Should Community Gardens be Organic-Only? What about Pesticide-Free?



As I recently mentioned here, the community gardeners in my town are fighting – with the treehuggers who don’t want the shade-producing trees nearby removed, and with each other over rules outlawing the use of synthetic gardening products.  And people wonder what’s there to rant about over gardening?  Ha!

So one sensible solution being proposed is to create MORE community gardens, especially ones with a water supply, which the existing gardens curiously don’t have, and I agreed to sign the petition to urging our city councilmembers to make that happen.  But when I saw the item in the petition that all new gardens be organic-only, I wondered if that’s the right way to go.  What about letting each garden make their own rules, rather than having them handed down from the guvment?  And what about organic products that are nonetheless pretty darn toxic, like high-test vinegar?

Surely the Internet has the answers.  Unfortunately, the American Community Gardening Association’s  sample rules  are only available to (dues-paying) members.  So if you’re a member, could you tell us what their rules say?

Moving on, a nonprofit for community gardens in the Twin Cities requires this pledge from its members:  “I commit to using organic gardening methods and will not use chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) in or near the gardens” and goes on to specifically prohibit the use of “synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers like Miracle-Gro,” et cetera.

Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture has rules, too:  “Using herbicides and black plastic mulches is prohibited.”  In Boston the rules state “Avoid chemical pesticides” and “No herbicides,” meaning all herbicides.  So, no vinegar.  Community gardeners in San Diego must follow this all-encompassing rule:  “I will not apply any pesticides in the garden.”  Any!

Closer to home, in Richmond, VA “Gardeners shall use only organic fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, and use them in such a way as not to affect other plots. No genetically modified seed allowed.”

And closest of all, the adjoining Maryland county’s rules say that

Organic practices are required in all parts of the community garden. Garden pests and plant diseases can be especially serious in the community garden.  Only organic methods such as handpicking bugs, using row covers, and applying pesticides labeled as OMRI-approved or organic can be used in the community garden. The garden liaison volunteer(s) in each garden, or the Community Garden Coordinator can help you locate information about controlling pests, and treating and/or removing diseased plants.

I could go on but the bottom line is that I couldn’t find a single set of community-garden rules on the Internet that permit Integrated Pest Management.

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For one last opinion I turned to a former community-garden organizer who’d learned over the years that it’s “a challenge to specify what can/can’t be used, since gardeners might not have enough knowledge, and the garden might not organize sufficient supportive education, demonstration and product sourcing.  But I do think it’s great for community gardens to be minimally IPM-limited and better, organic. The key is the supportive education, demonstration and assistance with product sourcing. Lots of gardeners just don’t know what these terms mean or how to do it easily.”

Now I get it.  Community gardeners don’t necessarily have detailed knowledge of toxicity levels for every product on the market, or best practices for their application.

So having been educated on the subject, I’m happy to support community-garden rules that prohibit certain products, but I’d go farther than “organic-only” because as GardenRant readers know, organic isn’t synonymous with safe, and rules that get more specific make the most sense to me.

Opinions, Please

So, what do YOU think?  And if you’ve gardened in community plots, what’s been your experience?


  1. From our small community garden’s application/agreement:
    “8. Gardeners must not practice any horticultural technique such as fertilizing, watering, using pesticides, etc., that will in any way affect adjacent plots. The application of herbicides is not permitted. Gardeners are strongly encouraged to cover their plot with supplied mulch as an excellent method of weed control.
    9. Although the gardens are not specified as “organic gardens”, we encourage gardeners to practice Integrated Pest Management before resorting to synthetic pesticides. ”

    This works only for us only because education is involved. Gardeners must attend a garden orientation meeting that focuses on best gardening practices. We also hold formal IPM classes in Spring and Master Gardener Volunteers visit the site weekly to answer questions and diagnose problems, all while focusing on soil health and IPM. And, um, I’m one of those volunteers. (Don’t hate! I hate the MG term as much as the next girl, but it is what it is!) Many of our gardeners are new to the hobby and welcome the advice given; others fly in the face of authority and do their own thing. The one thing in common? They are there for the sense of community and the opportunity to garden so it all works out.

  2. Not a community gardener, only because there is not one even remotely close to me. Have to make do with my backyard. But I like Mischelle’s ^^ garden’s agreement. I think education is key. Perhaps it should be required to attend talks (don’t want to call them “classes”) about IPM & organic methods before one can begin to use their plot? Of course that would depend a lot on how the garden is funded, turnover rates, etc.

  3. Susan, have you considered consulting sources over in the UK? They’ve had their community gardens (allotments) forever. I would think they’d have some good guidelines to work off of. And regarding IPM, which makes a lot of sense, if they don’t specify on the subject or even mention it at all, I’d be tempted to go ahead and do it. Might be one of the times where it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission….

  4. I use Mostly organic methods in my Central Florida backyard garden. We got BUGS here so once a year or so I might use Seven. I try to do what is best for the environment AND me. I’ve found organic fertilizers are more expensive but they work better in our sandy soils when consistently applied with compost. My soil isn’t sandy anymore. I have an amazingly beautiful garden and have drastically cut the produce portion of my grocery bill.

  5. Organic only. Look at Ruth Stout’s work, read organic gardening books; there are thousands of sources out there to guide you. Mulch heavily to smother weeds, plant diversely to help control insects, plant varieties that are disease resistant. It’s how everyone grew their gardens before the chemical era–and we have more knowledge available now. We also have row covers and other tools that can organically combat pests. Many are gardening at community gardens because they need healthy food for their families (who may have serious health issues and can’t afford to buy everything organic at the store). I, for one, would not want to share a garden for those who felt they can’t do it without chemicals. And, finally, think of the bees and other pollinators! Those species are crashing and we are the cause.

  6. I think Dan Mays was absolutlely correct, but I will take a deep breath and add my 2 cents. Ruth is right–there are thousands of sources out there, but very few have experimental evidence to support the use of many of these product to manage plant pests. In fact, most of the evidence there is indicates the contrary-that they may not work, don’t work as well, and require much more intensive practices (at least for disease-causing organisms and weeds). And many ‘organic’ products are often more toxic than their synthetic counterparts. Copper, a case in point, is a heavy metal, still used to (poorly) control plant disease. And lets not forget rotenone –it has a toxicity profile that puts most organophosphate pesticides to shame.

    I think Mischelle nailed it, in that education is the key. However, as we all know, it is very difficult to get through the information (Have you read a pesticide label lately?) and make informed choices. This is true for the commercial grower as well as the community gardener!

  7. Some of these limitations might be more practical than political. Community gardens are sometimes on public property. In some areas there are very strict permitting regulations on chemical use that must be followed on public land, whether it’s county or state. This includes, storage, types of pesticides and herbicides, training and exposure. In addition, there is the issues surrounding safety and the headache of insurance and liability.

    Not using them can be a lot less work.

  8. I find that some people operate organically while do apply what they think is needed and use what they do. I think that as long as people are trying their best and do not interfere whit other gardens it is OK. I do like the idea of training at the garden. I garden next to a MG but he does not really help with advice. He does answer questions at the Library and Farmers Market.

  9. 1) With respect to fertilizers, community gardens should be laissez-faire. Most synthetic fertilizers are quite harmless, and you can fine-tune the ratios to respond to specific environmental concerns. Most people who live in cities don’t have access to pickup trucks capable of hauling out a few hundred pounds of manure every now and then. Miracle Gro is a compact, easy way to add NPK when necessary.

    -Any- of the pitfalls surrounding the use of synthetics can be readily overcome by proper soil testing. I had my home garden’s fertility tested this year. I don’t need to add anything. So I’m not adding anything.

    On the other hand if you opt to be organic and exclusively use manure, you’re stuck with the N-P-K ratios of whatever manure you happen to have available (which may be full of antibiotics from livestock). An easy way to avoid surface water pollution with synthetics is to reduce the amount of phosphates. You can’t fine tune that in manure.

    Even with cover crops to fix nitrogen, you’re going to run into the issue that most folks don’t want to get the equipment required to incorporate those cover crops into the soil. Cover crops also bring up weeding issues.

    I manage a pseudo-community garden in the watershed of a creek. Just tilled all 2500 SF of it today. I use synthetics to avoid putting excessive phosphate into the ecosystem.

    2) Saying no to herbicides makes sense. Unless you’re trying to massacre Bermuda-grass in preparation for initial tilling, skipping the glyphosate is a great idea. In a small plot, there’s no sane reason to use them, and there’s potential issues surrounding misapplication and damage to surrounding soils.

    3) Pesticides are a gray area and should be treated as such.

    Normally there’s very little reason in a small garden to use a pesticide. However if you grow corn, you might want to use some Bacillus Thuringiensis to cut down on the worms who will want to eat from your small crop. There is no logical reason to ban something like BT in a community garden.

    In a broader sense, not using pesticides creates a reservoir of pests, much the same way not vaccinating causes a reservoir of disease. Education is the key, and I can see why community garden organizations that don’t want to educate their membership might instead opt to use blanket bans.

    • Omigod my head is going to explode. Your reason for using synthetic fertilizers seems to be for convenience. Please. It isn’t Miracle Gro or manure – there are places in between that! My gardens are 100% organic and manure free, no pesticides or herbicides. IPM works. Just because your soil tests ok for certain things, it doesn’t mean you haven’t infiltrated the water table with your chemical fertilizers. Why DO THAT? Because there is no convenient way to haul compost to the beds at the community garden? Pleeeeeaaaase. Last I saw, one could rent a uhaul for $19.99 – that cost split between members can get a load of compost to your garden (but I hope your community garden is making its own compost!) and get your soil improved without chemicals. Bone meals, blood meals, greensand, magnesiums – these are fertilizers that have all been traditionally been used in gardens before the advent of mass-produced synthetic fertilizers. Why not those before some lab-created chemical that has a crazy npk – I haven’t picked up a box in years because even going near the chemical fertilizer/pesticide / herbicide section at a nursery gives me asthma – but 30/30/30? Really?
      This comment kind of freaks me out – we KNOW BETTER. We have seen the damage. If one person feels it’s okay to use synthetic fertilizers because it is convenient for them, well then why not let someone use SEVIN (my head exploded reading that, as well – a known human carcinogen and toxic to all insects, particularly honeybees) because it is easier than IPM? This kind of thinking got us into the environmental disaster that looms.
      In a community garden, if someone 3 plots away from me is using sevin and miracle-gro, my careful organic efforts are nullified, because a garden is woven together and interconnected by its soil, its insects, the birds who visit to eat the insects, etc. I would need to garden with like-minded individuals who agree to make the garden an organic effort, even if it is a little more time-consuming and labor-intensive than using synthetics.
      For me, a good question is this – before I put anything in my garden, would I dip my finger into it and eat it or drink it? If not – I won’t use it. It was good enough for thousands of years of agriculture before industrialization, it should be fine for my little garden.

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