Gillman’s Book on Organics:
It’s Point-Counterpoint here at the Rant


by Susan

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.

Now here’s where I disagree with Elizabeth.  She wrote:

I was a bit taken
aback by his "€œrespectful 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
mixed with.

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.

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.


  1. Thanks Susan. Point taken on the glysophate though I do remember he speaks of using it himself and said he does not think there’s enough evidence to indicate that it is bad for humans and the environment. So that’s where I was coming from. Thanks for discussing the EIQ too!! I think this double review system is good. There is too much in a book like this for one reviewer.

  2. The reasonable way to make a meadow–put down a tarp already and let it sit until next spring.

    We need Jeff Gillman!!! Because there is too much marketing in gardening and not enough science.

  3. Susan, but only for a season!!! And does Jeff Lowenfels actually think spraying with a Monsanto product is preferable?

  4. Yes, but which is worse: a tarp, or Roundup?

    The one thing that has been ignored in the discussion of whether Roundup is harmful is this: the more people who consider it relatively safe and use it, the bigger evolutionary pressure it becomes, and the sooner plants (which are chemical factories in their own right) will evolve around it.

    IIRC, Scott’s just got whacked with a major fine for mismanaging field trials for Roundup-ready creeping bentgrass, to wit the ‘resistant’ plant escaped and is considered invasive and has to be eradicated (with what, I wonder?).


    There is also evidence, according to the book I am currently reading, that soil microbes can assist in gene transfer from plant to plant, so unrelated species may pick up the resistance genes sooner rather than later.

  5. I have found in 10 years of part time city veg gardening in public that an important way between the polarization of industrial chemical and utopian organics is to fall up onto the soil food web and consider it. It is very interesting what this does in forcing one to consider one’s place in this, since we ourselves are made of similar microbial communities. Soil food web gardening is revelatory in its practice, artful in it crafting and leads to a supernatural culturing of the world around, in and through us.

  6. I would think the food web would recover from a tarp a whole lot quicker than Roundup. No residue — once the tarp is gone, there’s nothing to stop the soil from re-colonizing.

  7. No, I’m sticking with protecting the critters of the soil, which are guaranteed to all be killed by plastic, versus avoiding the potential of aquatic harm from roundup, and a small chance if you know what you’re doing. I just saw Lowenfels’ slides of all that animal life we can’t see without an electronic microscope and I’m convinced. It’s Awesome.

  8. One of my hubby’s favorite acronyms (of his own making) is TINSTAAFL, which translates to “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” I’d add to that a new acronym TINSTAASB – there is no such thing as a silver bullet. I tend to be skeptical of any product or method promoted as a cure-all. All products carry some degree of risk and organic does not automatically translate to “safe.” The more we know the better our choices will be. Thanks for the reviews. I look forward to reading Jeff Gillman’s book.

    I seldom use products in my garden, but not because of some lofty philosophical reason. It’s because I’m lazy and my time is limited – I’d rather read a gardening book than a product label. The more I learn about the soil food web – fascinating stuff! – the more I realize my laziness has an upside. I wonder what other failing of mine will prove to be a boon (one can only hope).

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