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.