The Organic Conundrum – How Do You Know What’s Natural and What’s Not?

How to tell what’s right for an all-natural garden

Many garden supplies have gone the organic route in the last few years. But what exactly does “organic” mean these days? How do we sift through all the latest terms and products to make sure our choices are “really” organic? It can be a bit confusing, what with terms like organic, sustainable, natural, eco-friendly, green, transitional and the like used interchangeably.

What Is Organic?

Traditionally, something that is “organic” will be made up of carbon-based matter that does not include any synthetic ingredients. Meaning, the product was derived only from animal or plant material. Fertilizers, soils amendments and other garden products such as bloodmeal, bonemeal or mushroom compost that contain organic carbon-based matter, with no synthetic ingredients, would be considered organic.

When it comes to fertilizers, there is always a debate about the use of urea. Animal sourced urea and urea-formaldehyde from urine are acceptable in an organic program. Synthetically produced urea, however, is not considered organic.

For example, fertilizers that are based on animal manures, worm castings, and bat guano would be considered organic. Synthetic urea, even if mixed in a product that also contains organic ingredients, would not be considered an organic fertilizer or acceptable in an organic program.

A fertilizer product like rock phosphate would also not be considered organic because it is not carbon based. However, many organic gardening programs have evolved to include what we call “natural” products. Rock phosphate is used as an addition to fertilizers and iron phosphate as a natural pest control.

While these products are based on non-carbon based chemical compounds, they are naturally occurring and considered usable within an organic program. Because they’re not compounds that were created in a laboratory setting, and they are safe for your soil, pets, and wildlife, we call them “natural.”

It is now acceptable and common to see products like this offered in a garden center’s organic section. While the product may not fit a chemist’s definition of “organic” because it does not contain carbon, you can still confidently use them in your organic gardening program.

The same goes for products like insecticidal soap, neem oil or copper fungicides. While not “organic” because they are not carbon based, they are natural products that are considered acceptable by most organic gardeners. Just remember that just because something is organic or natural doesn’t mean it is non-toxic.

Organic and natural pesticides that contain pyrethrins can be quite powerful, even though they are derived from a plant extract.

What’s in a Label?

You can also rely on the federal labeling program for products. When it comes to food, if a product is stamped with the USDA Certified Organic stamp, it means the product contains at least 95 percent organically produced and processed ingredients.

If the product contains 70 percent organic materials, it may be labeled as “Made with Organic Ingredients,” but cannot carry the organic certification stamp.

When it comes to gardening products, keep an eye out for the USDA’s OMRI listing on products. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) reviews products used by plant producers and home gardeners.

Fertilizers containing sludge (recycled human waste) may not carry the organic designation, even though some organic gardeners embrace sludge based products.

There is no federal regulation for the use of the term “natural,” except for meat production. So gardening products that use the word “natural” could very well be made up of both organic and synthetic ingredients.

Terms such as “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” or “green” also typically refer to a natural product. As an organic gardener myself, I always ask the question “will this help or hurt my soil?” when evaluating products. Be sure and read the label!

Often, products that contain both organic and natural ingredients will be accepted by some organic gardeners, and not by others. The term “transitional” is often used to describe these hybrid products.

A fertilizer that contains 95 percent organic matter and 5 percent rock phosphate or gypsum could still be labeled as “organic” by the USDA, depending on how these ingredients were processed. Hardcore organic gardeners may choose to pass on these products, while many others will use them happily in their garden.

However, a product that combines humus with a synthetic form of urea would not be considered either an organic or natural product.

In terms of plants, many plant growers use organic practices to grow their crops. However, even if a company uses organic practices, they must apply for and received the USDA Certified Organic designation in order to call their plants “certified organic.”

A new “Certified Naturally Grown” designation is emerging as a non-profit alternative for small growers using organic practices but who cannot afford the certification process. Look for the certified organic label on plant tags, or ask your local garden center staff for more information about how their plants were grown.

If purchasing certified organic plants is important to you, be sure to make your needs heard by your local garden center so they can work with their growers.

Bottom line, as a home gardener you need to know the difference between organic, natural and synthetic ingredients, and always read the label. Knowing the difference can help you make the right choice for your particular garden project.

A Garden Life

A Garden Life is a passion project run by a number of enthusiastic Gardeners, Landscapers and Outdoor Living and Design Experts. Each expert brings their extensive knowledge to produce one of the most popular Garden Magazines online.