).
The good news is we can get most of the way there by following some best practices, especially when it comes to balancing chemistry and biology in our organic gardens.
The occasional pest or other plant problem can be remedied with a little more in-depth research on that plant-pest relationship, or in some cases, just by hitting the plants with all the good nutritional and biological organic gardening tips we know of.
The coolest part is that all of these things that keep away pests and diseases are also what grows the thing we really want – non-toxic, highly nutritious organic food.
And also more of that food – like a lot more. Optimally healthy plants can grow to their genetic potential and produce optimal yields of garden vegetables, fruits and whatever else you want to grow.
Plus they taste better.
And they store longer.
And eating them decreases your chance of having to see a naturopath, a therapist, a chiropractor, a dentist, or a funeral home – well, that last one has to come eventually for all of us, but what’s the rush?
I can’t say it better than Heide Hermary did in her book ‘Working With Nature’:
“Pest management decreases biodiversity, health management increases biodiversity. Pest management views health as an absence of disease, health management views disease as an absence of health. Pest management is a warfare approach, health management is a welfare approach.”
In summary, here’s what I’d like us all to keep in mind as you spend time in your organic garden this year:
- Plants have been around about 2000 times longer than we homo sapiens, and bacteria about 16,000 times longer. They know how to create healthy ecosystems and they’ll do it for us if we give them what they need.
- Most garden problems are due to an imbalance somewhere in the system, so let’s focus as much as we can on improving garden health rather than fighting garden problems.
- Taking a health management approach – instead of pest management – will allow us to grow food that is so much more nutritious than the food we can buy anywhere else.
And that is fun!
Do you have any questions for me after reading this article? Feel free to ask down below.
Or if not, let me ask you, how do you deal with pest problems in your garden?