ARS Feature Article:
Some Questions and Answers

by Jack Shoultz, Chair • 668 North Pierce Street • El Cajon, CA 92020
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On any particular day, if I am lucky, I meet people seeking knowledge on organic methods of gardening. Being a year-round gardening community, our area has many garden clubs, rose societies and various horticultural classes. I speak to many of these organizations on my experience in organic rose care. As part of my presentations, I answer questions from the audience, and many times, the questions have similar themes. Here are some of the most frequent questions I receive and my answers.

What do you mean by "Feeding the Soil"?
This seems to be the new phrase advocates of organic gardening are using. "Feeding the Soil" encompasses a full scope of improving your soil to the best it can be. Soil provides what is important for optimum plant growth if the conditions are right. By that, it means that the nutrients in the soil are accessible for the plant roots to use as needed. The plants consume nutrients in the soil, and they need to be replaced. Maintaining the soil requires a continuous supply of organic matter being introduced into the soil. The way many of us do this is by continuously amending the soil. A fine mulch with added nutrients will help introduce organic matter into the soil. As the mulch is broken down by the biological activity in the soil, the moisture retention and air are improved correspondingly.

By improving the soil, you are:

That is one of the primary differences between chemical and organic fertilizers. Organic products applied to the soil are broken down by the biomass in the soil to a usable form so that the roots of the plants can take them in and feed the plants. The resultant byproducts become part of the soil structure and are utilized by the plant roots.

Chemical fertilizers, depending on the formulation and the application, are washed through the root system with regular watering. They do not become an integral part of the soil. Chemical fertilizers feed the plants, but rarely do anything to "feed the soil."

Are all organic products safe?
Raw animal manures used before fully composted may not be a good choice. If the origin is not known, then hormones, antibiotics or other unsuitable ingredients may be present. If you know the source, what the animals are fed and how the animals are medically treated, then the use of raw animal manures may be safe, but I still recommend composting.

I tend to avoid products with "sewer sludge" in them. The EPA set levels which it deems acceptable for the heavy metals, but they still may contain some of these metals. When there are other choices, why take the chance? And there are other so-called organic products that are not my first choice, especially in the pesticide and fungicide field. I do a lot of research on what the ingredients are and if I want to use them in my garden. So, just because a product is labeled organic doesn't mean it is. Do your own label reading, and if you are not confident with that product, continue your search. Whether it is fertilizer, pesticide or fungicide, you can find something that will work for you. If a manufactured product is not the answer, then maybe going back to the original ideas of teas and compost is your best solution.

Since organic matter is raw material, you should always be cautious of where it originates and what is included. OMRI ratings on the products provide proof that a product has been authenticated "organic" from the beginning of the process to the end result.

Another point about safe use of organics is to take a common sense approach. For example, if you are using a meal or fine product, you would want to avoid breathing in the dust created when applying it. A simple precaution is to wear a "dust mask" when handling products that will have dust. If using manures, wear gloves. I also usually wear gloves when working in the soil and fertilizing.

Is it ok to use some chemical products and some organic products together?
This is usually the hardest question to answer. My initial reaction is no, but in reality, many conditions can exist in any individual garden. The underlying concern of people that ask this question is usually either the limited availability of organic products in their area or confusion on which organic products to use and how to use them.

Larger chain stores typically do not carry many organic products; local independent nurseries are a better source for organic products, both for general purposes and specialized products. Even if they do not have the product you are seeking, most will order whatever you want, especially if you can help establish a market for it. That is what has happened in our area. (Some of the brand names available here include Dr Earth, Whitney Farms, E.B. Stone and Gro Better.)

As for which products to use and how, read the label. Many organic products can actually be used for several applications. For example, I use Dr Earth Rose and Flower Fertilizer for all plants in my garden except acid-loving and vegetable plants, for which I buy a specific fertilizer.

Depending on the toxicity levels of the chemical, you can do more harm by putting chemical products in your soil than can be corrected with organic products. Read labels carefully before deciding to use a chemical product, and if you are uncomfortable using the product, head to a nursery that will help you achieve a total organic program.

What about IPM?
This question is usually asked by someone with a lot of gardening experience or who has done some reading on the subject. The lay person has no idea that there are different levels of treating pests in the garden. Integrated Pest Management is the level just below having a 100 percent chemical-free program. It allows the gardener to use the least offensive method of treatment for pests, but it still uses chemical products.

The problem with this is that once you use a chemical spray, if it is non-selective, then you have taken the chance away of your garden becoming in balance. If the beneficial insects are sprayed before they can control the pests, then the infestation will start over, and the cycle continues. If there is a selective spray (for example, spinosad for insects that eat leaves) then the beneficial insects are able to come in and remain for future problems. (Companion planting will help attract beneficial insects). Water blasting on the under side of leaves or on new growth for aphids helps control them until they are no longer a problem.

So, Integrated Pest Management is simply an excuse for going back to spraying chemical products. And the cycle begins again.

What is the best kind of mulch to use?
For my purpose, three benefits are associated with mulching. These benefits are moisture retention, adding nutrients to the soil and helping suppress weeds. Where you live will decide which is most important for you and your choice of mulch. In Southern California, our main concern is water, as we get less than 10 inches of rain per year. So, our reason for using a good mulch is to hold moisture in the soil. I put down a 2- to 4-inch layer, which helps insulate the soil from the sun. I prefer a fine product that will fit through a 1/2-inch screen for the most part. This size will also break down, usually within the year, and add organic matter to the soil. The best commercial product we have out here is by the Kellogg Company, called Gardener & Bloom Soil Building Compost. Not only does it have quality organic matter but also added nutrients, including worm castings, bat quano, kelp, mycorrhizae and more.

Many other type of products are used for mulching, such as bark, rock, man-made mulches (i.e. rubber), but none of these will contribute to "feeding the soil." And, in an existing bed this is the main way to introduce a constant supply of organic matter for renewing the soil and feeding the biomass.

Answering these questions and many other concerns of those wishing to shift to organic methods is in large part a knowledge of what products are available that will let them know they have good choices and no longer need to rely on the chemical products. With more and more interest in these methods, there will be more interest in products and that is how we start a new cycle. Incidentally, when your roses are blooming, share them with others. There are many who enjoy the simple act of receiving roses, your child's teacher, the librarian, the clerk at the coffee shop, the occupants of a nursing home and anyone else you can think of. This simple gesture can start a dialogue and you would be surprised how many people love to tell you their rose stories.

This article was provided to the TVRS as a courtesy by the American Rose Society.