Organic vs. Non-Organic Gardening: A Comparison

Organic vs. Non-Organic Gardening: A Comparison

organic and nonorganic gardening methods

By Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell

The organic gardening movement has taken over
the gardening world and is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future
as interest in organic gardening and the use of all-natural products continues
to grow and accelerate. The National Gardening Association states that between
2004 and 2008, the use of all-natural lawn and garden products rose from 5
million to 12 million.

Over a decade later, the organic movement
continues to gain ground in the world of gardening. In 2019, horticultural
experts at Wyevale Garden Centers conducted research to show just how far
eco-gardening has come. Wyevale researchers claim that more than three quarters
of modern gardeners try to avoid the use of chemicals in their lawns and
gardens and reveal that 46 percent of today’s gardeners use organic fertilizers
instead of cheaper, more readily available chemical fertilizer options.

“The move away from chemical use and towards a
gentler, more holistic approach to problems in the garden is one of the
strongest trends in gardening,” says a Wyevale spokesperson. “It goes hand in
hand with a greater awareness and consideration of garden wildlife, as well as
a growing political understanding of the way [the “grow-your-own”
movement]  can decrease our food’s carbon
footprint and air miles.” 

Fertilizers and pesticides are not the only
products that are on the market with an all-natural or organic label. These
days, plants, seeds, and even items like mulch and potting soil can be found
with an organic label. But just what does it mean to be all-natural, or
organic? What are the benefits and drawbacks of using organic products compared
to conventionally grown plants?

Organic Gardening Terminology

Plants found in a nursery that are labeled,
“certified organic,” are grown without the use of synthetic products, such as
chemically-based pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Any plant
that is without an organic label is pretty much guaranteed to have been treated
with some type of synthetic product during the propagation of the plant.

The USDA (United States Department of
Agriculture) has very strict standards that must be met in order for a plant to
bear the “certified organic” label. The USDA performs an annual review of all
companies producing such plants to ensure that they are continuing to use the
accepted methods of organic production.

The “organic” label does not have the same
standards required to place it on packaging, and does not guarantee that the
product meets the criteria of organic certification. For example, it can be put
on a potting soil label to reference natural ingredients contained within, such
as organic matter, even when the potting soil mix is not 100% organic. This can
make terminology confusing and finding true organic products a bit misleading.

Organic and Conventional Benefits & Drawbacks

Organic gardening is an obvious choice for
people who believe in and value the benefits of eating organic food. Choosing
organic plants is a way to support nurseries that choose to use the same
growing methods as organic farmers. Organic nurseries, for example, use
beneficial insects to control pests and practice regular crop rotation. To
minimize the buildup of soil-borne diseases, organic nurseries continually
rotate the cultivation of each type of plant from one growing area to another.

Organic plants usually cost a bit more than
plants grown by conventional methods and tend to be a bit smaller in size. The
methods used to grow organic plants are more labor-intensive and often require
more space to produce the same number of plants compared to conventional
nurseries.

Non-organic plants can usually be grown to
larger sizes in containers by using synthetic fertilizers compared to organic
potted plants which are raised with all-natural fertilizers. Non-organic
nurseries are often responsible for polluting waterways by using tremendous
amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

It takes significant chemical inputs to grow
gigantic plants in small containers and to make them bloom like crazy before
they ever get placed in the ground. The downside is that once it is planted in
the ground, it is no longer in the artificial soil environment that it was
accustomed to and dependent on, and its growth may likely suffer because of
this. These plants also tend to be root-bound which can add to the shock of
transplanting.

Organic gardening is generally less harmful to
the environment, pets, and humans. Though organic products are often more
expensive than non-organic versions, natural gardening methods, such as hand
weeding instead of using chemical weed killers, save gardeners a bit of money
but require more time and effort to get the job done. Organic pesticides,
herbicides, and fungicides are not only more expensive than their chemical
competitors, but they are not always readily available, nor are they always
successful against perennial weeds.

Non-organic products, on the other hand, are cheaper, readily available at all garden centers, work faster, and are effective for a wide use of diseases, weeds, and pests. Non-organic products are very useful for the task of clearing plots and garden beds, and can be a great help to sustainable methods, such as no-till or no-dig gardening.

Conventional gardening uses chemicals that can be dangerous to people, pets, and the environment, as well as the wider garden ecosystem. Products that contain neonicotinoids can be harmful to beneficial insects and pollinators, such as bees, and soil-dwelling creatures such as earthworms, which help to enrich and aerate the soil.

Non-organic pesticides, herbicides, and
fungicides can be difficult to store and to dispose of in a safe manner. The
production of such products is energy and carbon intensive, and in many cases
unsustainable. Overuse and misuse of such products can cause scorch, drift, and
runoff, causing problems for plants, pets, and humans.

Organic and Conventional Plants

There is typically not a great selection when
it comes to organic plants compared to non-organic plants. Plants that are
cultivated for consumption, such as vegetables and herbs are usually the only
types of nursery plants and seedlings that are available to purchase that are
grown with organic methods. Any type of plant can be grown using organic methods,
but plants that are grown for consumption are in higher demand in organic form.
Consumers are also accustomed to flowering plants being large and covered in
flowers, so the market for less-prolific organic flowering plants is dismal at
best.

Gardeners can choose to grow their own plants
at home using organic techniques with the help of specialty mail order
nurseries that offer a full range of organic plants. Unfortunately, in most
areas, nurseries and garden centers offer very little organic selection, making
mail order nurseries the only reliable option for putting together a truly
organic garden with a wide range of plants.

Seeds and Plants

Organic seeds are plant seeds that are
organically grown, or cultivated using sustainable methods throughout the
growing process. This means that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were
used and that the plants which the seeds were harvested from were grown on land
that has been cultivated for at least three years using the standards
established for “certified organic,” farming. Organic farmers abide by these
standards and then allow their flower and veggie plants to go to seed, which
produces the seeds that come to us in packets with the certified organic
label. 

Seeds that were grown using conventional methods
were cultivated and harvested from plants that were treated with pesticides and
fertilizers on land that was not cultivated in a sustainable way, and in turn,
has an environmental impact as such.

Whether or not you choose to garden
organically and to what extent you choose to abide by sustainable gardening
guidelines, is completely up to you. In the modern world, it’s extremely hard
to be truly sustainable without a great effort, but there are tricks of the
trade that can lighten our load to an extent. Many people purchase organic
produce, buy carbon offsets for trips or vacations, bring their own canvas bags
to the grocery store instead of using excess plastic and paper bags to carry
their groceries, and make an effort to buy recycled products. Buying organic
seeds, growing organically, and cultivating organic crops are just other ways
in which green-minded people can support sustainable practices at a production
level.

Sometimes seed companies can’t afford the
organic certification but still go out of their way to avoid chemical usage and
cultivate their product using sustainable methods. Usually, these companies
state in the introductory pages of their seed catalogues, that they grow their
seeds without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. This is typically the case
with small, family-run farms. These companies should be supported by
green-minded gardeners just as if they were a certified organic company. As
long as a seed company uses a holistic approach to providing seeds, we believe
that you are still doing your part to support organic production.

Pesticide Options: Organic vs. Conventional

Just under 90 million pounds of pesticides
that are used in lawns and gardens each year in the United States are actually
banned in other countries. That accounts for over 40 percent of the pesticides
that are used within US borders. Many people attribute the high rate of
chemical pesticide usage in the US to the rise of corporate farming and large
scale agricultural businesses in the farming industry, but it may surprise you
to learn that home gardeners use non-organic pesticides more than anyone else.

There are many organic alternatives that you
can put into practice to avoid using chemical pesticides in the future. Organic
approaches to pesticides include choosing pest-resistant plants, using netting
to cut down on garden pest damage, and hand-picking harmful insects off of
garden plants instead of using sprays. Organic gardeners can also allow
beneficial insects into the garden to aid in alleviating pest problems.

Though non-organic methods are still
considered to be a quicker and easier approach to controlling insects, they
come with their own set of downsides as well. Using chemicals can be very
costly to both a gardeners wallet and to the environment. Not only is the
environment at large affected by chemical pollution, the home gardener’s garden
ecosystem is also at risk, as chemicals can be harmful to beneficial bugs and
wildlife, as well as to pets.

Fertilizer

Organic approaches to fertilizers have proven
to be a better option when it comes to consumables, such as fruits, herbs, and
vegetables, as it provides the best flavor and it offers a healthier option to
people (and wildlife) consuming them. It is no surprise to learn that modern
gardeners are for more likely to use organic fertilizers on consumables than
they are on ornamental plants.

Ornamental gardening, on the other hand, can
benefit greatly from non-organic methods of fertilization, as conventional
synthetic fertilizers offer the strongest concentration of beneficial nutrients
in the quickest amount of time, providing an opportunity for optimal growth and
blooming. Non-organic fertilizers are generally sprayed directly onto plants or
added to the soil. Unfortunately, some of these fertilizers do have a negative
impact on local wildlife.

Mulch

Mulch is another product that has both organic
and non-organic options. Which is better, again, is something that should be
left up to the individual gardener, and should be based on individual needs,
such as maintenance issues, personal preference, and the overall purpose of
what they need out of their mulch.

Organic mulch is the common choice for the
gardeners of the world who enjoy getting their hands dirty during their work
outdoors, as organic mulches vary from pine needles and wood chips to shredded
bark and composted leaves, all of which break down and eventually decompose
back into the soil, enriching it and improving its composition in the process.

Organic mulch improves water retention in the
soil and allows water to more easily absorb into the ground beneath the mulch
layer. If you use recycled organic mulch layer for your garden landscape, like
pine needles and/or shredded leaves, you can be proud of the fact that your
approach is not only saving you money, but it is more environmentally friendly
than non-organic choices.

On the downside, organic mulches do tend to
lose their luster after a few growing seasons, appearing dull after some time
in the sun. If you are looking to add color to your landscape when selecting a
mulch, organic options do not offer a lot of variety, whereas non-organic forms
of mulch, such as rocks, plastic, pebbles, or shredded rubber, come in a wide
range of color options that can help spruce up your outdoor decor.

Non-organic mulch is also a much more
permanent solution, as the products used generally do not deteriorate over
time, and usually never require any replacement. Non-organic mulch like stones
can work wonders to enhance certain garden styles and create unique visual
interests in garden beds and pathways. Stones, rocks, and pebbles are available
in a wide range of colors and textures that offer so many choices that can
complement nearly any style of decor.

Rubber mulches share the advantages of stones,
rocks, and pebbles, but also have added benefits such as being permeable to
water, unappealing to many types of insects, and perfect for areas where
children are at play, as it provides a softer, more cushioned base to help
minimize injury from falls.

Non-organic mulch has its downsides too, as
one would expect. Stones and rocks create more heat which is drawn towards
garden plants, and the soil they reside in, which increases the need for water,
and requires more rain or manual irrigation. Unless you install plastic or mesh
landscaping fabric, weeds are another factor to consider, as manual weeding can
end up adding a lot of extra work in the garden.

Which Method is Right for You?

From the time organic marketing hit the
gardening scene, a fierce debate has been ongoing about the advantages and
disadvantages of organic gardening, with a wide range of support from champions
on both sides of the argument. This article is not meant to take sides, but to
lay out some of the facts available so that readers can make their own
decisions in an informed manner. At the end of the day, it is up to each
individual gardener to decide whether to grow, buy, and even eat organically.

The word organic has different meanings when
connected with different gardening tasks. For seeds and plants specifically,
organic means that they are grown without synthetic fertilization, genetic
engineering, irradiation, or chemically based pesticides. Organic produce comes
only from this type of cultivation. Organic meats come from animals that have
only been exposed to organic plants, have only consumed organic food, and have
not been treated with drugs that have synthetic ingredients, such as growth
hormones and antibiotics.

Does organic mean better? Though gut instinct
leads us to say yes, research in the field is more inconclusive than you might
think. Recent studies have shown that organic food does not have any
correlation to advantages in taste or nutrition. Organic produce is shown to
have 30% less residue from pesticides than non-organic produce, but both are
well within legally allowable limitations.

Environmental impact is one of the most
persuasive arguments for an increase in organic growing practices, as concern
rises about chemical and pharmaceutical runoff. Organic farms and gardens are
generally more environmentally stable, and tend to practice better
environmentally friendly gardening methods, such as crop rotation and planting
cover crops to improve the soil. However, at the end of the day, it’s in your
hands as to whether you choose to follow an organic or non-organic gardening
practice, and it’s up to you to decide if growing, buying, and consuming
organically is a good fit for you and your family.  

There is also no strict rules saying that you
should have to go 100% organic or 100% conventional in your garden, so use the
methods that work best for you, and make the most sense for your priorities.
You might decide to compost but still choose to spray for pests. Or you may
choose to deter pests using natural means but still want to fertilize your
plants with a synthetic mixture. There is no right or wrong way to go about
gardening, so don’t feel like you have to agree with one side in totality.
Either way, gardening is a wonderful hobby that will help connect you with
nature and allow you an opportunity to create and nurture plant life right in
your own backyard.

Common Questions and Answers About
Organic Versus Not Organic

Can you buy organic soil?

You can purchase organic soil from garden
centers and nurseries or make your own organic soil blend. Although some
sources claim organic soil is hard to find, The Home Depot’s website states,
“we carry tons of organic soil at The Home Depot.” When purchasing organic
soil, look for “OMRI listed” on the label so you know the soil is approved by
the Organic Materials Review Institute. Homemade organic soil can be made of a
blend of one part mature compost, one part topsoil, and one part sand.

Can you make a non-organic plant
organic?

When certified organic perennial plants are not
available, farms may be able to use non-organic plants in organic farming as
long as they have not been treated with prohibited substances. Annual plants
must be from certified organic planting stock to be used in organic farming.

Can you use Miracle-Gro in an
organic garden?

Miracle-Gro has a line of products called
“Miracle-Gro Performance Organics” that are OMRI listed as organic. OMRI listed
products are approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute.

Does Home Depot have organic
plants?

Home Depot carries organic soil, seeds,
plants, and fertilizer as well as organic plant care treatments.

How are organic plants grown?

Plants and other products that are certified
as organic are grown without prohibited materials, which include antibiotics,
genetically engineered materials, irradiated materials, sewage sludge,
synthetic hormones, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and toxic or persistent
pesticides. Instead, organic gardens depend on cover crops, crop rotation,
mechanical control, mulching, and weeding by hand. Land where organic plants
are grown must have been cultivated without using prohibited materials for at
least three years. Organic farmers use organic operating farm plants that are
approved by their certifying agents and are subject to yearly inspections.

How do you fertilize an organic
garden?

Lots of fertilization methods are available
that fit into organic gardening practices. These include compost, fertilizer
tea/compost tea, dry fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, growth enhancers, alfalfa
meal, cottonseed meal, corn gluten meal, rock phosphate, cow manure, chicken or
poultry manure, earthworm castings, greensand, soybean meal, blood meal, bone
meal, feather meal, seabird guano, bat guano, fish meal, fish emulsion,
shellfish fertilizer or shell meal, liquid kelp fertilizer, seaweed, and grass
clippings. Look for products that are labeled OMRI listed or use methods you’ve
cultivated yourself using organic gardening practices.

How do you make organic garden
soil?

You can make your own organic garden soil by
mixing one part mature compost, one part topsoil, and one part sand. The
resulting soil will be organic if each component is created under organic
conditions or is a commercial organic product.

Is Miracle-Gro organic?

Not all of Miracle-Gro’s products are organic,
but the products that are “Miracle-Gro Performance Organics” are approved by
the Organic Materials Review Institute and are suitable for use in organic
gardening and farming.

What are the three major types of
organic fertilizers?

The three general categories of organic
fertilizer include dry, liquid, and growth enhancers. Dry fertilizers are mixed
into soil and take time to break down, so they are used on a long-term scale.
Liquid fertilizers have more immediately accessible nutrition as nutrients are
available in liquid form. Growth enhancers such as kelp help plants to absorb
the nutrition that is already available in their soil.

What are types of organic manure?

The general types of organic manure include
cover crop manure (also known as green manure), animal manure, mineral manure,
and composting. Cover crop manure takes advantage of the benefits of growing a
crop over the gardening land during the off-season. Animal manure utilizes the
nutrients present in animal waste (such as cow and chicken manure). Mineral
manures take longer to break down and release their nutrients, and these
include Epsom salt, greensand, gypsum, hard-rock phosphate, soft-rock
phosphate, and limestone. Composting allows gardeners to create their own fertilizer
by decomposing different waste products from their everyday life.

What is meant by organic
gardening?

Organic gardening is the cultivation of plants
without materials prohibited by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which
can include antibiotics, genetically engineered materials, irradiated
materials, sewage sludge, synthetic hormones, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers,
and toxic or persistent pesticides. Organic gardens instead use traditional
farming methods, such as cover crops, crop rotation, mechanical control,
mulching, and weeding by hand. The land used in organic gardening must have
been free of treatment with prohibited materials for at least three years in
order for plants grown on that land to be considered organic.

What is the use of organic
manure?

Like inorganic manure, organic manure improves
the fertility of soil it’s applied to and raises the amount of organic matter
in soil while providing micronutrients and other nutrients plants need.
Choosing organic manure allows farmers and gardeners to achieve these goals
while using a product that meets the conditions for organic farming.

When should I use organic
fertilizer?

Organic fertilizers should be added to soil a few months before planting for the next growing season, as they take time to break down and make their nutrients available for plants. However, these nutrients are immediately available in liquid organic fertilizers, which can be used at planting time or throughout the growing season.

Want to learn more about organic versus non-organic gardening?

Tamil Nadu Agricultural University covers Manures

Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Start an Organic Vegetable Garden

Capital Gardens covers The Differences Between Organic, Non-Organic and Sustainable Gardening

Conserve Energy Future covers What is Organic Gardening?

www.cs.mcgill.com covers Fertilizer

dengarden covers Organic vs. Non-Organic Soil

eOrganic covers Managing Manure Fertilizers in Organic Systems

Epic Fertilizers covers 21 Organic Fertilizers and How To Use Them In Your Garden

Fifth Season Gardening covers Organic vs. Non-Organic Approaches

National Gardening Association covers Edible Landscaping – Using Organic Fertilizers

Home Depot covers 5 Ways to Fertilize Your Organic Garden

Gardener’s Supply Company covers Building Healthy Soil

Gardening Channel covers Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming

Garden Myths covers Epsom Salt for Plants

Garden Myths covers Why to Buy Organic Seeds

Grow Organic covers Non-GMO and Organic Seeds

Help Guide covers Organic Foods: What You Need to Know

Home Depot covers Organic Gardening

SFGate Homeguides covers Organic Soil

House Beautiful covers Why eco-gardening is one of this year’s most significant trends

Joy Us Gardening covers Best Tips On Organic Vegetable Gardening

Rice Knowledge Bank covers Using Organic Materials and Manures

Lifegate covers Organic Farming is More Profitable than Traditional Agriculture

Miracle Gro covers How to Grow Organic Garden

Miracle Gro covers Myths About Organic Gardening

Off the Grid News covers 4 Types Of Organic Manure To Improve Your Garden Soil

Organic Farming Research Foundation covers FAQ About Organic Farming

ORSER covers What is Organic Farming?

Organic Trade Association covers How is Organic Food Grown?

Planet Natural covers Preparing Garden Soil

Plant Care Today covers 5 Best Homemade Tomato Fertilizer Options

Safer Brand covers Why Choose Organic Gardening

SparkPeople cover Which is Better: Organic or Conventional Gardening?

Urban Organic Gardener covers Is Miracle Gro Organic? Who Cares?

Veggie Gardener covers The Best Organic Fertilizers for a Vegetable Garden

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