There is an old joke that says the great thing about standards is that there are so many of them, and certainly many people not familiar with the organic movement can find it difficult to work out what is and what isn’t organic.
The Soil Association website has a useful section on organic standards, and they provide a clear concise explanation of organic standards, – “The Soil Association is one of only a very few of these bodies that have chosen to set standards that are higher than the EU minimum in several areas such as GM, animal welfare and nature conservation.”
You’ve bought your seeds and plants and want to ‘grow organic’; but what exactly does that involve? The Soil Association gives strict rules for commercial growers, but Garden Organic’s guidelines are aimed at domestic gardeners. They’re all too aware that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, life can get in the way of the amateur.
The basic thing to remember is that organic gardening should harness nature and contribute to a sustainable lifestyle. It should also be applied to the whole growing space as well as the plants, and to the ornamental as well as the practical.
The following are definite no-nos:
inefficient and wasteful watering or energy use
applying manure in late autumn and winter
using peat, coir, polluted or contaminated materials, manures from intensive or GM-fed livestock, compost activator containing artificial fertiliser, artificially produced nutrients, calcified seaweed, slaked lime, quicklime, soluble chemical fertilisers, synthetic hormone rooting powders, seeds, bulbs, sets or tubers treated with fungicide, hydroponics, copper-based or artificially produced fungicides, materials from unsustainable sources, pressure-treated or creosoted timber
But aspire to a halo with the following:
use recycled and home-produced tools and materials
buy quality hand tools and repair them
avoid powered tools and equipment
get to know your soil and grow plants that suit those conditions
keep soil covered with plants / green manure / organic mulch
where necessary, maintain your soil with home-made compost or bulky organic materials; in appropriate quantity and at the appropriate season
build soil fertility by growing nitrogen-fixing plants
recycle your organic kitchen and garden waste into compost and leaf mould depending only on what your land/household provides
use crop rotation and no-dig techniques, and keep soil cultivation to a minimum
don’t use animal carcass based fertiliser
don’t liquid feed in open ground
water the soil rather than the foliage, and only as appropriately required by the plant
collect rainwater and check for leaks
keep your lawn grass a bit longer and allow compatible weeds to grow to save on watering and to keep it greener in dry weather
sow or transplant just before rain is forecast, and protect young plants from sun and drying winds to conserve water
use home saved seed, home-grown transplants, and only buy seeds, tubers, sets, bulbs, plants and transplants carrying an approved organic certification body’s symbol
make your own potting compost and plant food, or buy product carrying an approved and certified organic symbol
grow varieties that resist pests and disease
avoid a specific pest or disease by choosing sowing and planting dates and techniques that reduce risk
grow a mix of plant types and varieties to reduce pest and disease risk, and leave ‘relaxed’ areas to provide for the needs of predators and wildlife
check plants regularly and use physical methods against pests and infections as they occur; e.g. squashing, picking off, traps, barriers
get to know the life cycles of pests and diseases and develop strategies to combat them
weed by hand, hoeing or digging out
use weed prevention techniques, and construct hard surfaces so they discourage weeds taking hold
trap the sun and use and conserve solar and natural energy; e.g. lean-to greenhouses and water tanks hold heat, hot beds give heat, insulation saves heat.
grow seasonally to avoid the need for extra artificial warmth and light
store using clamps or other traditional preserving methods
accept that wood rots and choose naturally resistant species of wood as a replacement
clean using steam / hot water / scrubbing / a high pressure hose
What lies in-between
is usually acceptable, and a lot of us spend our time aspiring to a halo by doing the best we can. If you’d like any explanations, or have questions, pop over to the forums.
Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association talked to us at the Bingley Arts Centre on 14th October, on food security in the 21st Century.
He gave us an inspiring and heartfelt talk of his personal journey from London childhood to Welsh dairy farmer, and thus on to his crusade with the Soil Association to turn farming organic as part of the worlds need to meet the challenges of the future.
Patrick Holden was brought up in London. He visited a dairy farm near Epping aged five and decided he wanted to milk cows. He studied biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College in 1972 and started a community farm in West Wales in 1973.
The 93 hectare mixed organic farm is now the longest established organic dairy farm in Wales, with a herd of 65 Ayrshire cows – the milk from which is being made into an unpasteurised cheese by his son Sam. Patrick still milks his cows at weekends.
He has worked for the Soil Association since 1988 and as Director since 1995. During that period income has risen from £200,000 to £10 million and sales of organic food from £50 million to £2 billion.
He is a regular broadcaster and speaker and was responsible for Tony and Pat Archer’s conversion in 1985 and still advises for the Archers on matters organic. He was awarded the CBE for services to organic farming in 2005.
The Bingley Arts Centre proved to be an excellent venue as, with its excellent anteroom to the hall, everyone could enjoy the refreshments and meet up and see the displays.
The Yorkshire Agriculture Society announced in 2006 that attendance at the Great Yorkshire Show was an all-time record breaker, higher than any in the events 167 year history. The figure was 134,810, compared with the previous best of 131,075 way back in 1979
From 2004 onwards we shared a marquee with the national association HQ from Bristol. Our site was in the same place as the previous years but it had been redesignated as the Arable Area.
The HQ staff provided expertise for farmers and our volunteers talked to other visitors about joining the Association.This arrangement worked very well.
We had lost our demonstration organic growing plot but our compost heap heating up outside provided as much a talking point as ever. We also sold books and pamphlets to help people get started with organic growing.
In 2003 we had our usual stand in the Organic Area. With our tent was the mobile display unit from our national HQ in Bristol.
The main talking point was the plot of land outside the tent where we were demonstrating organic methods. It was being taken through the approved Soil Association conversion cycle, over the usual 3 years.
The soil is poor judging by the crop grown so far, so we enriched it with manure, from Horticap (a charity which employs people with learning disabilities)
The rectangular section was divided into 4 plots, each sown with a different leguminous plant – to enrich the soil. They were:- vetches, field beans, lupins and clover.
Incorporated in this legumes section was a small wild headland to encourage natural diversity, a theme basic to Soil Association philosophy.
Since 2001 the Yorkshire Agricultural Society has been holding Countryside Days for the benefit of schoolchildren. They provide ‘hot spots’ of interest for them which include some tuition in building a dry stone wall, matching raw items such as cereals and sugar beet to the final processed food, a display of flowering shrubs which attract butterflies and bees, a healthy eating stand and last, but not least, our own Soil Association organic plot demonstrating conversion principles.
Over 700 children have come, combining education with fun as they learned about the countryside and the environment by taking part in a wide range of activities on the site.
For several years the national association from Bristol brought this mobile display unit along.
The Show has been running since 1837, and has been at Harrogate for the last 50 years. It attracts more than 120,000 visitors each year.