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Garden Experiences: Organic and Natural or Inorganic and Artificial

Copyright © 1999 by David E. Ross

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol

Much foolishness has been uttered about organic gardening, compounded by those who — like Humpty Dumpty — define organic their own way to justify their pronouncements. No, I am not trying to argue against organic gardening. After all, I use "home-grown" compost and organic fertilizers when I feel they are appropriate. I feel that using the products of nature has the least harmful impact on the environment I am trying to create. But some common sense (far too uncommon in this world) needs to be applied to this subject. After all, I am trying to grow plants that do not exist in nature, in a garden where the natural soils and other components of the environment would be hostile either to these unnatural plants or to their natural ancestors.

First of all, recognize that some persons say "organic" when they mean "natural". A comparison of what is or is not organic or natural will illustrate the importance of using standard dictionary definitions of these terms.

Organic Inorganic
Natural blood meal
bone meal
carbon dioxide
rock phosphate
Artificial urea
ammonium sulfate

What? Highly toxic arsenic is natural? Malathion is organic? Sulfur is a chemical, isn't it? How can urea — made in a factory — be organic?

Obviously, we must check the definitions:

adj (chemistry) relating or belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis

… the enormous number and the completeness of related series of organic compounds, together with their remarkable facility of exchange and substitution, offer an illustration of chemical reaction and homology not to be paralleled in inorganic chemistry.

adj (chemistry) relating or belonging to the class of compounds not having a carbon basis

The term inorganic is used to denote any one the large series of substances (as minerals, metals, etc.), which are not directly connected with vital processes, either in origin or nature, and which are broadly and relatively contrasted with organic subscances.

adj existing in or produced by nature
adj Made or contrived by art; produced or modified by human skill and labor, in opposition to natural

In the end, the question must be: In what form should nutrients be made available to plants while minimizing contamination of the environment? No matter in what form nitrogen is supplied, for example, roots require nitrates. However, ammonium nitrate is so strong it can both burn roots and kill beneficial soil organisms if it is overused. Thus, for potting mix, I use blood meal because it is least likely to increase the damage to roots that have already been disturbed. However, on established roses, I use ammonium sulfate, both for the abundant nitrogen and for the acidifying effect (necessary in my alkaline soil).

Remember, if you wish to create an artificial environment to grow plants not found in nature — at least not found growing naturally in your immediate neighborhood — you may have to resort to artificial means. In any case, you cannot escape the use of such inorganic substances as water and oxygen.

6 September 1999

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