Defining organic gardening

by Caroline Brown

Recently I’ve been trying to understand what it really means to garden organically. When consumers buy organic produce, we know what that means (at least in theory). For example, since the USDA began certifying organic food in 2002, we can safely assume (again, in theory) that food marked as organic has been produced without the use of conventional pesticides, genetic engineering, irradiation, or fertilizers with synthetic ingredients.

But how does “organic” translate from the farm to the home garden? Is it a simple matter of not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers? Are “synthetic” fertilizers and pesticides OK, as long as they’re not chemically-based? Do our plants and seeds have to be organic too? Who decides?

The USDA guidelines are strictly for food producers. Many independent organizations such as Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Organic Trade Association (OTA) are also food-focused. I couldn’t find a national organic gardening organization in the US that was strictly concerned with organic horticulture, although there are several regional and state ones.

From the UK, Garden Organic comes to the rescue. Also known as the HDRA (Henry Doubleday Research Association), Garden Organic is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening in addition to organic farming and food.

The Garden Organic website is such an excellent source for all kinds of information, it’s been difficult for me to remember that the focus of this article is on organic gardening guidelines. HDRA developed its guidelines following standards set by the set by the British Organic movement, the UK government, and the EU. Though the guidelines have no legal bearing, they are a good way to judge the “organic-ness” of your own gardening methods.

HDRA’s guidelines deal with just about every aspect of gardening that you can think of: soil management, pest and disease management, crop rotation, weed control, planting material and medium, and so forth. Each specification is divided into four categories:

  • Best practice: recommended practices and materials for organic gardening. In other words, what everyone should be aiming for.
  • Acceptable: acceptable practices and materials for use in an organic garden, but not as ideal as those in best practice category.
  • Qualified acceptance: materials and practices not suitable for regular use in an organic garden. They are included to help those moving towards an organic regime and to deal with particular problems.
  • Not recommended: practices and materials that should not be used in an organic garden.

As an example, let’s take a look at their guidelines for application of fertilizers. I hope you’re sitting down.

Because there is no best practice.

Mineral fertilisers should be regarded as a supplement to, and not as replacement for, recycling of nutrients within the garden – through a compost heap for example – and the use of other bought and/ or brought in organic materials. Mineral fertilisers and other supplementary nutrients should only be applied if adequate supplies are available from other sources.

Liquid feeds should only be used on plants growing in a restricted environment such as a pot, growing bag or greenhouse border.

In the absence of more acceptable materials, restricted use of soluble fertilisers to treat severe trace element deficiencies may be allowed. A soil analysis is recommended to identify particular deficiencies.

The products listed below may not all be readily available to the gardener.

Best Practice

  • None


  • Home-made liquid feeds, made from plants or animal manures

Qualified Acceptance

  • Nitrogen: Blood meal – in growing media, and on overwintered crops in spring. Hoof and horn meals.
  • Phosphate: Natural rock phosphate. Basic slag. Calcined aluminium phosphate rock. Meat and bone meals.
  • Potassium (potash): Wood ash – added to a compost or manure heap only (See note 20). Plant extracts such as vinash and sugar beet waste. Sulphate of potash – only where soil analysis shows exchangeable K levels are below index 2 (See note 21) and clay content is less than 20%.
  • Compound fertilisers: Fish, blood and bone meals (N,P,Ca (See note 22)) – free from non-permitted substances. Fish meals (N) (See note 23). Meat and bone meals (P,Ca,N) Seaweed meal (K,N, trace elements).
  • Liming materials: Dolomitic and dolomite limestone. Ground limestone. Ground chalk. Calcified seaweed.
  • Minor minerals: Calcareous magnesium rock (Dolomitic limestones) (Mg; Ca). Gypsum (Calcium sulphate) (Ca). Ground chalk and limestone (Ca). Calcified seaweed (Ca; Mg; trace elements). Epsom salts (Mg) for acute deficiency only. Magnesium rock (including Kieserite) (Mg). Sulphur. Calcium chloride – for bitter pit in apples.
  • Trace elements: Dried seaweed meal. Liquid seaweed. Calcified seaweed, limestone and chalk. Rock dusts. Trace elements – boron, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, cobalt, selenium, zinc – following soil analysis or other evidence of deficiency.
  • Liquid feeds, made from plants or animal manures, commercially available; preferably with approved organic symbol.

Not recommended

  • Fresh blood
  • All other synthetic and natural fertilisers including: Nitrochalk, Chilean Nitrate, Urea, Muriate of Potash, Superphosphates, Kainit.
  • Slaked lime, Quicklime

Straight out of the gate, I can see that I’m not using fertilizer best practices, because I use fish emulsion, kelp, wood ash, and synthetic but organic bagged fertilizer products.

The point of this restriction is to naturally build up your soil to the point where you don’t need to rely on fertilizers. An organic gardener’s dream, of course. HDRA lists common organic fertilizers under qualified acceptance for gardeners who are weaning themselves away from nutrient additives.

Amazing huh? This is much more in line with precepts of permaculture and/or ecological gardening than I would have imagined organic gardening to be.

If you’re serious about gardening organically, poke around in the guidelines and you can quickly see “where you’re at” and hopefully it will help you figure out “where you’re going.”


3 Comments to “Defining organic gardening”

  1. This was interesting. I suppose one assumes that if the food is organic, so must be the ground it came from although I have to admit I never really thought about the ground itself except to hope there wasn’t any residue from past use of toxic substances. I used fish emulsion, too, because I thought it was better that the other products on the shelf. Better take your list with me when shopping for fertilizes!

  2. Thanks for sharing this resource Caroline. I suppose I’ve always unconsciously created that sort of division in my own mind… my “preferred practices”, my “necessary alternatives,” and my “nope-not-now-not-evers”.

    I love to seek out organic and heirloom seeds, but I suppose that as with native species gardening, my gardens may always be a sort of hybrid of gardening approaches best suited to what I can do, and what I have available.

  3. I can’t be bothered with anything recently. I’ve pretty much been doing nothing to speak of. Not that it matters.

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