Many growers give themselves labels based on the types of inputs they use in their gardens, often referring to “strict organic practices” or “sterile, mineral-based hydro”. Perhaps you’re the type of gardener who avoids “chemicals,” or only uses “organics”, but can you define these terms? What makes something truly organic? Every grower should understand what they put into their gardens and why.
What is a chemical?
When we use words like chemicals or chemistry, we are simply referring to the study and use of elements from the Periodic Table. The elements found in the Periodic Table are the basic atoms that make up everything on this planet and many chemicals that exist in the natural world. All Plants produce chemicals throughout their life cycle. In an organic garden, we rely on microorganisms to convert organic matter into chemical forms that are taken up by plants. Chemicals can originate from natural sources. In some respects, organic gardening is a natural way of feeding chemicals to plants. So, the next logical question:
What is Organic?
Chemists and physicists will tell you that nearly any compound containing carbon is organic, whether that compound is natural or not. The truth is many natural substances are not organic. For example, certain types of naturally occurring rocks are crushed to make fertilizers that contain inorganic phosphorus. Those rocks are technically inorganic, even though they were mined directly from the ground. Many gardeners and agricultural professionals use the word organic to describe fertilizers and plant products that are derived exclusively from plants and animals (manure, kelp, bone meal, etc.). By that definition of the word, Organic growers cannot use inorganic substances, even if they occur naturally. One thing to keep in mind: many organic garden products contain inorganic salts. Two popular examples are bat guano and seaweed extract. Because these are derived from animals and plants, they qualify for organic gardening. However, the lab analysis shows a dash of inorganic material included in the final products. Confused yet?
What are Minerals?
The Periodic Table contains (among other things) the 17 elements required for plants to live: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, boron, chlorine, copper,iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc. Many scientists and university studies give evidence that silicon should be added to that list as well. Minerals occur in nature, but they are not sourced from plants or animals. These minerals may come from crushed rocks, or they may be generated in a lab via chemical processes. When looking at basic elements and minerals, there is no difference between the crushed rock form and the laboratory derivative.
It may take millions of years to accumulate rock formations, which then have to be mined and pulverized, so the laboratory version is much faster. Mining can be quite harmful to the environment, not to mention, expensive and unsafe for workers. Depending on the specific element, one method may be better suited than another for obtaining these minerals with the least environmental and budgetary impact.
In recent years, there has been increased discussion regarding the use of high-quality or low-quality minerals in plant foods. The real difference in quality can be determined by the level of contaminants in the final product. Pure, uncontaminated elements are the same, regardless of the source. Elements and compounds that are not available to plants can bog down roots and slow nutrient absorption and availability. For the highest quality mineral plant foods, avoid contaminants and questionable ingredients.
The truth is many natural substances are not organic.
Reasons for using organics
There is little argument that mineral fertilizers can more easily burn plants if used carelessly. Overfeeding is always a concern, but is less likely when using organics. Microbes and fungi must work to convert elements into plant available forms, which slows reactions in the root zone as it becomes nutrient rich. While overfeeding with organics is possible, the microbiology at work in the root zone offers a natural buffer.
The flavor of organically grown tomatoes, culinary herbs, and resin-producing plants is often said to be better and more complex than crops grown with minerals. The fact is that low-quality, or high-quality harvests can be grown with either mineral or organic inputs. One reason why well maintained organic gardens often produce very deep aromas and flavors is, in part, because overfeeding has been avoided.
Reasons for Using Minerals
We live in an age where plant chemistry and biology have been analyzed to an exacting degree. Scientists have discovered which elements are taken up by plants, and the specific ratios required for optimum performance. Mineral nutrient formulations can be made using highly available forms, allowing plants to absorb them right away. This process can lead to faster growth, bigger harvests, and increased quality.
Many hobby gardeners grow delicious tomatoes in their backyards, using mineral salts from the local garden center. Even without organics, mineral-grown crops can offer increased flavors and aromas, as long as the grower does not over-use plant foods or harvest prematurely. Attention to detail is required when using mineral fertilizers, and there is no need to sacrifice quality by overdosing plants. When given the correct amounts of mineral inputs, plants can achieve optimum health. Overall plant health is the key to both higher yield and quality.
Hybrid Nutrient Systems
Growers all over the world have achieved big yields and potent flavors by using organics and minerals together. Both offer unique benefits, and there is no reason you can’t use them in tandem to get the best of both worlds. Many naturally occurring inorganic compounds are not only safe for plants, they are safe enough for you to eat! Don’t reject the idea of using organics, minerals or both before doing some research on the pros, cons and effectiveness of each type of nutrient.
What are you feeding your plants? Not every garden product should be assumed to be safe or effective. Learn about the elements your plants require, and the additional organic inputs that offer increased quality. With a little bit of knowledge and high quality plant nutrients whether organic, mineral, or both, your garden will flourish!
– Casey Jones Fraser
Continued in Understanding EC/PPM: Q&A with Blue Lab ⟶