What is Organic Gardening?
Let’s start by discussing what “organic” means. If a product is organic it is grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, a philosophy often goes with organic gardening where the grower tries to use natural products and not harm the environment. There is debate about a universal definition, and that’s partly because different industries and people define it differently. In most industries, certain degrees of non-natural processes are accepted by the authorities. For example, a chickens can be raised ‘organically’ (even in unnatural conditions) but then cooked with spices which have been irradiated (a common method of ensuring that pests and microorganisms are eliminated). Technically, a restaurant serving this chicken can advertise it as organic, even though the product received by the customer contains inorganic substances.
Since there is no accepted universal standard, we have to rely on standards set by individual organizations like the CDFA, USDA, and OMRI, which themselves have certain allowances for what they will consider “organic”. In the context of gardening, we will consider “organic” to mean only certified organic nutrients were used, no synthetic chemicals were applied, and the plant is free from genetic modification (and/or) grown using only natural processes.
The Benefits of Growing Organically
Growing indoors using only natural processes is no small task. Ecosystems are extremely complex with many interrelated interactions. Moreover, synthetically obtained nutrients are often cheaper than organic ones, and most synthetic nutrients and additives are created and put into common use because of their effectiveness. A prime example is phosphorous, which in its organic form is difficult for most plants to uptake because of its narrow uptake range and tendency to form bonds with other compounds in the soil. However, synthetic phosphorous in the form of various phosphates is readily available, and is able to be quickly and easily absorbed by plants. This is one of the decidedly non-organic techniques that is NOT banned by the CDFA due to the difficulty and potential cost of not employing it.
If processed/synthesized nutrients and techniques are cheaper and easier (and occasionally more reliable), why does anyone insist on growing organically? The main benefit is not in what organic products have but in what they do NOT have. A study was published claiming that organic produce has no more nutritional benefit than non-organic counterparts, which is true. However, synthetic compounds especially insecticides and herbicides have been linked to health issues. Indeed, developed countries have higher rates of specific cancers that many people believe are linked to the synthetic chemicals applied to food. There are other benefits to growing organically such as the taste and smell of products. The taste and smell is altered by what plants are given as nutrients. Many people claim to find organically grown products better tasting and more flavorful (think of all the subtle flavors of wine for example). If you just want cheap wine, organic might not be for you, but if you are looking to have specific flavors and tastes then you will want to experiment with different organic fertilizers. The benefit of organic gardening is it can increase flavors and organic growing gives you the peace of mind that comes from knowing what you’re putting into your garden, and ultimately yourself. The drawback to organic gardening is it is not the cheapest or easiest thing to do. Organic growing can take more time and can result in lower yields. Most synthesized nutrients are formulated to be as plant-accessible as possible and to produce reactions that typically result in larger yields.
How to Maximize Organic Yields
Although you may have slightly lower yields in the end if you’ve decided to take the organic growing route, there are many practices that you can utilize to make up some of the difference. This will involve concentrating on all of the factors that drive plant growth. At the top of the list would be ensuring lighting conditions are optimized with the proper grow lights, but this is a topic all on its own so we’ll focus on the other areas that will boost your organic yield in this discussion.
Organic Soils & Grow Mediums
A couple phrases you’ll encounter in organic gardening are “living soil” or “feeding the soil”. In a good organic potting soil or medium, the soil is literally alive. The roots of your plants don’t just sit in the dirt and wait for friendly nutrients to wander along, they actively seek out and grow into nutrient-dense areas. Plant roots are also associated with a whole host of microorganisms. The area immediately around the roots is called the rhizosphere and is a little ecosystem. Living in the rhizosphere are mycorrhizae, a term used to describe many beneficial fungi that help plants absorb nutrients more efficiently. They can even form long chains that are capable of pulling nutrients from far away from your plant’s root system, the way an extension cord pulls electricity from across the room. It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship – the mycorrhizae break down and transport nutrients for your plant, and in exchange your plants feed the mycorrhizae with carbohydrates created by photosynthesis, which the fungi and organisms in the root zone eat up.
There are also many species of bacteria and protozoans that can live in the rhizosphere that use/change nutrients often to the benefit of the plants. So, when growers talk about feeding the soil, what they mean is that you have to be mindful not just of your plant’s direct nutritional needs, but the needs of the organisms that your plant relies on. Organic growers can inoculate their soil by adding beneficial microorganisms to the medium, and then apply nutrients the microorganisms require. Having living organisms in your medium will be an essential part in maximizing nutrient use and maximizing growth. Read More About the Rhizosphere and Living Soil.
The physical properties of soil or grow mediums including the size and texture of their particle makeup, as well as their aeration and water retention qualities, are also factor heavily into the production level of organic gardens. Standard soils are often mixed with substrates such as coco coir or perlite to help improve the physical traits of the soil. Dr. Myers explains how to tell if your soil makes the grade:
A common and effective way of adding mycorrhizae and other beneficial microorganisms is through the use of compost tea. Instead of soaking leaves in hot water, you will soak substances like worm castings, kelp and microorganisms in water to make compost teas. When you use compost teas, you’re basically supercharging your soil with nutrients and food for the plant and microorganisms. Another benefit to using compost teas is that there is no need to balance the pH of your tea because the microorganisms will do that for you!
Here’s a simple recipe for some very effective all-purpose tea that you can use at any stage of your plant’s growth and in pretty much any kind of soil mix:
- 5 gallons of clean (reverse-osmosis filtered) water
- ¼ cup kelp meal
- ¼ cup ancient forest or fertile valley
- ¼ cup worm castings
- ¼ cup alfalfa meal
- 5 tbsp stump tea
- 5 tsp elemental powder
Just mix your ingredients together, let the mixture sit for at least 24 hours (up to 72 for best results), then strain out the excess particulates before you water your plants with it (if desired). To get the most out of your tea, make sure to keep the water at a consistent temperature of 68-78°F and stir it slowly and thoroughly a couple times each day.
Root Boosting Containers
Another factor that can help to boost your organic yield is the container you will be growing in. Plastic nursery pots and grow bags are very common because they’re cheap, durable, easy to replace, and readily available for purchase pretty much anywhere in the country. However, plastic nursery pots are not the best pots to promote root growth. A recent wave of growers are finding a high degree of success using fabric grow containers collectively referred to as smart pots. The term is used to describe any fabric grow container, though it does technically belong to the brand Smart Pots™ (much the same way that Kleenex, Band-Aid, or Xerox have become the general terms for tissues, adhesive bandages, and copy machines, respectively).
There are several benefits to fabric pots over plastic ones, but perhaps the most import advantage is they promote “air-pruning” (a technique by which a plant prunes its own roots once they touch the air outside of the fabric pot). Air pruning will encourage a fibrous roots system which will encourage nutrient and water uptake and the fabric allows for an ideal mix of oxygen and water, both of which roots need all the time. Plastic aerating containers known as air pots, also a brand name (Air Pots™) adopted as a general term, take air-pruning to the next level with a contoured design that encourages root growth to maximize root zone efficiency. Improving your roots using one of these specialized containers will also provide a nice boost to your organic harvest.
Optimizing the Water Supply
Water quality in the organic garden is every bit as important as it is in hydroponics. Remember the beneficial microorganisms we discussed? Municipal water sources contain chemicals that will kill off a lot of these microbes, such as chlorine or chloramines, so distilled, reverse-osmosis (RO), or even spring water may be essential if you have a municipal water line. If you have a well, your water may be ok because it isn’t treated with the synthetic chemicals and processes that city water is. However, just be careful to make sure that your well water isn’t already full of high levels of dissolved solids. This can be accomplished with using a standard ppm meter. High mineral content can result in nutrient lockout in which minerals in the water bond with the nutrients in your medium making them unavailable for plant uptake. For many organic gardeners, utilizing filtration or a reverse osmosis system will be the best way to ensure maximum nutrient uptake for maximum organic growth.
Keeping it Organic
Finally, as with any garden, pests can be an issue waiting to sabotage your organic plans. First and foremost, don’t bring new plants directly into your grow area and don’t expose your grow area to the outside air to prevent pests from getting into your garden. However, if you do get pests have no fear. Running into a pest problem doesn’t have to compromise the integrity of your organic crop. Organic growers have plenty of solutions to any pest problem that don’t rely on synthetic pesticides. One of the most common solutions for insect infestations is the use of predatory bugs. Ladybugs or predatory mites and wasps will eat the bugs that eat your plants. Don’t worry predatory wasps don’t sting people! People use ladybugs to combat aphids and thrips and even fungus gnat larvae, and predatory mites can clean up a spider mite infestation quickly. If you don’t want any bugs around though, there are several sprays that are certified as organic solutions. For example, SNS 209 is a great preventative foliar spray. It’s mostly made of rosmaric acid, which destroys the appetite of any leaf-muncher who bites into it, which destroys the whole population of insects slowly by keeping them from being physically able to eat. Another common and inexpensive “organic” pest solution is the use of simple sticky traps, which as you may have guessed are sticky pieces of cardboard you can hang in your garden which when bumped into by an insect keeps the insects stuck so they can’t eat or reproduce.
Growing organically means you have a lot of options. If you are interested, just start out small and work on becoming more organic or trying new organic products. A good place to start is with microorganisms in the medium, and providing organic nutrients like compost, worm castings or guano. In the end, the rewards of organic growing won’t come in the form of bigger yields, but you can expect your plants to be better tasting. Plus, knowing your garden will be both environmentally friendly and friendly to your health can be a just as rewarding and beneficial of an objective. Moreover, by enhancing environmental factors such as your light, the soil, the containers, and the water, you can expect good yields and you will have the satisfaction of saying it was organically grown!
Questions, tips, or tricks to share? Join the conversation, and share your organic growing experiences! Throw a picture on Instagram and tag us in it (@HTGSupply) – we’d love to see your results! And don’t forget to check out this week’s coupon code and sale information below! From all of us here, good luck, stay safe, and Happy Growing!
THIS WEEK’S COUPON CODE: ORGANICGROW
Enter the promo code at checkout for a 10% discount on select certified organic products featured below. Visit your local HTG Supply and simply mention this article to get the deal in-store as well! Thanks again for tuning into Talking Shop with HTG Supply! Offer valid through HTGSupply.com and in-store 02/02/18-02/16/18. Cannot be combined with other offers. Follow us on social media for all the Sales, Events and Customer Appreciation Days. In addition, learn more about indoor growing and get all kinds of tips, tricks and techniques!