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Going organic

NEW MARKET, Va. — It seems everyone has a tale to tell about why they decided to grow organic.

For some, it may have been one E. coli scare too many and concerns about becoming ill after eating fruits and vegetables produced in contaminated fields half a continent away.

Perhaps it was the desire to see if home-grown foods really tasted all that much better than store-bought.

For Doug Oster, co-author of "Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More" (St. Lynn's Press, 2007), the decision came after watching his then 3-year-old son wandering down the plant rows moments after he'd dusted with an insecticide to rid some cabbage plants of green caterpillars.

"I stood triumphant as I looked over the garden — the conquering hero who had destroyed the invading force so determined to annihilate my crop," Oster wrote. " ... My smugness turned to dread in the pit of my stomach, and I thought, 'What have I done?' That was my awakening, the innocence of a small boy searching for a fresh treat.

"It was the last day I ever used chemicals in the garden and my first as an organic gardener," he wrote. ... "It has been a wonderful journey of discovery and it's not over yet."

Organic gardening generally is defined as growing without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It's using natural ingredients to feed the soil rather than the plant.

Five percent of the overall U.S. gardening population grows organically, said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association.

The number of organic gardeners will increase from 5 million to 8.1 million in the next few years, Butterfield said, giving an estimate based on his research. "The practice will grow around 10 percent a year. ... That's double the growth of conventional gardeners."

Oster and co-author Jessica Walliser recommend that would-be organic gardeners think of organic growing as more a marathon than a sprint. It takes time — on average, two years — before any dramatic changes occur as the result of having abandoned chemicals. First signs might include a sudden emergence of earthworms, for example.

"You'll notice slower growth, initially. But eventually, organic gardens surpass (the production of) traditional gardens," Walliser said in a telephone interview from her home at Sewickley, Pa.

However much of your yard you choose to make over or however you choose to do it, the conversion method will be comparable to giving up smoking, and the garden will need time to recover, she said.

"Do a different part of the garden every year. Or do a different aspect every (growing) season. By that I mean work up the soil. Then handle the insects. The goal at the end is growing organic."

If this is the year you decide to convert, then start with improving the soil.

Gardeners also should learn not to expect perfection if they're mulling a return to the natural rather than the synthetic way of doing things, she said.

"We gardeners have to teach ourselves to be more tolerant of having a manageable number of pests and weeds in the garden," she said.

The tolerance level of people who grow vegetables is generally lower than that of people who raise ornamentals, she said. "With ornamentals, it's aesthetics. With vegetable growers, it affects their bottom line."

Once you've made the conversion and your yard has kicked the substance habit, there's always the maintenance. Keep your organic vegetables, flowers and lawn thriving with the necessary preventive medicine: pruning, staking and adding trellises, picking up the litter, introducing beneficial insects, and adding organic matter — the more the better to keep your soils from becoming tired.

Along with everything else, organic gardening is practical gardening, Oster and Walliser write. "Not only will it reduce your personal exposure to potentially toxic substances, but once your garden has made the transition to organic care, you'll find it's easier on the budget, too."

You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick@netscape.net.

Gail Rose poses with recycled chicken feeders used as growing beds for leaf lettuce seeds at the fallow deer and pick-your-own organic vegetable farm she operates near Bayse, Va. The seeds will be sold to families wanting to raise and eat their own organic produce.