Great review, Elizabeth. I’ll only add a few observations.
Gillman talks about organic purists as "unable to see beyond their biases and into the truth behind the practices they use and recommend," and he wants to help us, the educated consumer, "see beyond dogma and into the truth behind different gardening practices, organic or otherwise." I, too, complain about knee-jerk reactions to labels, especially the promotion of native plants as fool-proof and "maintenance-free" and the demonizing of all nonnatives. I WANT writers to look at research findings with an objective eye, as Gillman does, and that’s the important role that scientists have to play. Both scientists and advocacy groups play important roles but the distinction between them isn’t usually clear to us eco-friendly gardeners just looking for answers. And unfortunately, black/white distinctions are MUCH more media-friendly and easy for us busy people to remember and use.
So this book plays an important role in debunking the black/white oversimplifications about "organic" as good and "synthetic" as bad, which is so widespread. My own shorthand argument against this kind of thinking can be summed up in one word: tobacco. It’s all natural! And toxic as hell. There are others, but none as well known for toxicity as that one.
ABOUT THAT ROUNDUP (GLYPHOSATE)
Now here’s where I disagree with Elizabeth. She wrote:
I was a bit taken
aback by his "respectful disagreement" with those who consider
glyphosphate (Round-Up) a dangerous chemical. (He doesn’t feel that the
studies about its dangers are convincing, though he notes them.)
Well, I was taken aback that she was taken aback, and here’s why. To quote Gillman: "Hand-weeding is always the best choice for the gardener." About synthetic herbicides: "I’m not a fan of any of them". "Glyphosphate and glufosinate ammonium are probably the safest herbicides to use when preparing ground for planting because of their ability to kill most weeds while maintaining a short life in the soil." They’re "relatively safe for humans and the environment if they’re used in accordance with their labeled instructions," though under "some easily conceivable misapplication scenarios, Roundup could
have deleterious effects on the environment," especially to frogs, principally
because of the inactive ingredients (soaps and oils) that the glyphosate is
Gillman goes on to explain Environmental Impact Quotients, which take into account risk to farm workers,
home consumers, and the environment, and urges their inclusion on all labels. Here’s what will probably surprise you: The EIQ of Roundup is only 15.3 (on a scale of 1 to 100), compared with, say, organic horticultural oil, which has an EIQ of 27.5 because it can hurt beneficial insects and plants. (Gillman’s least favorite organic pesticide, Rotenone, has an EIQ of 33 and he thinks it should be still higher, and tells us why.)
And Gillman doesn’t just note the studies that find glyphosate to be more dangerous; he dissects them, explains what he considers weaknesses in their methods, puts them in perspective, and notes other research that finds glyphosate to be relatively safe.
Also notice that that he’s VERY anti- 2,4-D, the most common weedkiller on the market (think "Weed and Feed").
Remember when we talked about how to create a meadow and learned that the American Horticultural Society had first tried going organic with their meadow preparation but ultimately used Roundup? I remember commenters taking them to task about it but hey, what’s the alternative? As Gillman says, you could till the ground but that would lead to soil erosion and lots of weeds being unearthed, and make the ground susceptible to compaction. "So why not apply glyphosate and allow the weeds you’ve killed to work as mulch?" And it’s widely used in the removal of invasive plants.
So Gillman’s realistic, scientific, and nuanced look at Roundup didn’t surprise me at all. In my recent research on the subject of herbicides I’d found a few other gusty writers willing to buck the new organic gospel and I appreciate the breath of fresh air they bring to the discussion.
Now, how about Terry the Horticulturist’s complaint about Gillman recommending soil amendment with compost? Well, Gillman first recommends compost being applied to disturbed land, which I certainly understand. But then he recommends 1/3 to 1 inch "tilled or otherwise added into the soil every year," and there I part company with him myself. Hey, I just got home from hearing Jeff Lowenfels talk about Teaming with Microbes and found his argument that tilling destroys the soil-food web thoroughly convincing. And while at first I assumed Gillman was only recommending tilling in compost for food production, I found one clear instance of recommending it for flower beds, too.
COMPOST TEA, AGAIN?
My other area of disagreement is over compost tea, about which Gillman says: "I would strongly recommend staying away from these teas." We’ve covered these arguments before – exhaustively – and to me they ‘re simply the usual battles among academics over research methods. In this case I’ve heard far too many real gardeners hail the results of compost tea (IF it’s aerated) and I’ve decided to try it myself this year.
Bottom line, The Truth About Organic Gardening makes an important contribution to the education of concerned gardeners and I’ll be updating my own declarations about herbicides and insecticides accordingly. And maybe this book will help convince regulators to adopt more sensible approaches to labeling organic solutions. As Gillman points out, "Natural pesticides are exempt from some of the rigorous testing that synthetic chemicals must undergo, such as mandatory testing for pesticide residues." And if some organic fertilizers are mined and unsustainable, like rock phosphate, don’t we all want to know that? I’m just glad Gillman’s willing to speak up and take the heat.