I’ve spent a lot of time lately speaking to audiences both within the gardening and landscaping industry as well as to homeowners that just love to garden. In spite of different audiences, the message is the same; in general, are gardeners moving to more eco-friendly and sustainable practices? Although most homeowners (57% according to the National Gardening Association) say that environmental stewardship is very or extremely important, their actions don’t yet support those numbers.
So what’s the disconnect between what they say and what they ultimately do? From a number of surveys and conversations I’ve had with people closely involved with tracking these behaviors, it’s a combination of issues. Many still perceive the price of organic and natural solutions to lawn and garden issues to be significantly higher than synthetic alternatives. Others claim they don’t believe natural solutions provide as effective results. For those willing to try new options, many state they can’t find them on the store shelves, and a large number say they’re confused about what to buy.
In an attempt to understand more about why things seem to moving more slowly than I had hoped, I spoke with Jeff Gillman, author of “The Truth About Organic Gardening; Benefits, Drawbacks and The Bottom Line”. In my efforts to get to the bottom line, I asked Jeff if he thought organic gardening practices were better for the environment across the board. “The truth is, it’s just not an absolute”, as Jeff pointed out. He quickly went on to explain that without making at least some qualifications, you just can’t make a blanket claim like that.
Jeff’s book was the subject of my latest episode for my weekly podcast series, Growing a Greener World. Little did I know, his answers to some of my questions would likely have at least a few people scratching their head about their organic gardening practices. Case in point: some organic pesticides are bad news for the environment. One of the worst offenders is rotenone. It’s highly toxic to fish and other water dwelling creatures. Although it is being removed from the market as an organic pesticide, you can still buy it today. “Sure it’s organic and natural, but so is a snake bite. And is that a good thing?” he adds.
Throughout our conversation Jeff cited other examples of not so green things that we eco-conscience gardeners are doing that aren’t as eco-friendly as we think. Have a tiller? Think twice before using it. Frequent use destroys soil structure. Another example; green sand and rock phosphate are two natural products used as fertilizers yet taken from nonrenewable sources. Although they’re good for our gardens, they’re not good for the planet.
Here’s another surprise for many green gardeners; did you know that it’s good to fertilize your lawn (at least a little)? Healthy lawns with deeper roots do more to prevent runoff than lawns that aren’t fed at least occasionally. The good news is, there’s a natural nitrogen source that will keep our lawns healthy and also reduce weed growth. Jeff likes corn gluten for this (and so do I). But he adds; “The problem is it takes two years to work and when it does, it’s not as effective as synthetic pre-emergent controls”. I must say I found myself thinking, “wow Jeff, do you have to be so academic about this?” Then I reminded myself that he is a Ph.D and assistant professor of horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota.
So, is the bottom line to all of this bad news to the organic gardening community? Absolutely not. In fact, I hope it helps clear up some of the misunderstandings that many gardeners have in regards to their expectations of what, when and how to use organic and natural products. Certainly there is plenty of confusion out there. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to why we still haven’t embraced more sustainable choices. But if we can gain a clearer perspective of realistic expectations going in, well that’s half the battle in my opinion. You can hear my audio interview here.