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November 05, 2002
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DESERT BLOOM: Organic Gardening

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USDA Standards for Organic Gardening

I've been looking at the National Organic Program Standards that the USDA recently issued. No, I haven't gotten through all 554 pages, but I've been skimming it. Now, I'm not going to get into the controversies that've come up around the standards themselves. That's a debate I'm not ready to get into.

No, I'm talking about growing things organically.

After all, it's never too early or too late in the year to plan the next garden. Lots of people figure that when they put in a vegetable garden, it'll be organic. And I think that's terrific, but I wonder - why an organic garden? And, what, exactly, do folks mean when they use that word? Probably we all have a sense that it means not using certain chemicals, such as insecticides, weed killers or fungicides. I think that's a large part of the answer to 'Why organic?' - fewer poisons around the plants.

Some people might know that fertilizers have to be carefully chosen as well, because they also have to meet organic standards. It can't just be what comes out of any bag or bottle of plant food at the store. But there's more to 'organic' than putting on additives, or not putting them.

The standards were designed for organic farmers across the United States, but Southern Nevada gardeners can be guided by the standards too. The language goes like this:

Quote -

A producer of an organic crop must manage soil fertility, including tillage and cultivation practices, in a manner that maintains or improves the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil and minimizes soil erosion.

The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.

In other words, the first thing to do, if you are thinking organic, is to feed the soil. A basic concept of organic gardening is that to grow things well, there needs to be a whole system supporting plant growth. When plants are healthy, they're much less likely to fall prey to insects and disease, because they have more of the necessary resources to fight off pests and pathogens. Of course, creating a rich, healthy soil in Southern Nevada is no small challenge, but it is possible. Back in September, I talked here about creating compost, which is hugely important in organic growing.

Remember though, you can buy compost, if it's not possible for you to produce your own. The point is to make your soil better. To quote the standards again, compost

'maintains [and] improves the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil and minimizes soil erosion.'

In my plant nutrition class, I use the catchy phrase, 'feed your plants and they'll feed you.'

Maybe I should change that to: 'Feed your soil, and it'll feed your plants and they'll feed you.'

Too bad it's not catchy, even if it is true.

Adding that compost, that organic matter, makes the soil richer, more nutritious, and more like a sponge that can hold nutrients. In other words, if the soil is cared for, a lot of fertilizer becomes unnecessary. Like a sponge, it will hold water, and the soil can actually cling to itself, so that even with our fierce winds, the garden soil is less likely to blow away.

With organic practices, pest management does not come out of a spray bottle or a bag either.

If weeds come up in the garden, pull them out as early as possible, before they become a nuisance. Another way to keep weeds down is to apply a mulch that's composed of biodegradable materials like straw or shredded bark.

We don't have a lot of severe insect pests in the Mojave, although aphids are a problem. Here at Cooperative Extension, we suggest knocking them off the plants with a stream of water. Tomato hornworms can be picked off plants by hand.

When plants are spaced in the bed and watered correctly, we get very few disease-causing fungi.

Sanitation is very important in organic production. Keeping containers and tools clean will prevent many problems later. Fortunately, this is not too hard. Soap and a dilute bleach solution are effective and acceptable cleansers.

And that is much of the problem solving in an organic garden, at least in this part of the world.

Now, what gets planted in an organic garden? Of course, since it's your garden, you can plant whatever you want. If it's going to be strictly organic, then the seeds or transplants need to have been organically produced, but even the feds will make an exception if there aren't any of those available.

The point is to create a garden that you believe will be best for you. If your goal is to minimize the amount of poisons or synthetic stuff you put in your garden, then growing organically might be just the ticket.

You can read the whole standards document on the World Wide Web. It covers everything. Like I said, it's 554 pages long.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

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