On this website, you will often come across the idea of organic gardening. But if you are new to gardening, you might be wondering what that really means. So in this article, I thought it would be helpful to answer this question, and to take a little time to learn more about where the idea comes from and the history of organic gardening. Read on to find our more.
What Does ‘Organic’ Mean?
The term ‘organic’ can, of course, be applied to all living things. But when we talk about organic gardening we are referring to a system of gardening that avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides etc.. More than this, however, organic growing, whether it is in a polytunnel, outside in a garden, or on a farm, is about working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable means of food production.
Where the Term ‘Organic’ Comes From
Organic growing is not a new thing. Since the very early days of synthetic fertiliser use, there has been concern about its effects and broader implications. For example, Rudolph Steiner raised concerns in this arena. Albert and Gabrielle Howard were other early pioneers of the organic movement.
But the term was first used in its current context by Lord Northbourne in his manifesto on organic food production in 1940. And Howard published his own book, using the term, in the same year.
J. I. Rodale was interested in these ideas. He founded the Rodale Institute in the US. This helped spread the ideas of organic growing around the world. Lady Eve Balfour in the UK, and many other growers around the world were also instrumental in the spread of knowledge and understanding in this area.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Garden Organically?
You might be wondering why the ‘organic movement’ was necessary in the first place. Of course, throughout most of human history, gardening and growing was organic by default. It was only in the 19th and 20th Century that the harmful products organic gardening seeks to avoid came into use.
In order to understand where things went wrong, it is helpful to take a brief look at the evolution of food production over the past couple of centuries. This can help us to understand why we don’t all still garden organically.
The Decline in Home Growing
Land enclosure took land away from commons and public ownership. This drove people into cities and fuelled the industrial revolution, but also led to a range of social problems. The process of enclosure was largely complete by the 18th Century. By this time, regional and then a national market were developed, alongside transport infrastructures. This led to farming becoming a business, rather than solely a means of subsistence.
Where, once, food was often produced on a domestic scale, in thousands of individual cottage gardens, by the 19thCentury, the industrial revolution and accelerations of new farming technologies and innovations meant that food production became a business. There began to be a separation between farm lands where food was grown, and domestic spaces where people lived. Most people began to become more and more disconnected from the food they ate.
One major change in farming driven by the advancements in agriculture of the 19th Century was a change in how farm fields were traditionally fertilized. Traditionally, manure was used as an organic fertilizer (along with the incorporation of nitrogen-fixing crops in crop rotation etc…).
But in the 19th Century, massive deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) in the Atacama desert in Chile came under British interest, and began to be imported. Then, after around 1830, massive deposits of bird guano were found and were imported too. Potash from ash of trees burned to open up new agricultural lands were also shipped in. And bones from the meat industry were also ground up and sold as fertiliser.
John Bennet Lawes began investigation into fertilization at Rothamsted Experimental Station in 1843. He investigated both organic and inorganic fertilizers and their affect of crop yields, and founded one of the first artificial fertilizer manufacturing factories in 1842. Coprolites found in south east England yielded ‘super phosphate’, (obtained by dissolving coprolites in sulphuric acid) and this was sold as the first commercial fertilizer. Soon, it developed into a major industry.
The demand for nitrates and ammonia for fertilizers was growing rapidly, and by the beginning of the 20th Century, it was clear that these reserves would not satisfy future demands. In the first decade of the 20th Century, a method for artificial nitrogen fixation and the production of ammonia (used for fertilization) was developed in Germany.
This method, called the Haber-Bosch Method, converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia by a reaction with hydrogen using a metal catalyst under high pressures and temperatures. After the Second World War, the use of synthetic fertilizer increased rapidly, in conjunction with the ever-growing world population.
Pesticides and Herbicides
For thousands of years, humans have used certain pesticides to protect their crops. Elemental sulfur, for example, was used around 4,500 years ago, and by the 15th Century, many toxic chemicals were being applied to crops. In the 17thCentury, nicotine sulfate extracted from tobacco leaves was used as an insecticide, and by the 19th Century, two natural pesticides, pyrethrum (from chrysanthemums) and rotenone (from the roots of tropical vegetables) had been introduced.
Until the 1950s, arsenic based pesticides were most commonly employed. Then DDT and other organochlorines became dominant, later to be replaced, by the 1970s, with organophosphates and carbamates. Since then, pyrethrin compounds have become the most commonly used insecticides.
Generally speaking, the 1940 and 1950s are considered to have been the beginning of the ‘pesticide era’.
Then herbicides became common in the 1960s. Largely, these are nitrogen-based compounds like triazone, carboxylic acids and glyphosate. The innovations surrounding pesticides and herbicides, as well as synthetic fertilizers, were key to the rapid period of development in agriculture between the 1940s and 1970s which became known as the ‘Green Revolution’.
The use of pesticides and herbicides rose exponentially over the latter half of the 20th Century. We increasingly understand the harm that these things have done. But it is also important to understand that these methods for increasing yields have allegedly saved over a billion people from starvation.
Norman Borlaug was a key figure of the ‘Green Revolution’. He incontrovertibly increased yields in developing nations through developing new strains of wheat. But he is also criticised by some for his role in bringing large scale, monoculture, input-intensive farming techniques to countries which had previously relied on subsistence farming.
The Evolution of Organic Gardening
As the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides etc. took off in farming. So too they became increasingly common in domestic gardens. But the rise in these inorganic practices also means that the backlash to these harmful practices continued to evolve.
The rise of the environmental movement, regenerative gardening and farming, permaculture, agro-ecology and other organic growing movements over the 20th Century meant that the world of organic gardening continued to evolve. And it continues to grow and increase awareness to this day.
Organic Gardening Today
Today, more and more people are becoming aware of the harm in non-organic growing for our planet. They understand the harm it can cause for the soil. And for the natural ecosystems that surround us. Both in the scientific world and in the general population, there is a much greater understanding. We now know the harm that 20th Century growing practices can do. And the benefits of switching to organic production methods.
We humans have tremendous capacity to alter our environments. And we also have a tendency to seek to impose order on the world around us. But organic growers around the world are showing that by working with nature rather than fighting it, we can achieve much better results. We can potentially achieve even higher yields than non-organic growers, while protecting and even enhancing the world around us.
If you don’t garden organically in your polytunnel, it is vital to make the switch. Organic growing is better for our planet, for humanity in general, and for you as an individual. When you take a relaxed approach, it is easier than you might think to manage problems. And to find sustainable solutions in any garden.
Do you have some organic gardening tips to share with beginners? Feel free to share your tips in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.