Organic FAQ #1 - How to start and what to use
I have written organic lawn care FAQs for homeowners on a couple other gardening websites; however, that audience is different from the professional turf and garden manager reader. Home gardeners, especially those interested in do-it-yourself organic gardening, usually put more leisure time into reading about organic methods than the professional is able or willing to do. So when Sean approached me to moderate this new forum, I felt the need to rewrite the FAQ pretty much from scratch. I believe it is a work in progress. I could write a 3,000-word essay on any one of these questions, so I did a lot of cutting to keep it down to a readable length. Any suggestions and comments are welcome. Still due to space limitations, I will have to post several of these FAQs (I’m a little wordy). If I say anything stupid, please let me know and we can work out the proper wording.
Many thanks to Bob Webster, Malcolm Beck, and Howard Garrett for their advice over the years. If you know them, you'll see their influence throughout all of my FAQs. I don’t agree with everything they say, but probably 90% of it.
Starting a professional organic program?
Too many folks make this too hard. Starting an organic program is as simple as stopping the use of chemical herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and synthetic chemical fertilizers. That is all there is to it. For now you might have to trust that it works, but I will explain how it works in this and other FAQs to be posted here. I will discuss what replaces those materials in this FAQ.
The term organic has many interpretations - much like the term vegetarian has many different interpretations. I’m going to talk about a program that uses naturally grown materials and materials derived from plants or animals. In that sense, the materials are organic. Some of these materials will be from plants that have been genetically modified. If your clients ask about that, and they insist on your using only unmodified materials, that can be accommodated in most cases. For the most part, the program I describe should be completely acceptable to the clients. If you told them what materials you used on their property, I’m sure they would agree they were truly “organic.” For the most part, the materials I use are safe to eat but usually not very tasty.
I realize many of you have learned from people who command much more authority than I do that a natural program will lead to weeds, thin turf, aphids, grubs, poor color, grasshoppers, smelly yards, dead grass, excessive cost, and any number of other plagues. All I can say is give these methods a good honest try and see for yourselves. Try them in your own yards first to get a feel for them. Take some out to a park or natural area and see what happens. Most of us who are now organic used to be in the “better living through chemistry” camp. And I dare say that most of us who are now organic were very surprised when we first tried organic materials and found out that they WORKED! What we didn’t know for a long time was why they worked. It turns out that recent research has the answer to how and why they work. I will not cover that in this FAQ but will in another.
What do you mean, organic materials work?
When I say that organic materials work, what am I saying? First of all I’m going to assume the basic soil is healthy (not chemically damaged or flooded) and in a pH range between 5.5 and 8.5. With that, I’m saying that when organic “fertilizers” are applied at proper rates, that the plants growing in the soil will be both fed and protected from pests by the fertilizer itself. What this means is that organically grown turf, plants, and trees do not need chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Is this true in all cases? Of course not, but by and large, your experience should be that your organic properties require much less of your time for callbacks or additional treatments. We will also have to talk about the exceptions on this forum.
Organics is a “back to nature” program. In this and other FAQs I’ll explain what is natural about the organic program and how it all works to give good results in turf and landscape planting. Once I explain what organic materials are, you will easily understand the difference between the synthetic and organic materials. But more importantly, I will explain in some detail how organic materials work in the soil to provide food and protection to the plants growing there.
There is one more topic I’d like to touch on before getting deeper into the do’s and don’ts of organics. We all know there are people who like to argue. One argument against organics is that many organic materials are highly poisonous. Well, there is no argument from me on that. Rattlesnake venom, arsenic, lead, hemlock, poison ivy, and even pure alcohol are examples of organic poisons. I can guarantee you we will not be suggesting you use any of these obvious organic poisons in your business. What I will be suggesting will be ground up seeds, beans, nuts, and occasionally ground up animal parts. I will also advocate using beneficial insects and naturally occurring insect diseases against damaging insects - but more about that later.
What are chemical and organic materials?
Here is a short list of common chemicals found in the fertilizer bags in your sheds. You should be familiar with all of these.
Potassium sulfate (sulfate of potash)
You also have containers of fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides with chemicals with names that mix alphabet and numbers such mortal men have to practice to pronounce them.
Here is the entire list of materials found in the bags and bottles in my garage.
Finished compost (made from leaves and horse manure)
Whole ground corn meal (animal feed)
Corn gluten meal (animal feed)
Alfalfa pellets (animal feed)
Liquid seaweed (ground up seaweed reconstituted as a liquid with water)
Orange oil (purified d-limonene oil pressed from orange peels and used in many modern cleaners)
Zeolite (a volcanically heated clay material)
Glauconite (a greenish sandy compound mined from ancient sea beds)
Lava sand (mostly basalt)
Mosquito dunks (these carry a disease fatal to mosquito and gnat larvae)
That is my entire list. I don’t have any fungicides, insecticides, or herbicides other than what is in my list. And I happen to live on a limestone bed so I do not have lime in my garage. If I lived in east Texas or east of that I would likely keep lime in the garage, too.
Notice what is different in the two lists. The first list is pure chemicals. The second list is mostly animal feed compounds most of which were either once alive or are derived from once living plants or animals. I will also have a highly perishable animal “material” later on that contains beneficial nematodes (yes some are beneficial). But it should be clear the difference between ammonium nitrate and ground up corn meal. Both are nitrogen-based fertilizers.
Moderator, Organic Lawn Care Forum
San Antonio, TX