Is USDA Organic Really Organic?

What does the USDA Organic label mean as applied to fruits and vegetables?  On their blog, the USDA defines the Organic label as follows:

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment (see other considerations in “Organic 101: Allowed and Prohibited Substances”).

There is quite a bit of mystery in the definition, so much that one has to follow another link where the USDA defines prohibited substances.  You can read more about USDA organic if you like.

Now, this begs the question, what is in the food that is not certified Organic? Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, I’m sure plus a myriad of other substances that diminish the nutritional value of produce.

When you grow a garden, you can be certain of the inputs that go into it.  You realize very quickly that dousing your fruits and vegetables with poison that kills bugs that predate humans by several million years is probably not in your best interest.

Another consideration for growing food in your garden is price.  The Organic label commands a hefty premium that does not really guarantee much.

But what about pests and fungus that attack plants in the home garden?  Wouldn’t the home gardener be forced to use synthetic fertilizer and pesticides to grow his own food, too?  The answer is a clear and resounding NO.

The soil of a mature garden, one that has been tended carefully for several seasons, naturally reaches a balance that provides all the nutrients fruits and vegetables need to grow healthy, so healthy that evens pests don’t attack.  Three years ago I planted a nectarine tree.  The first year, I lost all the fruits to a moth that lays its eggs in the fruit and when the larva hatches it eats its way out of the fruit.  The fruit falls off the tree or rots.  The larva fattens-up into pupa and buries itself in the soil to emerge the next season as a moth, and the cycle continues.   The AG industry has a simple remedy for this: douse the tree with a pesticide like malathion when the fruit is young and green so that the moth does not lay it’s eggs in the fruit, and drench the soil with more poisons to kill off any pupa that may emerge.  There are so many problems with this practice beyond the obvious, but that is the subject of another post,

This season, the same nectarine produced even heavier and while I lost some fruits to the same moth, I was able to harvest more than my family eats.  So what changed?  A couple of things.  The tree was more established and healthier.  I improved the soil with my own compost and leaf mulches.  I also noticed that the mocking birds developed an affinity for nectarines that had been impregnated by the moth.  Lastly, I discarded any infected fruit that fell to the ground thus interrupting next year’s cycle.

Producing food at home is the surest way to eat healthier.  The home gardener has many advantages over the commercial producer in the true organic practices he uses. And even if pests and birds take some of the harvest, planting abundantly and working the soil overcomes most problems.

Backyard Peaches vs Organic Peaches
Backyard Peaches vs Organic Peaches


Late Frost Protection

Tomato and pepper plants are very cold sensitive, so even a few hours at 32 F may kill the plants.  A quick way to protect plants in early spring against an unforeseen cold snap is to use old buckets or plastic planters to cover the young plants.  The container traps soil heat from the day and shelters the plant from the wind shield.

Here is what I did earlier this week to cover my newly planted pepper and tomato plants on three cold nights.



Planting Patty Pan Squash

The Patty Pan is a spring variety of squash.  I suppose it’s named for it saucer shape.  It is ready to harvest in 60 days after the plant emerges.  This squash is vine like and likes to trellis.  I like to cut it when it’s about 6″ across .  The top can be scalped and the inside stuffed then baked.

The plant tolerates partial shade.

Here is a video on how to plant the Patty Pan squash.


Okra Beds

Today, I planted a small okra raised bed 2′ by 5′ on the south side of the house.  The bed has been dormant and covered with leafs all winter long.  I planted three rows, about 60 seeds total, in two varieties of red and green okras.

Okra is very drought and heat tolerant, but the pods do best when the soil is kept stable and moist, so always mulch with leafs or wood chips.  Harvest okras when they are about the size of your pinkie finger.  Don’t wait to have a perfect harvest of 20 pods ready to cook.  The pods go from tender 3″ long to woody 5″ long in about 2 days.  Instead, cut the okras at 3″ and freeze in a zip lock bag until you’re ready to cook them.


As I try to move my garden from an annual to a perennial food production system, I thought asparagus may make a nice addition.  I have been hesitant to plant them because they require two or three years to yield edible shoots, but I think I found a good spot in the garden where they can grow.


Planting Potatoes Spring 2016

Today, I planted my potatoes for 2016 in a combination of containers and a small raised bed.  I decided that instead of planting the potatoes at the bottom of the containers and hill-up the plant as it grows to the top, to plant the potatoes 4″ from the top and fill the rest with soil.  Hilling potato plants does not seem natural.  The leafs get soil on them which makes them more prone to fungus.  Ultimately, hilling robs the plant of sunlight because some leafs get covered in soil.  So this time I won’t hill as much, but the plant will have plenty of room to shoot roots down and develop tubers.

Here is the process I followed today.

Spring Arrived

The mild winter has been great for gardening and now spring is knocking at the door.  It’s time to get the squash, tomato and cucumber seeds on the ground.  But first, an update on the rat problem I had last year.  I had to get very aggressive with traps to disrupt their breeding cycle.   After I trapped 13 adult rats in October and November, the rest got the hint and packed their bags.  So it’s business as usual.  This was the first time in 8 years of gardening that I’d a  problem with rodents eating my greens.

The keyhole garden yielded Russian kale all winter long without frost protection.  I also harvested beets, red mustard, spinach and many other greens from the raised beds.  Leafy greens taste much better in winter and the body seems to crave them more for some reason.  Cold hardy Kale and Swish Chard are a powerhouse of nutrition in winter.  Cilantro and dill are rampant right now.  All I did last year was shake off their seeds onto the raised bed.  I’m also seeing a lot of volunteers starting to come out.  I’m reaching a point in the garden where even the annuals if left to go to seed behave more like perennials.

The last raised bed I built yielded nicely.  You can see it here.

Cedar Raised Bed
Cedar Raised Bed

Rats in the Garden

In eight years of gardening, I have killed three rats in my backyard.  That was until a month ago when I began noticing signs of damage in my kale, lettuce, spinach and tomato plants.  At first, I thought it was a late caterpillar infestation, but upon closer examination, I began noticing stem nibbles at the foot of the plants and rat droppings.  I cleared one bed that had been heavily damaged and found several burrowing holes within the raised bed.  Sure enough, the rats were living in the bed…right next to their food source.

My dog killed a couple of rats that popped-out that day.  Since then, I’ve been placing traps every night baited with peanut butter or chicken scraps.  So far, I’ve caught eight rats, big ones.  But where there are eight, there has to be thirty.  I’m guessing.

I’m not sure why there has been a spike in the rat population this year, but I have to get a their numbers under control.  They really did a number on my kale plants.  I’m using traps and keeping the garden clear of water sources and debris to minimize their habitat.  I’ll keep you posted.

Rats are smart, but they are also curious and greedy, so that makes them predictable.

November 8, 2015Permalink Leave a comment