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Organic gardening is a complex undertaking

January 24, 2009

By JOE LAMP'L

Scripps Howard News Service

I've spent a lot of time lately speaking to audiences both within the gardening and landscaping industry as well as to homeowners who just love to garden. In spite of different audiences, the message is the same: In general, are gardeners moving to more eco-friendly and sustainable practices? Although most homeowners (57 percent, according to the National Gardening Association) say that environmental stewardship is very or extremely important, their actions don't yet seem to support those numbers.

So what's the disconnect between what they say and what they ultimately do? From a number of surveys and conversations I've had with people closely involved with tracking these behaviors, it's a combination of issues. Many still perceive the price of organic and natural solutions to lawn and garden issues to be significantly higher than synthetic alternatives. Others claim they don't believe that natural solutions provide as effective results. For those willing to try new options, many state they can't find them on the store shelves, and a large number say they're confused about what to buy.

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In an attempt to understand more about why things seem to be moving more slowly than I had hoped, I spoke with Jeff Gillman, author of "The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks and The Bottom Line." I asked Gillman if he thought organic-gardening practices were better for the environment across the board.

"The truth is, it's just not an absolute," as Gillman pointed out. He quickly went on to explain that without making at least some qualifications, you just can't make a blanket claim like that.

The book was the subject of the latest episode for my weekly podcast series, "Growing a Greener World." Little did I know that his answers to some of my questions would likely have at least a few people scratching their heads about their organic-gardening practices.

Case in point: Some organic pesticides are bad news for the environment. One of the worst offenders is rotenone. It's highly toxic to fish and other water-dwelling creatures. Although it is being removed from the market as an organic pesticide, you can still buy it today. "Sure it's organic and natural, but so is a snakebite. And is that a good thing?" Gillman adds.

Throughout our conversation, Gillman cited other examples of not-so-green things that we supposedly eco-conscious gardeners are doing that aren't as eco-friendly as we might think. Have a tiller? Think twice before using it. Frequent use destroys soil structure. Another example: Green sand and rock phosphate are two natural products used as fertilizers, yet are taken from nonrenewable sources. Although they're good for our gardens, they're not good for the planet.

Here's another surprise for many "green" gardeners: Did you know that it's good to fertilize your lawn - at least a little? Healthy lawns with deeper roots do more to prevent runoff than lawns that aren't fed at least occasionally. The good news is, there's a natural nitrogen source that will keep lawns healthy and also reduce weed growth. Gillman likes corn gluten for this (and so do I). But, he adds: "The problem is, it takes two years to work, and when it does, it's not as effective as synthetic pre-emergent controls."

I must say I found myself thinking, "Wow, Jeff, do you have to be so academic about this?" Then I reminded myself that he has a Ph.D. and is an assistant professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota.

Certainly there is plenty of confusion out there. It's one of the biggest obstacles to why we still haven't embraced more sustainable choices. But if we can gain a clearer perspective of realistic expectations going in, well, that's half the battle in my opinion.

You can hear the audio interview on my Web site at www.joegardener.com/podcast. Gillman's interview is show 009.

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