Ensuring that Your Homegrown Garden is Truly Organic
Homegrown is not necessarily organic. As consumers become more educated, they look for labels that bear familiar, reassuring words such as, "All Natural", "Organic Ingredients", and "No Hormones". But do these words really mean what they say? We pay more for fewer preservatives, fewer chemicals, and shorter shelf lives. Although we don't always know what that label really means.
It All Starts With the Seeds
We want organic produce. We don't want genetically modified organisms or GMO's, although the general public won't go out of their way to verify the originating seeds of their diet. And we know that one simple way to guarantee our "organic" food really is "organic" is to grow it ourselves, or find a friend or neighbor with an abundant garden.
However, "homegrown" does not guarantee organic gardening practices. Many seeds sold to the home gardener are GMO seeds. In fact, unless you are growing heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables, or have an old orchard in your backyard, chances are that your seeds were conceived in a laboratory rather than as a byproduct of last year's harvest. Conditions have to be just right to guarantee that tomorrow's seedlings will have the same desirable traits we seek in today's gardens. Instead of relying on Mother Nature, seed companies find it easier and more profitable to hire a bio-technician to genetically guarantee results. In some instances, it is not even legal to save seeds from one year to the next. Some companies feel that this practice is an infringement on their seed copyright, even if you are a full-scale organic farmer who simply happens to have a field near their conventional one that might have unintentionally cross pollinated your plants.
Fortunately, the home gardener can easily seek out organic and heirloom seeds at their local nursery, seedlings from their local farmers market or some of both at the local health food store, when the season is right. There are also heirloom seeds available through catalogues and online for everything from 18th century roses to flat tomatoes to blue pumpkins.
Growing Food Without Using Chemicals
In order to be considered organically grown, fruits and veggies need to be grown without chemicals. In your own home garden, it's relatively easy to see what you put down in the ground. It's easy to know what your plants are being exposed to, and you wouldn't expose your family to anything toxic anyways. Or would you?
It has grown increasingly clear that the hobby gardener doesn't always have a clear idea of what exactly "chemicals" look like. There are shelves and shelves of weed killer at the local hardware store. While technically they are considered safe for the home gardener to use in their own home garden, these products also render your harvest inorganic.
Weed killers contain chemicals that, simply put, kill weeds. Just because they do not kill the plants around the weeds does not necessarily make them safe to consume. You wouldn't drink a bottle of "Round Up" so you probably shouldn't spray it around your family's tomato plants.
Most products used for pest control are also taboo in the organic garden. Using natural measures like beneficial insects (ladybugs, praying mantis, nematodes) are the first avenue of defense in a truly organic garden. If you decide to use any pesticides or herbicides in your garden, the harvest should be thoroughly washed before consumption. Salmonella and Cyclospora are natural pathogens, and food poisoning is much more common than chemical overdoses when it comes to after dinner ER visits.
Use Compost as Fertlizer Instead of Chemicals
Certain plant foods that are guaranteed to stimulate growth and maximize yield may also have compounds that would render an otherwise organic harvest simply "homegrown". Many fertilizers not labeled "organic" contain synthetic soil enhancements that are derived from petroleum products. Rather than feeding the soil, they temporarily enhance it for the current crop, further depleting minerals in the long run. To grow a truly organic home garden, use compost and fertilizers or plant foods labeled specifically "organic".
Industry standards also require that no chemicals be used on the farmland for a period of at least 3 years before a crop can be labeled organic. So even if you follow the organic standards to the letter, your own backyard harvest might fail the USDA's Organic test. That doesn't mean it isn't safer than conventional options, just that you can't sell it as organic.
Start a Home Garden
If your interest in homegrown foods is motivated by a desire to reduce your carbon footprint, look to your farmer's market and support food grown close to home. Small farmers offer many of the qualities we seek in homegrown foods, without the hassle of a garden and are often on hand to answer questions about their growing methods (many may be more organic than your neighbor's homegrown garden). As small businesses, they also greatly appreciate any business that comes their way.
The organic movement isn't just about where food is grown, or labels and certification. It's a movement to make us more aware of what we put in our bodies and the impact we have on our environment. You can choose to make an impact by growing a garden, and you can control just how "organic" you want that garden to be. You can reap the rewards of your neighbor's garden, or you can visit your local farmer's market. Every step helps, even if you don't meet the USDA's requirements this season.