Walk into any retail store today, and you’re bound to see something labeled “organic,” from clothing and food to potting soil – even insecticides. But what does that word really mean?

Green tomato

Try growing your vegetables organically this summer.

Photo Credit: ©2007 Buglady Consulting

Long legged fly

An assortment of plants in your organic garden can attract many beneficial insects, like this helpful long legged fly.

Photo Credit: ©2007 Buglady Consulting

If a plant is labeled “organic” or “organically grown,” it may be useful to think about it in terms of what it’s not:

  • Organic growing is not planting a seed and leaving it to grow all by itself.
  • Organic plant material is not grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
  • Organic plant material will not use genetically engineered stock plants or radiation treatments.

For years, anyone could label their products – including plants – as being organic without having a set national standard. But in 1990, the federal government passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), setting specific standards for organic growers and use of the “organic” term. Under this law, a grower must use growing practices and materials (called “inputs”) as defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). All inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, soils, etc.) used to help produce a plant must be specifically permitted under the NOP to be considered “organic.”

This means that you can’t take household items like dish soap, rubbing alcohol or bleach and use them on your plants – they’re not permitted inputs. You can only use approved organic inputs if you want to stay organic.

So to produce organic goods, you have to know what products can be used on organic plants. This is where products that are approved for organics come into play. You can often identify these “approved-for-use” products with the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) logo. OMRI is just one of the independent companies that the USDA uses to certify products for use on organic goods. (And it’s one of the most commonly seen.)

Another key to organic growing is to understand the whole growing system, from soil to leaves. That means you need to start with healthy soil – an essential foundation for plants. Healthy soil is enriched to promote microbial life and nutrients that plants can adsorb. You can improve soil structure, feed plants safely and maximize plant vitality with an all-purpose organic fertilizer like John & Bob’s Value Rich. It’s a great foundation to having a chemical-free garden – and gets you growing in the right direction, organically speaking.

It’s also important to understand the insects that live in the garden alongside your plants. A very small percentage of insects are actually pests. Many are beneficial, because they eat pests or pollinate your flowers. You’d only want to treat pests when absolutely necessary, and only then with a listed organic insecticide or a biological control.

Plant selection, placement and water management are also very important in growing organically. Growing plants in their right place greatly reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides. And irrigation is done on an as-needed basis, so as not to waste water. (Not only is this better for your water bill, it’s also better for the plants, since overwatering promotes disease problems.)

Understanding what “organic” means is the first step to implementing a program in your own yard. Once you get started, you’ll start seeing what a difference you’re making – for you, your plants and the environment.