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Organics for Life
by Paulette Mouchet

Originally published in "The Rose Garden" newsletter in 2001.

I'm too busy to be a chemical gardener. Even before I consciously declared myself an organic rose gardener, I was never much for all the spraying and fussing that chemical rose growing requires. Once or twice a year, I'd throw on some systemic fertilizer and if I got mildew or thrips, I'd simply prune off the affected stems and/or buds. End of story.

My roses muddled along. I had a great flush of bloom in the spring. When the new growth buds turned brown and died mid-summer, I attributed it to the high desert environment where I live.

One day I tossed out the chemicals and turned to organics. Since I didn't work that hard at chemical growing, I'm not sure exactly what intrigued me about the concept of growing roses organically. Now that I've been an organic gardener for awhile, I know.

1) Organic gardening is a lot less work than chemical gardening

In a typical spring month, full-fledged chemical gardeners will spray fungicide 2-3 times to prevent mildew, spray insecticide 2-3 times to get rid of aphids, spray miticide 1-2 times to kill spider mites, and apply snail bait every 2 weeks or more. They also rotate feeding with fish emulsion, iron, Epsom salts, and a chemical fertilizer.

In my book this translates into time, time, time.

If you follow an organic program, in a similar spring month you will feed your soil once with organic fertilizer, add mulch as needed. If needed, you'll apply baking soda solution for mildew, use cabbage leaves to capture snails, spray hose water for aphids, and put out bird seed.

The "if needed" part means that instead of spending your time in a bio suit spraying everything in sight with every chemical known to mankind, you get to wander through your garden with a cool drink and enjoy your plants. If, along the way, you notice a plant that needs a little help, there is a quick, simple, organic method you can apply.

2) Organically grown roses are healthier, bigger, and stronger, and they have larger blooms and a longer blooming period

rose: organic Stainless Steel
Organically grown Stainless Steel in October (before deadheading).

My 2-year-old Stainless Steel plant, which was pruned to about 24 inches tall in February, was 56 inches high on June 1st. That's 32 inches of growth in about 4 months. Barbra Streisand was 36 inches tall in the same time period. While both of these plants are vigorous growers, I never saw this kind of growth so early in the growing season when I was a chemical gardener.

Now, a 56-inch-tall plant could be a problem come October when our dry, northeast winds begin to blow 30-50 miles an hour. When I was a chemical gardener, I whacked off any long canes so they wouldn't whip around. This encouraged new growth right before winter set in, which led to unhappy plants. Now that I'm an organic gardener, I leave my plants alone because they are strong enough to stand up to the winds. Occasionally, I'll trim back a plant, but only if it's really taking a beating.

3) Organic gardening is better for human and animal health

Acephate, aka Orthene, is an insecticide commonly used by chemical rose gardeners to kill aphids and thrips. According to the The Extension Toxicology Network, which is maintained cooperatively by several state universities, exposure effects of acephate in humans can include

Isn't it amazing this product is approved for over-the-counter purchase and use?

Unfortunately, acephate is only one of many potentially toxic chemicals available today. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Americans apply 27 million pounds per year of the broad-leaf herbicide 2,4-D.

2,4-D, a component of many weed-and-feed lawn products, was approved years ago but is now under scrutiny by the EPA because studies continue to show it causes cancer.

4) Organic gardening is better for the environment

Mycorrhizal fungus.
Image from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons "Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Netherlands" Licence

Much interest and research has been done on soil mycorrhiza, tiny fungi that live in symbiosis with the delicate feeder roots of plants. Mycorrhiza are responsible for the transportation of nutrients and water into plant roots and without these fungi, plants will wither and die.

According to Dr. Elaine Ingham, former professor at Oregon State University and president of Soil Foodweb, Inc., another benefit of proper fungal and bacterial populations in the soil is that, "you will see plants with higher nutrient levels in them." For example, grapes growing in healthy soil had three times more protein than those growing in a depleted system. Wheat had 10 times more protein. Concentrations of every micronutrient are increased when plants are growing with mycorrhizal relationships, says Ingham.

Micorrhiza are fragile organisms and can easily be killed by chemical fertilizer and fungicides. Without micorrhiza, plants wither and die.

Being an organic gardener seems like the obvious choice for everyone. But, not everyone is, or wants to be, an organic gardener. Why?

Perhaps the reason lies in the goals of the gardener.

I garden to relax from a busy day and I don't want to spend my time decked out in a bio suit. I like to putter, not work, in my garden. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor, not sweat them. And, I like knowing that in my garden my 3-year-old daughter won't accidentally eat snail bait and end up in the emergency room.

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