Many people are demanding organic, based on political, nutritional, and environmental reasons. Implicit in the reason to return to natural production methods is the fact that beneficial organisms are killed by the use of toxic chemicals. This sets up toxic chemical users to need more and more and more toxic chemicals to maintain the system to the point that an addiction to those toxic chemicals is formed.
How do you “Just Say No” to that addiction? Switching from using synthetic chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides to using organic products does not fix the problem caused by toxic chemicals. If we only use natural products that kill pests, weeds or diseases, the problem has not been solved, and the “organic grower” will not be successful. “The switch” must involve a wholly new approach, which requires working with nature, instead of combatting and fighting nature.
Gardening with nature is preventative. We deal with the cause of diseases, pests, or poor fertility. The toxic chemical approach tries to suppress symptoms of the problem, instead of fixing the problem. By merely trying to suppress the symptoms, the problem typically gets worse and worse, which leads to more and more chemical use. This results in a loss of nutrients, as well as the toxic chemicals leaching from the soil and polluting our water systems. All this occurs because the beneficial soil life, which is normally present in healthy soil, is lost.
Chemical companies love people who mindlessly follow their instruction, never asking why growing food gets more and more expensive and involves ever greater amounts of ever more toxic chemicals. Since toxic chemicals do not deal with the problem, but rather with symptoms, we get drawn into a chemical downward spiral. If we try to stop toxic chemical use, our plants do not do well. Failure is often the case if we try to get off the downward spiral by simply shifting to using organic products.
To win our freedom from toxic chemicals, we must start gardening with nature. The key to gardening with nature—to true organic gardening—is to recognize the power of beneficial microorganisms, elements little known or understood by the general public.
Organic growing is different from using chemicals for several important reasons. First, we need to have most of the nutrients present in the soil in non-leachable forms most of the time. We need to have the mechanisms in that soil to convert those not-available-to-plant nutrients into plant-available nutrients IN THE ROOT ZONE, for the most part, not away from the roots. The mechanisms to do this conversion process are beneficial microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods. The beneficial species of these organisms are naturally found in healthy growing systems, not the disease species.
Simply putting down the highest quality, most expensive organic nutrients in your garden is not likely to result in great plant growth, unless the correct microbes are present. Beneficial bacteria and fungi are needed first to degrade any residual toxic chemicals in your growing environment. Then bacteria and fungi are needed to tie-up nutrients so those nutrients are not leachable, and thus are not lost when water moves through the soil. Finally, bacteria and fungi need to be eaten by protozoa and nematodes to release tied-up nutrients in a plant available form. If any of the species that do this processing in your soil are missing, then we need to get them back. If life is missing in your soil, we need to give Mother Nature a jump-start to help her reestablish the normal set of organisms, and thus, reestablish normal nutrient cycling.
Clearly this process involves more than simply laying down a set of mineral nutrients. We need to educate people to understand that plants can, indeed, take care of themselves without people getting in the way. No need to have complex feeding schedules and mind-boggling mathematical calculations on rates of adding nutrients or adjusting pH. In the gardening with nature approach, we provide nutrients and a diversity of microbes to transform those nutrients, and the plants do the rest. Microbes, then, hold on to nutrients and they no longer leach from the soil, so you can use far fewer nutrients. Microbes also restructure the soil by creating air passageways and cavities that enable water and air to be retained within the soil, so you use considerably less water. You save money, time, and energy, and the health of your plants improve. Plants contain more nutrients and have built up their immune systems to become resistant to problem pests and diseases, leading to higher yields and plants that grow bigger and faster.
There are some complications that can arise when gardening with nature. Most significantly, complications arise because our gardens are not isolated. Though we have added microbes and organic nutrients, we still may have problems from environmental disturbances beyond our control—pesticide drift from a neighboring yard, acid rain, freezing weather, scorching heat, chlorine and chloramine in our watering systems, or too many salts. We must continue to tend our gardens and be watchful. We must continue to add microbes and nutrients. However, less maintenance will be required each year, as our soils increase in organic matter and microbe populations. Maintaining a healthy population of 70 percent of beneficial microbes in soils and on plant surfaces will nurture a protective type of environment that will thwart any disease-causing organisms that may come along, simply by outcompeting them for food and space.
Excerpts from Preface to 10 Steps To Gardening With Nature: Using Sustainable Methods To Replicate Mother Nature written by Carole Ann Rollins, Ph.D. and Elaine Ingham, Ph.D.