illustration by Melissa Guion
Published  September 2016

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

—Herman Hesse

illustration by Melissa Guion


Buy Local. Eat Organic. DIY or Die. Don’t Tread on Me. In politics, food, and the world in general, we latch onto phrases we don’t mean, or don’t understand, or that don’t mean what they say. Surely tomes have been written on doublespeak, the branding of words and phrases, the greening of our economy, and the usurpation of the greening of our economy by ad company overlords and their chaos magick, so I won’t go there today, not exactly. Instead I’d like to make the political personal, and talk about common misconceptions and blind assumptions about growing food organically at home, in harmony with nature, and for optimal plant and people health.


I think it’s best we start with the most politicized of buzzwords: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). I’m personally of the belief that GMO crops are not in-and-of-themselves a bad thing. However, GMO technology is more or less entirely owned by a select few mega-corporations who are concerned with bottom lines and reinstituting serfdom upon the world, and overall this makes for very bad science. Like any other technology in just hands, or just in more hands, genetic modification could easily bring humanity, ecosystems, and Earth as a whole to a better place. As a species, we’ve been genetically modifying plants for millennia as is, only with less exacting tools.


Why does this matter to you, home gardener? Well it basically doesn’t, because genetically modified seed is not the sort of product sold in retail markets to home gardeners, or urban farmers, or small-scale farmers. Monsanto doesn’t sell seed in packets, it sells seed by the bag, the really big bag. Conscious home gardeners are frequently concerned that the seeds or plants they are buying may be genetically modified. They are not, and until we live in a just and equitable world where GMO technology is available to the masses, they will not be. Fear not, ye fear monger, GMO plants will not find their way to your backyard, unless your backyard backs up to a many-hundred acre cornfield that uses GMO seed. Then you should fear much, for Monsanto may sue you into obliteration for unwittingly stealing their seed.


While the fight for labeling GMO consumer products has thus far been a losing proposition in the United States, we at least have a beacon for dependably good-natured foodstuffs on the opposite spectrum, made manifest in the USDA organic label. Except we don’t really. I know that to many food-conscious types this is no revelation, but it bears stating all the same. Just because a food is certified organic, it is not necessarily grown in accordance with environmentally-friendly standards. To attain an organic label requires rigorous efforts and tons of money from any farm, but the standards which define “organic” by USDA standards are a far cry from the ideals the hippies were touting when the word first started getting flung around in relation to food and food growing. That said, buying commodity goods at a grocery store that are grown organically is almost certainly still far better for you and the planet than those that are not. So if you can afford it, buy organic.


Most organic practices are defined by fertilization and pesticide use, in both home gardens and industrial scale farms. Fortunately, there isn’t any real gray area in the fertilization field. Oil-based fertilizers are bad; the rest are OK. If you are not using fertilizers made with dead plant and animal parts, you are using fertilizers made synthetically with oil. To be fair, oil itself is made up of dead plant and animal parts, but very ancient dead parts that we ought to be trying very hard not to take from Middle Earth any longer, because of climate change and all the other terrible things oil does. So semantically, oil-based fertilizers are not organic. Fertilizers made up of more recently decomposed organic matter are organic—please use the latter.


Some novice gardeners who are keen on the idea of permacultural practices and cyclical ecosystems mistakenly believe they can grow food without using fertilizers. And while this would be the most organic and sustainable way to grow food, it’s not actually possible. I know because I was once one of these gardeners. I also took Ecology 101 in college. Inputs are necessary to build healthy soil, whether those inputs be nitrogen-fixing cover crops, recycled horse manure, a bag of ground up bird bones and cow’s blood, or anything in between, or all of it together.


Maintaining a predator insect population is critical to a healthy garden, and these pesticides will kill the good guys as readily as they will the bad. If this sounds great to you because you hate bugs and think they’re all gross, you shouldn’t be gardening

Pesticides are a trickier matter when it comes to their environmentally-sound use. There is an assumption that organic equals good for the environment, but there are some organic pesticides that are absolutely terrible for your garden ecosystem. In a perfect world, we would not use pesticides on our food at all. We would let the human-allied bugs of the world take care of our pest problems. But we don’t live in a perfect world, we live in New Orleans. There will be pests. Briefly, here are the readily available organic pesticides that you should avoid: Spinosad, Pyrethrins, and Neem. These pesticides are broad spectrum, meaning that they kill or deter most bugs they come in contact with. Maintaining a predator insect population is critical to a healthy garden, and these pesticides will kill the good guys as readily as they will the bad. If this sounds great to you because you hate bugs and think they’re all gross, you shouldn’t be gardening. Organic means that these products are not synthetic, not that they are kind. Earthquakes are organic, as are hurricanes. DIY alternatives can be just as destructive as store-bought organic pesticides. A common home solution for pest control is a mixture of chili flakes in olive oil or dish soap, which is a broad spectrum pesticide that works by smothering the insects they cover and killing them, and by scaring them away with spicy aromas. You might save a few dollars, but you are not creating a more sustainable garden practice.


Working with plants should be about constant discovery and growth, which is also what science is about, and what gardeners are afraid of, as evidenced by our overwhelming fear of GMO crops. One place this terror is very unfortunately placed is in regards to the scientific names of gardening products. Some of this fear is perhaps well placed, as we have grown up in an era of overly processed foodstuffs, and we think one of the easiest ways to avoid the worst of these foods is to look for unfamiliar multisyllabic names on the ingredients list.


Pesticides and fertilizers (organic or otherwise) also have ingredient lists, and those ingredients are almost always Latin or otherwise scientific-looking in appearance.


My two favorite pesticides are Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) and Iron Phosphate. For the most part, they are the only two I use. BT targets caterpillars and mosquitoes almost exclusively, and is completely harmless to the overwhelming majority of pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as mammals. Iron Phosphate only does harm to slugs and snails, and maybe—just maybe a little bit—to earthworms. Each of these products are natural and organic and perfectly decent, but they each catch regular flak from permaculture activist types who know no better and judge them by their names alone. Neem oil, on the other hand, gets huge thumbs up from these people all the time just because everybody knows it comes from trees and has a monosyllabic name. But the truth is Neem is very good at killing everything—including many beneficial microbes, fungi, and insects—and is therefore a terrible product for permacultural pest management.


Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the gold standard for dealing with pest problems. As the name implies, a variety of tactics are used to deal with pests responsibly, including crop rotation, weed control, encouraging insect and small animal populations that eat pests, general plant health, and targeted use of pesticides as necessary. It’s a science unique to each individual farm and garden. In New Orleans, anoles are apex predators in the garden. If you have lizards wandering your plants, rest assured: you’re in good hands, mate.


For those seeking to purchase organic fertilizers or pesticides, there is a labeling system within the horticultural industry comparable to USDA organic labeling, called the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). The OMRI label is displayed prominently on products that have been deemed environmentally sound by the institute, which is arguably pretty dependable. Remember, just because a product is “organic” doesn’t mean it’s good, though it does probably mean it’s better than any non-organic alternative.

Questions or news about gardening? Email southboundgardens@gmail.com.

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