Everybody's a Critic

Gillman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening

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In his straightforward introduction, Jeff Gillman outlines a personal history with pesticide use that he probably shares with most of us: chemicals were an accepted element of his family’s horticultural practice. He then makes a distinction that will be important to anyone reading this book. Growers may be producing food for market while gardeners tend to be working a small plot of land primarily for their own personal use. In much of the book, Gillman aims his discourse first at those who grow food, and it’s something to keep in mind.

Here’s something else to keep in mind. Just as Gillman boils his discussion of each type of pesticide, herbicide, disease control, and fertilizer down into 3 conclusive summaries—benefits, drawbacks, and the bottom line—much of his advice could be summed up in a similar fashion: use common sense, read the labels, and follow the directions. And don’t assume. Unfortunately, we can’t depend on people doing all of that, so this book is needed. The Truth About Organic Gardening does not sensationally debunk organic gardening principles; instead, it continues the discussion of the various chemical strategies (organic or otherwise) we use in our gardens that Gillman started in his excellent The Truth About Garden Remedies. As with the earlier book, chapters are organized by type of problem (pests, poor soil, weeds, disease, etc.) and each type of chemical is discussed—its benefits, its weaknesses, its dangers.

Any surprises here? Well, yes. I would have expected Gillman to come down hard on pesticide use, organic or otherwise, but I was a bit taken aback by his “respectful disagreement” with those who consider glyphosphate (Round-Up) a dangerous chemical. (He doesn’t feel that the studies about its dangers are convincing, though he notes them.) I did enjoy this statement in the same chapter:

“The beauty of hand weeding is to thoroughly annihilate, in a very personal way, those evil plants that thought they could park themselves right next to my carrots.”

I also liked this one in another: “One of my favorite ways to deal with pests is by ignoring them.”

You’d have to be a professional horticulturalist yourself not to learn something from Gillman’s wide-ranging descriptions of the more arcane chemical and mechanical garden methodologies that are out there. Like Reemay, a clear polyester covering to kill (edit) bugs, or minute pirate bugs, a beneficial insect you can buy that will voraciously consume thrips, mites, and aphids. I’d also never considered flaming my weeds, and I can hardly wait for good weather, so I can take my new propane torch (purchased for crème brulée) out there and light up some of those babies. Just for fun.

I must confess that’s what I got from this book, for the most part: fun. I’m not a grower; I have a small urban courtyard and I just don’t have enough land or plants for any garden problem to be a huge worry—i.e., where I’d be considering hurling an arsenal of chemicals at it. Like Gillman, I think it’s fine to use synthetic fertilizer for containers, but that’s become the extent of what I buy, these days. However, for those of you who tend larger domestic landscapes or are growing a good quantity of food crops, this book is useful. It discusses most of the strategies that exist, including many I’d never heard of, and debunks the overreactions on both sides of the equation, explaining that chemicals exist on both sides of the aisle—organic and synthetic—and it’s important to know their properties and effects, either way. It’s also fascinating to learn exactly how the nitrogen and phosphorous in synthetic fertilizers are produced.

If I had to distill Gillman’s thoughts on this issue, I’d say that he, like many of us here, believes that a healthy plant in a healthy soil (well amended with compost) will withstand just about any threat. But I’d add that he’s a scientist, fascinated by how chemicals work for good or ill in the garden, and in his book he shares his knowledge and experience in a way that entertains, enlightens, and sometimes surprises.

Susan will have more on this book later today, and an interview with Gillman is coming on Wednesday.

Posted by on February 3, 2008 at 6:27 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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13 responses to “Gillman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening

  1. Nancy says:

    I appreciate this review, because this is the kind of book I’d want to at least look at. Sounds like one major issue left out of the book is the companies themselves. I agree with him that glyphosate isn’t particularly toxic (unless you’re a frog), but my struggle with pesticides is more about the fact that the companies themselves are fundamentally not even curious about possible long-term ecosystem or health effects. But I’m also glad he’s willing to look at each chemical individually, because they’re not all equally problematic. I appreciate getting the scoop on his book!

  2. Terry says:

    Grrrrrrrrrrr!

    This review was fine until it was implied that a “healthy” soil is one that has been “well amended with compost.”

    You gals are read round the world, and rightly so because of your passion and knack for getting people fired up about growing things!

    However . . . . , as I’ve mentioned in past posts, (I think) it would be helpful to gardeners everywhere, if you didn’t perpetuate myths such as a “healthy” soil can only be one that’s been “well amended with compost!”

    There simply are many plants in many situations experienced by your readers that don’t appreciate compost.

    And, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff would concur that research over many years has shown that adding organic amendments (compost, etc.) to planting holes for many plants at best offers no benefit, and can frequently do more harm than good.

    I realize that I’ve previously beaten this issue to death. But, I can’t stop until you do;-)

    Keep up the great work!

  3. eliz says:

    Terry,

    Well, Jeff is very enthusiastic about compost, though he recommends getting soil tested before you do anything to it. But he doesn’t warn against that I remember, so in a review of his book I thought it was appropriate to include such a recommendation. It doesn’t come from me–I don’t even have a composter (out of lack of space and laziness).

    But we’ll find out more about what Jeff thinks when we do the interview. I will include your comment in one of the questions.

  4. eliz says:

    Michele, don’t you use something for your roses? I usually put in Rosetone, which is supposed to be organic. It’s slow-release anyway. Roses are such heavy feeders.

    Did you try the nematodes for the beetles? Though I guess they only work if your beetles spend some time in your soil and not if they come flying from the neighbors or whatever.

  5. Terry says:

    Here are a couple of additional points to ponder (can you tell the Super Bowl doesn’t do much for me)?

    First, fertilizer, whether it comes out of the back end of an animal or factory, is not plant “food.”

    It is impossible to “feed” plants because, as (I hope) you’re aware, plants make their own food (simple sugars) through the process of photosynthesis.

    By perpetuating the idea that you can “feed” plants, I think many people are convinced that everything in their garden needs to be fertilized numerous times during the year. This leads to many lawns, landscapes and gardens being overfertilized, as indicated by a summary of soil tests from across New York State submitted to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory between 1995 and 2001 http://nmsp.css.cornell.edu/ click on publications, then click on “County-based soil fertility summaries 1995-2001.”

    Meanwhile, I can’t ever recall seeing any experimentally rigorous, peer-reviewed research that’s shown the benefits (e.g., statistically significant increase in number of blooms, reduced incidents of diseases or insect infestation, enhanced winter survival, etc.) of repeatedly fertilizing roses in an otherwise good setting for roses (i.e., full sun, good air circulation, good soil drainage, adequate soil moisture, etc.).

    I bring this up because I can show you massed plantings of `Bonica,’ `Fairy’ and ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ rugosa roses here in Syracuse that bloom like crazy every summer and have never received any irrigation, fertilizer or winter protection!

    We also have a couple of David Austin roses in our backyard that have survived for fifteen years with no care – and not a moment of direct sunlight. They don’t produce bushels of blooms, but they do flower several times a year!

    I’d be interested to see what Jeff has to say about these issues, if you have a chance to ask?

  6. Reemay as a weed killer? It’s used as a row cover on young crops to keep out insects. (I use it to keep flea beetles off eggplant, for example.)

    Be careful with the flame weeding. It’s great for small weeds in sidewalk cracks or in gravel paths, etc. But it can be real hard on ‘nontarget’ plants and I’ve heard of folks setting their mulch on fire. Not good, especially if the bed borders your house.

  7. eliz says:

    Yes, Craig, he speaks of it for insects. I goofed. Like I said, most of the stuff was totally unfamiliar to me. Reemay wouldn’t be of much use to an ornmental gardener.

    Pretty much joking on the flame thing. I might set one little weed on fire just to see.

  8. Lisa says:

    I really liked Gillman’s “The Truth About Garden Remedies” because it appealed to the scientist in me (which is most of me). I liked the way he described the methodology he or others used to test various claims.

    I use whatever fertilizer happens to be handy and meet the requirements for my soil based on a soil test or two. I prefer organic fertilizers to synthetic fertilizers, and prefer slow-release fertilizers to soluble fertilizers. Why? Because I’m very lackadaisical in my fertilizer application. In a good year, I manage to toss a little fertilizer all over my yard in the early spring and late fall.

    I don’t use pesticides other than insecticidal soap (sometimes with a little cooking oil added) because I’m hypersensitive to: organophosphates, carbamates, nicotine, pyrethrins and rotenone (that I know of). I don’t use any weed killer other than glyphosphate because I’m hypersensitive to 2,4-D and related compounds, plus most insecticide and herbicide solvents. As for glyphosphate, I use it only rarely because it’s expensive. I use it on plants I want to kill completely dead, like bull thistle. I’m NOT hypersensitive to glyphosphate, so I don’t mind using it when I bother to use it at all.

    I haven’t tried a horticultural flamethrower…YET. Those sound like way too much fun.

  9. Terry says:

    In my post above, I mentioned the availability of a summary of soil tests from across New York State submitted to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory between 1995 and 2001.

    As it turns out, there’s an easier way to find these summaries, as well as summaries of soil tests submitted to the lab between 2002 and 2006. The link to the summaries on the new and improved Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab website is http://cnal.cals.cornell.edu/publications/

    Again, my point is that the summaries indicate that soils in many home lawns, landscapes and gardens across New York State are high to very high in phosphorus and potassium. This raises the question as to just how much, or possibly more likely, how little fertilizer (organic or manufactured) many home lawns, landscape plantings and gardens actually need?

  10. Michele Owens says:

    Elizabeth, my last comment somehow disappeared, but I do toss around a bag or two of Plant Tone every year. I don’t know why, except maybe I enjoy the flinging motion.

    The only things that have ever noticably worked for me are fish emulsion–the roses just perk up–and that magic mix of composted straw and animal manure as mulch.

    I did try nematodes. Spent $70–and only had more beetles than ever. So now I only grow roses in the city, where there are hardly any Japanese beetles. Not enough lawn? Soil too sandy? Dunno.

    Anyway, you’ve made me realize how FANTASTIC it is that Jeff Gillman has done this book. There is so much marketing in gardening and so little science.

  11. eliz says:

    Yeah, Jap beetles don’t seem to be a prob here in the city . I think I had 4-6, whom I enjoyed torturing by slowly drowning them in soapy water.

  12. firefly says:

    Actually, I use Reemay as a cover for the first week or so when I set out annual seedlings from the light table. It keeps the squirrels from digging and ensures nothing gets burned by the sun or nipped by frost.

    The year we had 17 inches of rain in 6 weeks it also kept some seedlings from being drowned. It’s handy stuff.

    I use nematodes (and have found quite a few of the swollen body cases of infected grubs while sodbusting) but for June beetles, because milky spore powder doesn’t work on them and they’re active at night, when I’m not running around with a container of soapy water.

    It is an expensive treatment, though, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be “investing” in it.

    I’m thinking attracting bats to the yard might work a lot better.

  13. luise says:

    Last year was the first time i used chemical warfare to combat the dreaded japanese beetles.They appeared by the thousands and ate EVERYTHING.They came back every day just the same and i dont know how many beneficial insects were wiped out in the process.This year i will apply Milky Spore and tear out as much lawn as possible.As far as using fertilizers to increase my vegetable crop or have more flowers?I might as well just buy them at the grocery store and call it a day.

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