Thursday, May 31, 2012

To Your Tilth

     The first real gardening post of the new growing season, how exciting. Being an enthusiastic gardener, I've greeted the warmer weather with a smile and have been spending a lot of time out doors getting things ready and in the ground.

      As with pretty much everything I do, I've been reading up on gardening in preparation for the season. There is always something new, or old, to learn.  I read an article, a good article, about soil management. Good information but I have to say it left a bad taste in my mouth. One, because of the slant within and secondly because of the comments it generated. Obviously the people reading it didn't understand what they had read.

     What was the bone of contention for me? Organic. Certified organic as opposed to all plant and animal matter is organic.

     If you've read along with me before, you will know I am not a huge booster of organic. It isn't even that I disagree with it in principle, it's the reality of it that bothers me.

     In a nutshell, organic, and I mean certified, gardening means a return to natural methods of soil cultivation and management. No herbicides, check. No pesticides, check. No chemical fertilizers, hm, maybe not a check there. Truth be told, I don't one hundred percent agree with any of it. Don't get me wrong, it's a great idea but how realistic is it?

     I'm going to pass along a little of my experiences as the son and grandson of small farmers in Eastern Ontario. It's all I know.

     First let's dispense with the notion of "natural". There is nothing natural about gardening or farming. Cultivation is all about packing as many plants into as small an area to get the biggest yield possible. We create artificial micro environments to ensure we get the most out of the least.

     No GMO, genetically modified organisms? We've been modifying our seed and livestock since we moved from hunter gathering to harvesting. Eons of change. Even our heirloom seeds are the product of untold generations of selective breeding. Yes, it is different than firefly genes spliced into wheat to make it rust resistant, but only by degrees of manipulation. Is it a good or bad thing? Honestly, I don't know. I don't condemn it out of hand but I don't think it should be given free rein either.

     No herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers? Farmers always take it on the chin for this one. Wasteful, willfully endangering the ecosphere. What a load of crap.

     All of the above are expensive. If a farmer could get away without using them, they would. Cereal crops can't be repeatedly sprayed or fertilized. Fruit crops can, and why? Because consumers won't buy misshapen or spotted produce. Are there alternatives? Sure, but many are not as effective and again we come to cost.

     You know what gets repeated attention, whether it needs it or not? Lawns, parks and golf greens. What is a big contributing factor in the greening of our waterways? Phosphates from industrial and residential use that get flushed out by the millions of litres every year.

     When organic produce first started making it's appearance over two decades ago, it was smaller, spotty, looking more like what you would pick out of a garden. These days, it's hard to tell one from another without the tag. What's changed?

     Enough of my rant, let's talk tilth.

     Basically, tilth is the condition of your soil or it's preparedness for cultivation. The article was all about using organic, not certified organic, waste material in re claiming damaged land or improving farm land. Interesting, accurate but again with a bit of a back hand slap to the farming community.

     In closing the author remarked on the need to educate the farming community on the importance of using the above mentioned organic waste. What in the hell does he think the farmers have done for centuries with their manure piles, or plow down crops, or leaving fields fallow. They already know all of this and have for centuries.

     One commenter went on a rant about how they knew city organic compost was no good because it wasn't "certified" organic, it didn't provide what soil needed because of not being single sourced and thanks what a great article for confirming her suspicions. But it didn't.

     None of the organic amendments talked about in the article were certified. As the end result of industrial production they couldn't be. He also had pointed out the disadvantages of using single source compost for getting all the micro and macro nutrients needed for good soil health. We obviously didn't read the same article.

     One word describing my gardening soil, crap. I've been working on improving it for the last eight years. I use quite a bit of compost. Usually three different kinds, mixed together, none of it certified. I don't compost my own garden waste, it is contaminated with juglone from my walnut tree. I don't use pesticides or  herbicides, I can work my 1/100 of an acre by hand. I do on occasion give my plants a mid season boost with fertilizer, 8 whole tablespoons worth.

     Here is a little visual for you to ponder.

Some of this season's soil amendments
Compost and blood meal

     If you look at the red boxes you'll see the nitrogen content of both products, neither certified organic. The compost, at 15 kg is 0.5, the 1.5 kg bag of meal is 12. How many bags of compost do I need to get the same nitrogen boost as the blood meal? Anyone, anyone? That's right, 24 bags of compost.

     This is one of the problems the farming community faces, the sheer volume of compost needed. More work, more handling, more time, higher transportation costs. That equals higher prices at the grocery store for you and I.

    We also don't begin to produce enough. In smaller scale farming, yes, organic can and does work. Start spreading it on the prairies, no where near enough.

     I'm not anti certified organic but I think there's a lot of room to meet somewhere in the middle.

     Is it healthier for you? Probably, any reduction in chemicals is a good thing to me. Here's the thing though, I live in a relatively toxic environment anyway, a city. Does organic produce really give me an edge on my health when every breath I take is polluted with God only knows what?

     Does it taste better? Call me a Philistine but I have to say no. I much prefer what has come out of my garden to any organic produce I have ever had. Comparing supermarket produce, I honestly can't tell a difference.

     I'd much rather pay more for fresh, locally grown produce, from a grower I know than I would for certified organic greens all the way from China in a local supermarket any day. 

     How's your tilth? Where do you weigh in on certified organics?

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