What is Organic?

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How We Grow Organic

We start with the soil:

  • We test our soil every year
  • We improve our soil organically with: rock dusts, mined substances, dried animal manures, and natural amendments, such as soy meal
  • We rotate crops
  • We use cover crops when the main crops are finished—cover crops like rye grass feed the soil and hold it in place to prevent erosion

All the plants we grow are organic:

  • Planted from organic seed when available
  • Planted from untreated seed when organic seed is not available
  • Grown in organic potting soil

We avoid and control pests with organic methods:

  • Crop rotation
  • Row covers
  • Trap crops
  • Natural sprays allowed by the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI)—always a last resort
  • Nematodes and beneficial insects


Organic and Conventional Farming

Being organic involves a mindset that most conventional growers don’t have. It involves thinking of every problem that could possibly arise and then thinking of every possible natural and organic solution. We do everything we can to make sure our produce has the best chance to grow well with the least amount of inputs.

Webster’s Dictionary defines organic food as ‘food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides’.

Now that the standards have become national, the National Organic Program (NOP) has ruled that even some natural substances (such as rotonone) are not allowed. The NOP has come up with a list of allowable substances but brands often have more than one substance in them. To make matters even more complicated, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has weighed in on deciding which “inerts” in some brands are not acceptable.

Pesticides such as Novidor and Dipel ES (several formulations of Bacillus Thurengensis) were allowed for use several years ago. They are no longer allowed because they contain class 3 inerts, which the EPA has decided are harmful to humans and the environment.

For the last few years, self-designated screeners such as Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) and the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) have developed lists of acceptable brands that certified organic growers can use.


We Start with the Soil

Healthy soil is essential to healthy crops. So we test every field and every garden each year. An independent extension agent reviews the results and recommends organic amendments to produce the best soil conditions for each crop we grow. We might use rock dusts, mined substances, dried manure and meals such as soy bean meal for nitrogen. We might use dried chicken manure, potassium sulfate, or sul-po mag, calcitic lime and blood meal (around the blueberry bushes).

Every year crops are moved to different fields. Even flowers and herbs get rotated to different areas within the same acre. Most of my crops have a 3 year rotation. Some crops have longer rotations. Rotating crops confuses harmful insects. It takes them as long as 3 weeks to find the new location of the crop they like, and that gives the crop a 3-week pest-free growing period. Crop rotation discourages disease and keeps the soil from developing nutrient deficiencies.


We Avoid and Control Pests with Organic Methods

We use several strategies to avoid and control pests:

We erect barriers to prevent harmful insects from getting to the crops. For instance, we use acres of floating row covers to keep cucumber beetles and squash beetles from getting to our cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and gourds).

We put the row covers on right after we plant the plants, and we dig in the edges. The row covers stay on for a month to 6 weeks but come off when the plants start to flower so that the bees can pollinate the flowers. However, by that time the plants are so big, they can’t be damaged by the beetles. The row covers also keep aphids off the plants. Aphids act as a vector for the spread of powdery mildew, which can kill the plants prematurely.

Another strategy is trap crops. We know that certain pests prefer certain varieties. For instance, we know that cucumber beetles adore zucchini and will pretty much leave the fruit and leaves of other cucurbits alone if they can have zucchini. We spray the trap crop where the pests are (using OMRI-approved sprays), or we just let the pests have that crop. If we do spray, we’re spraying a much smaller area. With zucchini, we just let the beetles have it.

Eggplant is a trap crop for potato beetle. We plant the eggplant right next to our tomatoes. The potato beetles love eggplant and don’t touch our tomato crop. Our eggplant crop is relatively small. We wait until things get ugly in the eggplants, and then we spray once.

We use nematodes to control the root maggot and flea beetles in our cole crops (broccoli and kale). We find this works well. We have a water wheel transplanter. We choose an overcast or drizzly day for planting (nematodes can be killed by direct sunlight). We put the nematodes in the tank water so they go directly into the hole for each plant.

Before we plant potatoes, we lay smooth black plastic on hilled rows. Using our water wheel transplanter, we plant a double row of potatoes on the top of the hilled rows. We know that potato beetles winter over in the surrounding woods. In the spring they come walking out in search of new potato plants. Although they have wings, the first generation of potato beetles doesn’t fly. When they come to the smooth black plastic, they can’t get traction to climb up the hills. The potato plants get a few pest-free weeks to grow.

As potatoes grow, they push up above the soil. Too much exposure to the sun turns them green, ruins their taste and, in fact, makes them poisonous. One way to protect the plants is to form higher hills around them as they grow. But the black plastic that guards against potato beetles also blocks the sun—and keeps the plants weed-free! Between the rows we plant annual rye grass, to keep that area weed-free as well.

However, at some time during every season, the pest pressure becomes too great and the damage intolerable. Then we have to spray certain crops. We only use naturally occurring pesticides approved for use by Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI).

Early blight in tomatoes is a problem. It can kill the plants prematurely before we harvest much of a crop. To prevent early blight, we use Serenade, a bacterial fungicide (bacillus subtilis). One spray gives us good control. We eliminate hornworm with Dipel DF, a form of bacillus thurengensis. One spray does the job. It’s well targeted to work only on caterpillars and leaf eating worms.

We fight potato beetle with Entrust, which appears naturally in certain Caribbean soils and is a fungus-like bacterium. Again, one spray does the job. Pyganic is a 5% pyrethrum formulation made from the chrysanthemum flower. It helps control the flea beetle.

The amount of organically acceptable spray we use is miniscule, and we often need to apply it only once. We have our other strategies to thank for keeping our pesticide inputs so low!