My article on the availability–or lack thereof–of organic plants for sale at garden centers ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday. Read the article here. The bottom line is that while many garden centers offer a wide selection of organic fertilizers, potting soils, pest control products, and so forth, actually getting organic plants can be tough. Local growers produce organic herb and veggie starts, but what about shrubs, trees, ornamental perennials, bedding annuals, and so on?
Unlike the cut flower industry, in which most flowers we buy are imported from Latin America, the nursery industry is still home-grown. (Importing plants is more difficult because of restrictions on importing soil, among other things.) Some of the plants you buy at the garden center were grown nearby by a small-scale farmer (maybe a farmer’s market grower who offers tomato seedlings in early summer), but some were grown by large-scale growers that turn out millions of plants for garden centers, big box stores, and even cut flower growers. Among that second group, organic plants are almost impossible to find, and even plants grown under some kind of sustainability certification are scarce. While many growers use IPM (integrated pest management) practices and other eco-friendly approaches, the plants aren’t labeled as such, so consumers can’t vote with their dollars.
Two programs aim to change that: VeriFlora, the program that certifies cut flowers, is branching out to nursery plants, and Circle of Life, initiated by Ball, aims to help small growers be more sustainable and encourages garden centers to label and market these locally-grown, sustainable plants more aggressively. This includes reducing plastics and switching to compostable pots. (Speaking of pots, check out these eco-friendly pots made of rice hulls, a product that would otherwise be burned. The owner told me they last for years.)
So–organically-grown plants. Important to you personally? Important from the broader perspective of the health of those workers in the greenhouse, the environment where the plants are grown, etc? Would the plants themselves be higher quality if they weren’t fed with synthetic fertilizers, but instead fed with the good stuff and grown in microbe-rich organic soil? And if we want organic plants, do we need to convince garden centers that we don’t require plants to be forced into premature bloom at the point of purchase?