Organic gardening and food production

January is one of the months when we spend the least time outside in the garden or landscape because of short days and the generally inhospitable weather. Even in January you can use the nice days to finish cleaning up the ice storm damage and pruning your trees and shrubs.  This is a great time to plan your landscape and decide on new trees and shrubs you want to plant this spring. You can study seed catalogs, visit your local nursery or garden center  or browse gardening information on the internet to select the nursery stock,  vegetables, annuals and perennials you want to plant this spring and where you want to plant them. You could also attend the Home, Landscape and Garden show at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and enjoy several magnificent landscapes built for your enjoyment and to provide garden ideas.  The show will feature several nurseries, garden centers and landscapers exhibiting between the storm windows, doors,  storm cellars, lawn chairs and other home and garden products and speakers. Several local and state gardening groups and schools will be at the show so you can learn about their programs. The Oklahoma Horticulture Society, a volunteer group of state wide garden and plant lovers that offers a great newsletter, regular speakers and tours will be at the show so you can join and start participating with these fun and interesting gardeners to enjoy Oklahoma  focused programming.

I get many questions about what I think about organics, sustainability and green gardening. I view virtually all work you do in the yard and garden as for the greater environmental good as long as you are planting and maintaining live plants and not plastic or artificial shrubs and flowers. All living plant material absorbs, in fact, needs carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses to conduct photosynthesis just to maintain itself and more importantly to grow. Plants are the most effective way to absorb and sequester carbon back into the ground. In general, the bigger the plant canopy the more clean oxygen the plant gives off for humans and the more carbon dioxide and gasses it absorbs, uses and sequesters.  The answer to many environmental challenges is to plant more trees, shrubs, turf and plants.

Organic gardening has been a big issue for decades but has been a popular trend for many year since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” published in 1962. The organic movement goes through periods of increasing attention and support, particularly after some type of food safety scare whether with beef, lettuce or other foods. I certainly respect and have no problem with those who want to raise their own or buy organic produce and food crops  but I feel completely safe eating non organic produce and food as long as the produce is well washed and I feel comfortable with the grower, store or restaurant where I get the food. I do feel more comfortable with food that is grown in the United States as that gives me more confidence in the production methods and the quality and integrity of the food safety standards and inspections.    You should be prepared to pay more for true organically grown produce at your local farmers market or grocery store as it costs more per pound to grow most crops organically. The nitrogen fertilizer is much harder to deliver to plants without using commercial or chemical fertilizers and usually results in lower yields in organic systems. As the weather gets hotter in the summer the bug pressure increases substantially and it gets harder to maintain organic yields without losing more vegetables or fruits to pests and diseases. The physical appearance of organic fruits and vegetables often suffers as we move into the summer months in large part because of this increased pest and disease pressure. These days most commercial vegetable and fruit growers are very careful not to over fertilize because of the high cost of fertilizers and their own concern for the environment they need to protect if they want to continue as a viable growing operation. These costs and all this attention and discussion have dramatically reduced over feeding which can effect water quality and future crop yields.

When I was a boy growing up, commercial growers had access to much harsher chemicals and often applied them on a weekly or regular schedule to both control known pest and disease problems and as a preventative or barrier to future problems. As environmental awareness has grown, as growers have had to deal with rapidly increasing costs of chemicals and a much more limited arsenal of chemicals and since the physical act of spraying is just about the least favorite activity for every  grower, especially young growers, most growers now actively practice IPM or integrated pest management. Most grower only spray now when yellow sticky cards or other trapping techniques indicate that a problem has reached a certain level and then they spray for that problem and usually use a targeted chemical. Most growers have reduced their chemical use by 50 to 80% over the last decade. It will be very hard to feed our growing world population without the use of chemical fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides especially with agriculture now expanding into energy production for ethanol and other fuels. This will create increasing pressure for crop lands and higher yields to give us both food and energy.  

You can certainly grow your own organic food if you will take the time and effort or support your local growers who make that commitment of time and resources to grow organic food for you if you choose to go that way because of allergies or for your personal peace of mind. I will continue to eat food grown both organically and with chemical fertilizers and pesticides but I am especially anxious to support our local production as much as possible. If you haven’t grown any of your own vegetables or fruit trees for a few years, think about growing a few of your own tomatoes, peppers, squash or melons this year. Few things surpass the joy of growing your own food, watching it ripen, picking it when vine ripe, washing the harvest and eating tasty, crisp, fresh food.

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