We urgently need a new, easy-to-understand way of explaining what organic gardening is all about. It’s time for a bit of dumbing down.
By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, April 2008
Organic gardening and I are through. It’s over, we’re finished, it’s time to move on. Organic gardening doesn’t do it for me any more and, against the backdrop of an overburdened planet suffering a morbid fever, I want to tell you why.
Organic gardening and I are about to go our separate ways because I have a big problem with it. I won’t be abandoning the core principles and practices for which it stands, especially its clarion call of working with nature, not against it, but I will be dumping one thing: the much-maligned, misconstrued, misused, often twisted, misunderstood and frequently abused ‘o’-word. There: I’ve done it. I’ve sloughed it off, it’s gone. I feel better already.
How many times, on the verge of explaining organic gardening to a fresh-faced gardening friend or, worse still, to a non-gardener, have you felt a momentary flash of panic? Be honest. You’ve felt that sensation of almost missing a heatbeat as you draw a deep breath before laying out your gardening beliefs. Have you ever found it easy?
I know I still struggle at times. It’s the open-minded enquirer that’s often more challenging; it’s far easier to cross your organic sword with that of some chemical-happy, mocking old diehard. But it’s those curious, eager-to-learn new gardeners we need to build our efforts around, whether we write about organic gardening, or discuss its pros and cons over the garden fence or during a brew-up down the allotment. That’s why I’m offloading the ‘o’-word.
Think organic and what immediately springs into your mind? My random thoughts include: chocolate; farming; kids; pricey food; cotton; eggs; box scheme; matter; living; middle-class; natural; pest-ridden produce; wine; local; Easter eggs; clothing; milk; meat; gardening; candles; expensive; mattress; catalogue; beer; body care; holidays; seeds; crisps; plants; lifestyle; bed and breakfast; courses; porridge oats; compost… It’s a right old jumble. These days the ‘o’-word rakes together a clattering heap of unrelated, contradictory, confusing thoughts.
Tag on ‘gardening’ and we know where we are – or do we? It’s not hard to imagine that, to the uninitiated, organic gardening might appear an expensive hobby for middle-class people wearing organic fair-trade cotton undies who, as part of an organic ‘lifestyle’, eat pricey local food from an organic box scheme, sleep on an organic mattress – and harvest pest-ridden crops. Hence the ‘o’-word is going into my shredder. Pronto.
One dictionary definition of ‘organic’ is: ‘Not involved or produced with chemical fertilisers or other artificial chemicals’, which gets us part of the way there, but it’s hardly a convincing vote-winner with eager, open-minded new gardeners, or those in cold turkey from garden chemical addiction. And the offering for ‘inorganic’, ‘not arising from natural growth’, hardly describes non-organic growing. If you thought putting across organic gardening was challenging, have a bash at explaining inorganic gardening. The ‘o’-word is being fed to my tiger worms forthwith.
“It’s been easy for chemical-happy gardening ‘experts’ to smear organic gardening with the sins of the ‘o’ word, to ridicule it. But no more. That game is up”
So what shall we call this amazing, adaptable, beautiful, positive, resource-frugal, productive, healthy, holistic, low-carbon, soul-enriching, immeasurably satisfying, rewarding, sustainable and resilient way of gardening? ‘Just brilliant’ springs to mind, but I doubt it’ll cut the organic mustard. No, what we need, to up the organic ante, is to commit a cardinal sin and do some canny dumbing down.
With ‘organic’ booted into touch, what about other contenders? ‘Non-chemical’? ‘Natural’? ‘Green’? ‘Kinder’? ‘Chemical-free’? ‘Sustainable’? ‘Ecological’? ‘Eco-friendly’? All of these echo the organic ethos, but they all suffer from the same Achilles’ heel as the ‘o’-word: they don’t immediately conjure up the essence of what gardening organically is about, while simultaneously giving you the cue to explain what you’re doing on your patch, and why. But in ‘eco-friendly’ there’s a clue to what might work.
By bringing on the ‘f’-word, we can cut organic gardening loose from the morass of misconceptions besieging the word ‘organic’. By adopting a more instantly understandable, more earth-centric, clear and unambiguous bit of word-play, we could swell organic gardening’s ranks overnight – without using the ‘o’-word once. But we need the ‘e’-word from ‘earth-centric’ to give us a name that cuts through the confusion. That name is ‘earth-friendly gardening’. It might take a few tenths of a second more to say, but by adopting it we can start sending positive ripples out across our gardens, neighbourhoods, allotment sites and the globe. Give it a go, say it out loud and proud: earth-friendly gardening. Who says dumbing down is always a bad thing?
So now, dear reader, try to think of yourself not as an organic but as an earth-friendly gardener. And before you try to upstage me, thesaurus in hand, none of the alternatives quite work: ‘earth-kind’, ‘-affectionate’, ‘-helpful’, ‘-harmonious’ and ‘-peaceable’ just don’t hit the spot.
“Earth-friendly gardening is just that – a way of gardening that’s friendly to the earth, the same earth on which all life depends”
In this case ‘dumbing down’ will bring benefits by the barrowload. ‘Earth-friendly gardening’ does what it says on the tin. We no longer need to feel that split second of panic when trying to explain what ‘organic’ gardening is. We’re immediately out of the mire of organic underwear, pricey food and lifestyle choices. Earth-friendly gardening is just that – a way of gardening that’s friendly to the earth, the same earth on which all life depends. Organic gardening has always involved doing things in an earth-friendly way, but now we have a clear, instantly understood way of introducing, explaining and promoting exactly why and how we do what we do.
Not all ‘organic’ gardening is completely in tune with the earth; we still rely on finite resources like oil to make our plant pots and cover our polytunnels, and on fossil fuels to warm our propagators. But ‘earth-friendly’ thinking will inevitably throw a switch in our psyche and help us start looking for alternative ways of gardening organically that don’t cost the earth.
I reckon ‘earth-friendly gardening’ has even more potency about it – perhaps more than ‘organic gardening’ ever had. The very phrase distinguishes it from all other ways of gardening, which by definition are deemed ‘earth-unfriendly’. Up until now, it’s been easy for chemical-happy gardening ‘experts’ to smear organic gardening with the sins of the ‘o’-word, to ridicule it, and to tar it with the same brush as organic farming – which has an entirely different set of problems. But no more. That game is up.
“By bringing on the ‘f” word, we can cut organic gardening loose from the morass of misconceptions besieging the word ‘organic'”
With climate change snapping at our heels, planetary ecosystems hanging in the balance, and environmental meltdown looming, the gardening game is now being played on a whole new pitch. As earth-friendly gardeners we’re on the winning side, but we need to use every trick at our disposal to engage with gardeners young and old, new or experienced, eager or sceptical, as we explain the huge environmental advantages of an earth-friendly approach.
With the organic fog cleared, with the ‘o’-word composted, the only question gardeners now need to ask themselves is this. With the ground beneath their feet in mind, are they, and their gardens, truly friends with the earth?