Everyone these days is obsessed with the idea of being ‘organic’ and ‘green’ and that is no bad thing. In general, the pursuit of a more organic and natural way of doing things is to be applauded. Under some circumstances however, the term organic can be a little misleading and far too simplistic and it’s in these situations where it becomes a bad thing.
Take hydroponic gardening for instance. Is this type of indoor gardening ‘organic’? Can it be?
And does it matter if it isn’t?
These are all important questions but the answer isn’t quite so straightforward as you might expect or hope.
Read on and we’ll take a look at what hydroponic gardening is and at why it’s overly simplistic to categorize it as either organic or ‘not organic’.
Perhaps a good place to start is with what the term ‘organic’ really means.
Already we stumble upon something of a problem seeing as the term can be interpreted differently depending on context.
If you were to ask a biologist what the term organic means for instance, then they would tell you that it means ‘biological’. In other words, something organic is something made from carbon. It could be a single molecule but as long as it had its roots in living tissue, it would be considered organic.
Speak to a gardener though and they will often give you a very different description of what ‘organic’ means. To them, organic means ‘not synthetic’ and ‘not processed’.
In other words, it means not using any chemical fertilizers, any chemical pesticides… etc.
A good example of this would be to compare two approaches to preventing slugs from eating your lettuce. A traditional gardener might solve this problem simply by placing slug pellets around the lettuce. By doing so, the slugs would then be killed by the pellets and the lettuce would be safe. This method is highly efficient but it isn’t organic because the slug pellets use chemicals that were synthesized in a factory and that would never normally be found outdoors.
So how would an organic gardener kill of slugs?
One method is to use a beer or milk trap for the slugs. Here, you would simply dig a small hole around your lettuce, insert a small container and fill it with a little beer or milk. Make sure the outer slopes are slippery and steep and the curious slugs will end up toppling into the mixture to drown or just get trapped.
That’s a little brutal though and it’s not super organic. Why? Because you don’t tend to come across plastic cups of beer in the wild. What’s more, this strategy can kill beetles too, which normally hunt the slugs.
Another option then is to lay egg shell around the garden which will prevent the slugs from crawling on their stomachs without cutting themselves – and it also provides the soil with calcium. Better yet, maintain an old rotting tree stump or branch somewhere in the garden. This will attract beetles, which as we just learned, actually can hunt the slugs. This is the ultimate expression of organic gardening: creating a microcosm of the larger ecosystem and using that to ensure that all the living things in your garden support each other.Of course though weevils can attack the roots of your plants so then you need to find something else to combat these… That’s what we call the ‘circle of life’.
Why it’s Hard for Indoor Gardening/Hydroponics to be Truly Organic
With this in mind then, it should become obvious that it would be difficult for any indoor or hydroponic garden to be truly organic in the traditional sense. You can’t have a microcosm of the wider ecosystem inside your house or greenhouse for instance and you’re unlikely to want to keep an old rotten tree stump in your house…
So the best you could hope to do would be to use entirely organic compounds rather than synthetic products.
For simple indoor gardening this is not impossible and in fact it’s relatively easy. This is simply a matter of using natural organic products as plant food and using natural remedies as pesticides (some oils work as pesticides for instance).
With hydroponics though, things get a little more difficult. Here you are growing your plants in such a way that the roots are submerged in a nutrient rich solution. This means dissolving specific mineral elements that cannot contain any heavy metal contaminates or toxic substances. The composition here must be precisely known and even the pH is controlled. This cannot be done ‘naturally’ and so it is not strictly organic.
What’s more, hydroponics really goes against the ‘ethos’ of organic gardening. Organic gardening is essentially about succumbing to the idea that ‘nature knows best’. This means accepting that nature can take care of itself and that synthetic substances and controlled man-made systems are inherently inferior.
The idea of hanging plants into a mineral solution then while controlling the rising and setting of the ‘sun’ with a computer is something that goes completely against the whole idea of organic gardening. And to a lesser extent, this is also true of indoor gardening.
Why it Really Doesn’t Matter
But here’s the kicker: it really doesn’t matter!
This is where the overly simplified idea of ‘organic vs. inorganic’ really exposes itself as being limited and un-useful.
The real reason that organic gardening is so popular and that there has been such a backlash against other means, is that synthetic pesticides can damage the ecosystem. Slug pellets don’t just tip the ecosystem by removing an important natural ‘link’ in the food chain, they also risk poisoning the local cats and birds, damaging the soil etc. Even harming the neighbor’s cat!
This is the enemy. Not man-made products. There is nothing wrong with a man-made synthetic fertilizer in principle. And there is nothing wrong with putting the lighting on a timer.
And when you’re growing all your plants indoors – disconnected from the natural ecosystem – then it really doesn’t’ matter even if you are using toxic pesticides. As long as you’re not compromising your own health, the way you manage your indoor or hydroponic plants won’t have any wider implications.
So do what you like with them!