What Does “Organic” Mean?

The word “organic” has three distinctly different meanings in horticulture. Because it is used so frequently in gardening literature, it seems worthwhile to discuss those definitions here:

A substance that is, or is derived from, a plant or animal

By this definition, synthesized urea is not an organic compound, nor is rock phosphate fertilizer. The word only applies to substances. For example, an organic mulch is one derived from a plant or animal, such as fir bark. Ornamental rock is not an organic mulch, although it is a natural one. This is what “organic” usually means at this web site.

A compound based on carbon atoms

This is a technical definition with a precise meaning in chemistry. By this definition, urea is an organic compound.

Acceptable to the principles of organic gardening

This meaning is almost synonymous with “natural.” By this definition, rock phosphate fertilizer is organic although it neither contains carbon nor is derived from a plant or animal. In this sense, the term is applied broadly; it can apply to garden vegetables, garden chemicals, or methods of gardening.

Organic Gardening

The organic gardening movement was begun in this country by J. I. Rodale in 1942 with his publication of Organic Gardening magazine. Rodale was strongly influenced by An Agricultural Testament, a book published in England in 1940 by Sir Albert Howard.

Sir Howard, while serving with the Agricultural Research Institute in India, and later as director of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore, India, developed a method of managing agricultural land that hinged on compost made by a method he called the “Indore Process.”

J. I. Rodale, in Organic Gardening magazine, developed the concept of “organic” gardening. This concept was—and still is—based on a few premises:

Principles of Organic Gardening

  • Synthetic fertilizers are bad for the soil; only natural fertilizers should be used.
  • Synthetic pesticides are dangerous to our health and harmful to the environment.
  • All genetically engineered plants are harmful.

(This last principle is as recent as the technology to which it refers.)