99 and 44/100ths Percent Organic


RangBatesraised beds

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.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. well said…as I strive to be as organic, green and environmentally responsible as I can, I know I am not ever going to be 100%…it is impossible…but I still strive for 100% otherwise we will convince ourselves that less is OK…

  2. Agree – well said and a topic worth saying more about. Also worth considering: what’s your goal in going organic? Because there may be conventional solutions that are lower impact than organic ones, if you’re thinking amendments or pest controls.

  3. yes – this is why i don’t claim to be completely organic. especially while driving a diesel truck to the hardware store or to the compost place. 🙂

  4. all true, but doing what I can to stay away from toxic additives makes me feel a whole lot better knowing I’m not using the cheapest or quickest product for my garden’s needs.

  5. This is why the definition of “organic” has varied from agency to agency, licensing-wise; there are compromises that are acceptable to some, and not to others. I applaud Steve for bringing the discussion out in the open in a non-confrontational way.

  6. Very well written, and lots of food for thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if this piece began a reasoned, thoughtful dialogue about organic growing?

  7. Actually USDA determines what is allowed in certified organic gardens and what is not by order of a 1990 law. It says that in order to be certified as organic that the grower must use organic methods for three years to allow the possible previously used poisons on the property to dissipate. It’s quite orderly.

  8. Not to mention that a garden or farm certified organic can be contaminated by drift or runoff from nearby in-organic fields.

    And even if it is purely organic, it isn’t completely clean or safe. Dangerous microbes can contaminate crops via amendments like manure and compost tea or dirty water.

  9. Not impossible and I’ve done it…I think. My veggie garden’s soil was comprised of 100% composted leaves from my landscape. NO chemicals are used in my landscape.
    The seeds, saved from previous season’s veggies from my chemical free garden.
    Next, the wood for the raised beds: recycled wood from a barn teardown that was over 100 years old. NO chemicals there.
    Next: stakes for the tall plants like tomatoes and pole beans: harvested bamboo.
    The mulch: grass clippings from my chemical free lawn. the clippings; raked up from my maunal reel mower so no chemicals used from the dripping oil from my gas-powered lawn mower.
    Pest control: manual patrol. Deer control: pee, yes pee. OK maybe not 100% organic if you count the chemicals that show up in the pee. Can’t really speak to that but I try to minimize that in my diet too. Even the wine is Fetzer (the sustainable “earth friendly vineyard). Anyway, you get the point and yes, I know 99% of people aren’t going to go to these extremes. This is all documented in video on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/joegardenerTV if you want to see for yourself. Also, I want to stess that I’m a big advocate of not feeling like you have to do it all. One step at a time is what I advocate. Otherwise it would be overwhelming and then what good would it do? But it does all add up. My case WAS extreme, but it’s also what I do and what I stand for in public media. Thankfully, it was pretty easy because it’s also who I am as a nonpublic gardener. So anyone can do it, but honestly, any positive change is a welcomed change and will make a dfference collectively!

  10. I appreciate your observations. I am not a commercial gardener but feel for those who face the challenge of reconciling the need to label “organic” for marketing purposes but face unavoidable limitations. Of course, this conversation also raises the organic v. local issue when these are the choices for consumers. As a home gardener, I compromise daily–just in doing it. The purists out there seem to live in a different universe! I’ve been told that it’s not worth the bother of gardening in an urban area because of inevitable soil and air toxins. Really? And the alternative? Lawns? Invasive plants? And for my children–nature deprivation? And for wildlife–failure to maintain habitat so desperately needed? No thanks. I make the best choices I can weighing lots of factors.

  11. Thanks Steve Bates for your thoughtful observations. We should all learn not to be too judgemental because no one can always be 100% perfect – or organic. But, as long as we strive and encourage others (by example)to strive in the right direction it shouldn’t be too difficult to reach that 99 & 44/100’s level.

  12. Joe, I’m not sure I would consider wood from a 100 year old barn organic. Depending on the part of the country you are in it almost certainly was painted dozens of times with lead based oil paints, or else treated with mixtures of creosote, tar, even kerosene. My raised beds are made of field stone, or coppiced willow and even I wouldn’t consider myself a truly organic gardener, at least by the author’s (rather extreme) standards. To me, gardening organically is more of a mind set than a rule. I strive to use natural inputs and avoid the unnatural but realize that by a purist’s standards the very act of gardening (especially with domesticated species) is itself an unnatural act.

  13. I think it’s a great post and a great perspective. I have a friend who sees no value in buying any sort of organic food since he can’t find organic alternatives for 100% of his diet. I can’t convince him that 25% or 50% or 99.44% is better than 0%.

    I like the statement, “…at least to do the least bad.”

  14. I have been explaining the organic approach to vegetable gardening for years, but you make valid points about how “pure” we can realistically be. Just getting beginner’s to compost their leaves can be a struggle

  15. What is “organic” actually? I have a biology professor in the 80’s who once said, “All this talk about ‘organic’. Organic from a biological stand point means of the earth. So technically, even man made chemicals are ‘organic’ because to an extraterrestrial alien, it is from this earth. So take all that organic labeling with a grain of salt.”

    Your point about “organic” this and “organic,” that is exactly the scrutiny that should be added to the hoopla.

    What I’d like addressed is to see just how far some of these organic proponents will take their fight. Will they say that no boron, chromium or arsenic at all in the soil? Humans need micro quantities of these elements that in larger quantities are considered toxic. I’m sure there are plants that require micro quantities of these “toxins” in order to grow with healthy vigor.

    And what about soil that is naturally rich in mercury? Mercury is organic and naturally occurs in the soil. What then?

    More scientific debate is needed in this area that seems to be taken over by religious like faith on myths taken for truths.

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