An Organic Garden Isn't Necessarily a Healthy Garden

A Review of The Truth About Organic Gardening

The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line.
By Jeff Gillman
208 pp.
Timber Press. $12.95

Most organic gardening books exude disdain for "conventional" gardening methods, or ignore them altogether, as if the book was written in an "ecotopian" paradise, for an audience who would never consider sullying their garden with the likes of synthetic fertilizer or Roundup. The truth is that many gardeners use both conventional and organic methods in their gardens, and may welcome a book that doesn’t make them feel guilty for doing so: The Truth About Organic Gardening, by Jeff Gillman, is a book which falls into that category.

The Truth About Organic Gardening will appeal to open-minded readers who want to be able to compare organic gardening methods to their conventional counterparts, and are willing to accept that some organic methods may be less safe (from a human health standpoint), or even less environmentally-friendly than the "all organic, all the time" crowd would like to admit.

Jeff Gillman grew up on a small "hobby farm" in rural Pennsylvania, and was quick to note the differences in his family's orchard crops from year to year, the best crops often coming about during the years when his father (who, admittedly, was a chemist) diligently followed conventional orchard fertilization and spraying recommendations. Mr. Gillman grew up to be a PhD horticulturalist who conducts plant production research at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor.

The Truth About Organic Gardening is divided into ten chapters, each one dealing with a different aspect of small-scale organic food production. Weed control, soil building, and the $64,000 question--the benefits and drawbacks of organic food production and the relative safety of the organic vs. the conventional produce.

The high point of this book is the concise "benefit, drawback and bottom line" format in which much of the information is presented. In his slightly tongue-in-cheek style, Mr. Gillman tackles everything from pheromone traps to diatomaceous earth. Many parts of this book read like a print version of a fast-paced rabble-rousing TV news show. For example, here's his direct, no holds barred analysis of the organic pesticide rotenone:

"Benefits--Rotenone is a potent poison for insects.

Drawbacks-- This compound is dangerous to beneficial insects and fish, and is more toxic to humans than most other pesticides, organic or synthetic. Although there's no known link between this pesticide and Parkinson's disease in humans, the fact that it causes symptoms similar to this disease in rats worries me.

Bottom line--Why would any sane person use this pesticide?"

Not all of Mr. Gillman's assessments of organically-approved methods and compounds are negative. In fact, he's very enthusiastic about many organic gardening methods. However, he doesn't endorse them unquestioningly. After reading this book, his readers are likely to follow suit.

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Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at tammy@bluehorizonfarm.com.