Undergoing an Organic Transformation
Over the past few years, many people have become more educated in organic production techniques. Here’s a closer look at how this education has helped transform the horticultural industry as a whole.
Many people are becoming more educated in organic production techniques and, in turn, realizing the multifaceted benefits of organic goods. In horticulture, consumer demand has sparked an increase in organically grown products. This trend can also be seen throughout the country as more and more grocery stores steadily increase their inventory of organic foods.
The consumer’s reasons for supporting organic agriculture can vary greatly. Many consumers are taking a moral objection to the methods deemed acceptable by current conventional food producers. Consumers are concerned about the potential health hazards associated with the consumption of chemical pesticides and genetically modified foods which are all too common in conventional agriculture.
The environmental impact has many customers turning away from conventional products and embracing organics as well. It is not just “tree-huggers” on this bandwagon, though. The general public is gaining knowledge about the negative impacts that chemical pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and preserving agents can have, not only on our health, but also on the health of the environment. With this heightened knowledge consumers are determining that organic products are healthier, of a higher quality and worth the slightly higher price tag.
Organic growing indoors
For many of the same reasons mentioned above, indoor horticulturalists are turning their gardens “green”. Aside from the environmental benefits, most indoor horticulturalists are attracted to organic gardening methods because of the potential increase in quality. For the average indoor horticulturalist, quality is of the utmost importance.
After all, most people take the plunge into indoor horticulture because they are unsatisfied consuming tasteless products. They have decided that they can grow their own food and have absolute control over the entire process. Many gardeners report better taste, aroma and overall quality when using organic gardening methods.
This rise in quality is making organic gardening attractive to the indoor gardener. Whether it’s grown indoors or out, it’s true what they say: nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. If organic gardening methods increase quality then the old saying may need a slight modification: nothing tastes better than a homegrown organic tomato.
Growing organically isn’t just about quality and the health of the environment. The indoor gardener has his or her own safety to worry about as well. Many indoor horticulturalists have their gardens in their homes or, at least, in close proximity to their homes.
This means any pesticide or chemical fertilizer that is used can find its way into the grower’s home. Unsuspecting gardeners may touch a wall or piece of equipment in their gardens not realizing the residual insecticide they sprayed just a few days prior is still active.
They may unknowingly spread trace amounts of this toxin throughout their entire home as they go about their daily activities. Although organic pesticides aren’t to be used without caution, they tend to break down faster and be less toxic in general making them a safer choice for the indoor garden hobbyist.
Organics and microbes
Organic fertilizers rely on the network of micro-organisms found in and around the plant’s roots to function. These micro-organisms are as intricate to the growing process as any other variable. The plant’s symbiotic relationship with micro-organisms has developed over millions of years of evolution.
Although scientists have not figured out exactly why, the micro-organism symbiotic relationship regulates nutrient uptake in a way that has a direct influence over the growth rate and the quality of the fruit or flowers.
Conventional fertilizers bypass the network of micro-organisms in the root zone. Chemical fertilizers are broken down into a form that is readily available for nutrient absorption. They don’t require the complex chain of events unfolded by micro-organisms and the enzymes they produce to break down organic matter into a soluble form.
It is the bypassing of these micro-organisms that gives conventional gardening techniques the increased speed of growth it proudly boasts. This increased speed of growth may sometimes lead to larger yields.
In most cases, as the speed of growth increases, the quality of the product decreases. Flavor, aroma, and, in some cases, nutrient value are degraded in order to boost production to the maximum level. In extreme cases this method of horticulture will quickly produce large yields of tasteless products void of nutrient value. It is this output of substandard products being supplied by large scale commercial growers that has indoor horticulturists growing their own and leaning toward organics.
There are now various organic certification companies devoted solely to determining if the horticultural products submitted to them are, indeed, certifiable organic. These companies will analyze the product’s ingredients and, in some cases, the method used to extract an ingredient. Then, based on standardized federal requirements, these companies will certify the product as organic.
The reason for the growing number of organic certification companies is a direct result of supply and demand. There has been a continually increasing demand for organic products over the last 10 years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. This demand from customers drives fertilizer and soil companies to produce more certifiable organic products which increases the need for more certification companies.
Some growers are interested in organic gardening but do not know how to make the transition. Regardless of the style of gardening currently being used, growers can begin to convert their gardens by implementing organics. Some changes are easier than others and can be introduced immediately. Other transitions may take a longer period of time or may require slight modification to the growing system to function properly.
Soil and Organics
If you build your own soil, be sure that all of the individual ingredients are, in fact, organic. Look for organic certifications or contact the manufacturer directly to verify the ingredients. The same goes for purchasing a pre-made potting soil. Many soil companies are getting their soils certified organic just like the fertilizer companies, making it easier for the consumer to purchase organic potting soil.
Never assume a pre-made soil is organic just because it’s a soil. Unfortunately, most potting soils sold at home improvement centers or grocery stores are not organic potting soils. They can contain a variety of chemical additives.
If the soil is not certified organic, the best thing to do is to closely examine the ingredients. If it contains ingredients that you cannot pronounce, assume it is not organic. Also, be aware of hidden ingredients. Some soil companies will hide the chemical additives in the ingredient list as a “starter nutrient charge” or something similar.
All organic nutrients are compatible with soil. This makes for an easy transition to organics for any soil gardener. Most large fertilizer companies will have all of their organic products certified by one of the various organic certification companies.
This is great for organic consumers who can walk into their local indoor gardening center and instantly determine which products are organic. Some of the smaller fertilizer companies may opt out or not be able to afford the certification process but may still produce a quality, organic product.
In this case, a closer look at the ingredient list is the only way growers can determine if the product suits their desires. As with the soil ingredients, if you cannot pronounce it then it probably is not organic.
Hydroponics and Organics: Is it Possible?
Converting a hydroponic garden to organics depends on many variables. Because organic nutrients tend to have more sediment, operating particular hydroponic systems may be troublesome. Aeroponics and top-feed hydroponic systems are most prone to problems caused by excessive sediment. Clogged emitters or feed lines can be a common occurrence in these systems if the system’s pump lacks the proper filtration device. Additional filters for the submersible pump are recommended for any hydroponic system utilizing organic nutrients but are absolutely necessary in aeroponic and top-feed systems.
Recirculating hydroponic systems can pose additional problems when using organic nutrients. As plants (more specifically the micro-organisms in the root zone) break down organic matter the pH will fluctuate and the nutrient concentration will change. It may be difficult to make adjustments to the nutrient concentration in the reservoir because electric conductivity cannot produce accurate readings with organic nutrients. This creates a sort of guessing game for the gardener regarding their nutrient strength.
In my experience, the best way to implement organic nutrients into an existing hydroponic system is to do so gradually. In other words, start with one organic additive and see how it affects the system. After you feel comfortable with one additive try another and so on and so forth. Eventually you can attempt to switch out your base fertilizers for organics. Many growers do not completely switch to organic but find a “hybrid” nutrient cocktail that gives them some of the benefits of both worlds.
Pest control & organics
Pest control is an area where any grower can immediately make the switch to organics, especially now when the technologies to extract the active compounds have accelerated the effectiveness of organic pesticides to the equivalent of their chemical counterparts. Beneficial insects may be an organic gardener’s greatest ally and act as an effective first line of defense. When the pest insect has built a tolerance to chemical insecticides, beneficial insects are the most effective control. A bug cannot build a resistance to being eaten.
As our knowledge increases even further regarding the complex, microscopic world that affects the quality and performance of our indoor gardens, the increasing desire to work in tune with these microbes is inevitable.
Organic gardening techniques allow the horticulturist to work with these valuable, invisible assets that we are still trying to completely understand.
Even without a full understanding, we know that by transforming even a portion of the garden to organics, a grower can help the environment, instill safety at home, increase quality, and, all the while, allow nature’s incredibly designed symbiotic relationships to function in the way they were intended.
Written by Eric Hopper | Writer, Consultant, Product Tester
Eric Hopper’s past experiences within the indoor gardening industry include being a hydroponic retail store manager and owner. Currently, he works as a writer, consultant and product tester for various indoor horticulture companies. His inquisitive nature keeps him busy seeking new technologies and methods that could help maximize a garden’s performance.