Guest Rant by Steve Bates
There is a largely unspoken, unwritten, undeniable truth among gardeners. Let’s bring it out in the light of day: It’s impossible to be a totally organic gardener.
Let’s start with the soil itself. Gardening organically means not adding or using anything that was not alive. Fine. Let’s even assume that the ground you are about to cultivate is virgin soil. It’s never been used for cultivation before. Generations of humans passing by never casually spilled the slightest drop of toxic chemical. Okay, now let’s say we pledge never to add anything made or processed in a factory. Like, for example, that potting soil I bought in a bag. Sure, it might say “organic.” Or it might not say anything. But the plastic bag it’s in, and the machinery it touched during the preparation and packaging, can all be contaminated with the slightest traces of oils, chemicals, plutonium, whatever, even if the soil itself is pure.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s avoid the bags of potting soil. Fast-forward to summer. Got to stake the tall plants. That wooden stake looks organic, but unless you chopped down the tree and milled it into stakes yourself, who knows what it came in contact with? Was it pressure-treated or coated with vile rot-resistant chemicals?
Maybe a metal pole would be better. Metal, typically coated with PVC or some other non-natural chemical. It won’t touch the plants, you say. Well, at some point it will be chipped by some accident, or over time it will begin to degrade on its own. Where do the nasty bits go but into our precious garden soil?
The wooden slats that hold together the sides of my raised beds? Same possibility, even if they are cedar, which holds up well without chemical treatment. Clean wood or compost to mulch the crops. Newspaper to layer over walkways. Plastic sheets with holes for water to pass through. Everything has some contact with nonorganic substances.
If, by some miracle, every fence post, every bag of mulch, every root ball of every seedling you plant is organic, your prize will be the knowledge that organic things tend to break down very fast. How long before that wood post is a pile of sawdust?
So those of us who aspire to garden organically, at least in part, vow to do our best, to recognize, maybe even to embrace, the compromises that life demands, like the ice cream cone that we just can’t turn down despite so many weeks of staying on that low-carb, low-fat, low-fun diet.
Gardening, like politics, is the art of the possible. Compromise, at the right time and in the right way, is the essence of being human. Confronted with difficult choices, we strive to do the right thing, or at least to do the least bad. We know our limits as humans. We make smart choices at times and bad choices at times, but we try to learn from them.
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Steve Bates is a gardener and journalist living in Ashburn, Va. His first book,“The Seeds of Spring; Lessons from the Garden,” was released in November 2010. And here's his "Seeds of Spring" blog.