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Old-time gardening = organic gardening?

paulns
12 years ago

This subject has come up many times since I moved here, a remote, rural, rugged part of Nova Scotia. But especially since my wife and I came up with the idea of offering workshops on sustainable growing practices. We have the only organic market gardens, the only government-registered farm, within a two hour's drive in any direction. I'd like to see more people here gardening, more food coming from local sources instead of coming off the trucks from the mainland, California and China, and ideally no imported fertilizers and pesticides..

This isn't a one-way street - we've taken up a lot of old local practices like harvesting seaweed and eelgrass, and putting fish waste in the soil. We're always learning more about the best practices for this climate.

I've run the idea of the workshops past people here whose families go back many generations. A few have their own small gardens but all have ancestors who had bigger, subsistence gardens. They'll say, 'They never used the word organic, but that's what they did. What's the difference?' The word 'organic' strikes them as a touch arrogant, and proposing to teach something that is common knowledge (a claim that's debatable imo) even moreso. It doesn't help that our produce is more bug-chewed and often smaller than theirs. Many of them use chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

It seems to me there is a difference. For one thing, the organic philosophy is a preventative. If farmers here in the forties had understood organic principles, they wouldn't have jumped at the chance to use ammonium nitrate from the defunct mining operation as nitrogen fertilizer. They might have hung on to their livestock. They might not have used old motor oil as a weed killer in their carrot patch, as one old fellow I know does (good carrots though). Etc.

Is there a difference? How would you explain the difference, if you were asked?

Comments (23)

  • adirondackgardener
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    There were a lot of other practices and chemicals in "old-time" agricultre that was hardly organic. Lead arsenate comes to mind. Brain damage to sprayers was common but farmers mixed up tons of the stuff to spray as a pesticide on crops farther back than the early 1900s.

    Wayne

  • Michael
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Prior to the advent of synthetic fertilizers an enormous amount of physical effort was required to get the organics to the fields. If I was crippled and hunched over from all of the daily chores required to stay alive I'd probably have looked seriously at the synthetic fertilizers (much less weight to deal with). Likewise, given the choice of walking behind a plow ar sitting on my butt on a tractor, I'd have hoped for a tractor. To me it seems apparent why agriculture progressed the way it did in this part of the globe.

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  • dchall_san_antonio
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Chemical fertilizers have been known for hundreds of years. How old is old time?

    If you picked around through the old almanacs you could find some good practices mixed in with some very poor practices. I think one of the elements missing from modern "old time" gardening is the use of animals in the garden. Cattle, chickens, and goats can perform work for you if you know how to use them. In essence they clear fields of weeds and chaff and leave behind manure. Then there are dung beetles and other dung reducing critters that come in to do incredible things for the soil. The animal element is missing in most gardens.

    You mentioned organic and sustainable as if they were the same. The more modern approach to organic gardening is to use ground up grains as fertilizers. That is not sustainable. Using corn meal to grow corn is not sustainable. At best this practice is just moving protein from one part of the world to another for the purpose of gardening.

  • Kimmsr
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Justus von Liebig was a German chemist who proposed the concept that plants could utilize synthetic nutrients and did not need humus in the soil to grow in about the mid 1800's so I would guess that "chemical" gardening/farming has then been around for hundreds of years. Sir Albert Howard found people in India making compost and using that compost to raise good, healthy plants, and animals and adopted and advocated those practices, but not everyone, everywhere was practicing "organic gardening/farming" until after Sir Albert wrote his books, lectured, and converted some people.
    So while my grandparents did put animal manures on their garden most of the practices they used would not, today, be considered "organic". Even though an uncle, who was a farmer, tried to convince Grandpa to sow cover crops, to add organic matter to the soil, to make the soil in that garden better, Grandpa had ideas about gardening that did little to make the soil better, and I saw much the same in the many gardens I worked in back in the 1950's.
    Old time gardening is not quite the same as organic gardening.

  • dchall_san_antonio
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Justus von Liebig was a German chemist who proposed the concept that plants could utilize synthetic nutrients and did not need humus in the soil to grow in about the mid 1800's

    Thanks kimmsr. For some reason I had it in my mind that the discovery of chemicals was back more in the 1600s. I would guess that the Chinese and Russian scientists had discovered them early if not earlier, but we'll probably never know anything about that. Nothing really practical happened with them until after my idea of "old time" agriculture had been documented.

    Is there a difference [between old-time gardening and organic gardening]? How would you explain the difference, if you were asked?

    Old time gardening, before the popular use of "balanced," NPK type chemical fertilizers, had some practices that modern science has ruled out as dangerous. Some examples are listed above and include the use of other chemicals that are not fertilizers. The use of animals was prominent in old time gardening. The Farmer's Almanac is a good resource for that. Somewhere on the web I remember seeing back issues of the almanac from the 1800s to early 1900s, but I can't find it now. There was a lot more there than I could absorb in many sittings. You might search to see if you can find that resource.

    Another old time practice that I believe will be debunked in the future is the use of plows (now rototillers) in gardening and farming. This research will have to come from the hard core organic scientists because there is no interest in that direction of study that I've seen. I think the alternative is proper cover cropping followed by mowing and mulching in place. The problem that plowing solves is planting new seed into hard soil. I believe when you keep the soil mulched and not exposed to the sun, the fungi in the soil proliferate to keep the soil loose enough to plant in. I drive past miles of fields every day that have no winter crops growing on them, yet I see green "weeds" in the ditches. I guess they choose not to buy more seed than they need to.

    I've seen cattle ranches that were almost sustainable. The only things brought in by the owner were water (from underground), calcium (to replace the calcium stored in the bones of the cattle removed from the property), and seaweed (to replace the micro nutrients not otherwise supplied by the forage). These ranchers often to not medicate their animals which allows the insects that normally process dung to do their job without being poisoned. When the native forage is allowed to grow and the insects are allowed to thrive, these soils produce without external fertilizer. It is also my belief that if these fields were mowed and cropped in rotation with the livestock, good crops could be produced in addition to the animals.

    As to the holes in your organic crops, have you tried pulverizing your seaweed and spraying it in a slurry onto the plants every 2 weeks? I'm not sure what the application rate would be for "home made" seaweed. For the liquid seaweed we get the rate is 3 ounces per gallon. Milk can also be used. Spray all exposed surfaces of the plant above the ground.

    Anyway I think you can greatly improve on the old time gardening methods and materials and be organic or sustainable (sort of). Sustainable seems to be in the future. Perhaps if we did not waste the vast amounts of land we have by not growing anything on it we could be sustainable.

    For some lessons in efficient farming, read anything by Joel Salatin. His books should be in the library. They're on Amazon and at AcresUSA.com (search using his name).

  • greenwood85
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    The idea of using chemical fertilizers has been around for a while but it's only become common practice since the end of WWII when America focused bomb-making efforts on making chemical fertilizers and nerve gas efforts on creating pesticides.

    But I think this is beside the OP's original point. I think "organic gardening" denotes a sense of responsibility to land that some "old-time" farmers/gardeners may or may not adhere to. For example, my grandfather's farm was organic in that he relied on animal manure and compost to feed his crops instead of chemical fertilizers. However, he also let a local steel plant dump industrial waste on a portion of his land for a price, so I wouldn't call him an "organic farmer" because he was not "environmentally responsible".

    Whether or not it's snobbery or elitism to consider all the possible consequences are your actions as a gardener is questionable. It sounds to me like both "organic farmers" and "old-time gardeners" can be "elitist". I'd rather be a part of the group that chooses to not harm the earth. If that makes me a snob, so be it.

  • albert_135   39.17°N 119.76°W 4695ft.
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Something I didn't see mentioned in the thread is cost in cash.

    The subsistence farmers where I grew up were cash poor (Obscene surpluses of food, difficult to transport any of it to any market.) So their procedures were pretty much what "organic" farmers aspire to on forums.

  • peter_6
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    I can recall some differences: my great uncle swore by super-phosphates -- this was in the early 1940s. Organic growers nowadays reckon it's too strong for growing vegetables. My father dug deep trenches for potatoes and covered the bottoms with horse manure. Nowadays we would believe that composting manure with plant matter would give better results. And both used Bordeaux mixture if memory serves; the idea that insects take care of insects wasn't commonplace 50-60 years ago. But my mother did trench-compost the kitchen scraps, which is very today. Regards, Peter.

  • wayne_5 zone 5b/6a Central Indiana
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Back in the '40s my folks raised large gardens in the corner of fields reasonably close to the house that we called truck patches. After the field was disked my dad would lay off rows with the field corn planter. Some granular fertilizer was injected by the planter. Sweet corn was sown by machine too but most other crops were sown or transplanted by hand.
    Since the rows were standard width, they could be cultivated for a while mechanically. We used some roetone[sp] on a few things and tobacco Black Leaf 40 on eggplant leaves. There was likely some manure spread on the area at some time or other.

    dchall, I had just read an article by Joel Salatin this afternoon in the weekly Agri News about their Polyface farm.

  • dchall_san_antonio
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    dchall, I had just read an article by Joel Salatin this afternoon in the weekly Agri News about their Polyface farm.

    I like that guy. Who would think to run chickens over a pasture that the cattle just finished with and then run rabbits over it after the chickens? And to delay the chickens for 3 days after the cattle so the chickens would eat the mature parasites in the cattle dung, and spread the dung around, is not quite genius but certainly is a very bright idea. And then he sells the cattle, eggs, chickens, and rabbits all raised on the same pasture. That is what I call getting the most out of your land.

  • Michael
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    It would be fascinating to leap forward 50 yrs and ask the same question. Would the expression, "organic gardening" even exist in relation to those contemporary practices? How might today's organic practices be viewed? Forgive me my philosophical waxing.

  • greenwood85
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Michael, I suspect we will view this movement as a way for farmer's and gardener's to "get back to nature", like Thoreau if you would like to wax philosophical. But like Thoreau I think we'll look back at the organic gardening movement and say "Their hearts were in the right place, trying to respect nature, however, they never completely worked out the logistics and practicalities of their beliefs." Or maybe we will. Time will tell, I guess.

  • Kimmsr
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Organic gardening/farming is much more than "getting back to nature" just as it is much more than simply not using "chemicals" which is quite incorrect anyway since we do. Going organic is a whole philosophy about living and your impact on the world and its environment. As I have said before, to much derision, organic gardening/farming is not simply substituting one type of "fertilizers" for another.

  • gatormomx2
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Anybody have any chickens they can bring to my pastures ?
    I would LOVE to have them run around and eat the grubs in the manure .
    Then to have rabbits follow ? Heavenly !
    It's like Neopolitan manure !
    Wow !
    Truly genius !

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    To address paulns original propostion, I don't think it's a question that has a definitive answer without clarification.....what is "old-time gardening"? How far back does one go? And there are MANY definitions of organic gardening depending on one's philosophy, so which one are we going to agree to use?

    A lot of the previous comments are valid in a generalized form. The use of manufactured synthetic or chemically derived fertilizers has a pretty recent history when compared to how long man has been farming or growing crops for food. They are really only a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and the "hundreds of years" can actually be reduced to about 200, with the predominance of these fertilizers being widely accepted and used immediately after WWII, when they became cheaply and widely available, as greenwood85 notes. Same with synthetic, manufacture pesticides.

    And their introduction to the farming or gardening scene was considered at that time to be an enormous boon - a fast-acting, lightweight, easy to apply and easily accessible material that improved and increased harvests. Naturally - without the greater understanding we have now of soil science and the health implications of chemical residues and these products effects on pollution and ecology - they were widely accepted and utilized. It would be pretty hard to go back 50 or 60 years and not find a gardener or farmer that didn't use some form of manufactured fertilizer or pesticide.

    But even given these considerations, a good many of those gardeners/farmers from previous generations still incorporated what might be best termed "natural gardening" practices - composting, using animal manures, companion plantings, rotational cropping, home remedies for insect and disease controls - along with the manufactured products that at the time seemed like such a great improvement on what they had been doing. And affluence and location played a role as well - poorer farmers in more remote locations tended to use more what they had on hand - the natural methods and products rather than the newer, costly and more difficult to obtain manufactured ones.

    So I believe it is difficult to make a direct correlation between "old time gardening" and the organic or natural way unless you are going back more than just a 100 years or so.

  • nandina
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Once a year I reread my copy of "The Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusettes Board of Agriculture" printed in 1864. It is a fun and enlightening read. Consider the following:
    "...agriculture is not to be elevated in the way you lift a rock, by soul itself inspires and soars towards heaven-by the inspiration of light and immortal truth; by the inspiration of that truth which enlightens and lifts up the individual mind and soul and permeates and so lifts up the whole community."

    This book contains reports of MA. farmers and their success and/or failures, town by town, during the Civil War year 1863 when there was need for high food production. In report after report it is emphasized that very deep plowing and drilling produces more crops per acre. Some farmers are urging cover crops. All encourage the use of manures. Insect damage is treated with soaps, tobacco juice and gasoline products. "For squash and cucumber vines, &c, scatter paper-rags, sawdust, or other absorbent materials, soaked in kerosene, about the hills, sprinkle the rows with road dust, air-slacked lime, ashes, or powdered...leaves and blossoms of fever-few, the Pyrethrum carneum, closely allied to the common camomile." Note: has anyone tried tried 'road dust' for insect damage?

    Another remedy..."For insects upon roots and bulbs, sprinkle petroleum along the rows, or water them with strong soap suds; for onions, mingle common soot, or pyroligneous acid with the solution." Note: Google pyroligneous acid. Interesting. Anyone tried soot on onion maggots? Maybe we should be digging deeper into these old time practices looking for and trialing their organic methods. Not petroleum products, however!

    FYI... In 1862 the national government made a grant of "public land scrip to each of the loyal States, in the proportion of 30,000 acres for each representive and senator in Congress, for the purpose of establishing agricultural colleges in the several States." Each state elected an Agricultural Board to oversee the project and college location selection was based on submissions by towns willing to raise $75,000 dollars for buildings. So now you know why the Agricultural schools in your state are located where they are. Quite a project in the middle of a Civil War!

  • paulns
    Original Author
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    After reading these posts I feel a research project coming on - this summer, at the local museum.
    This large northern section of our island is bounded on the north/east/west by ocean, on the south by mountains that even now are sometimes impassable in winter. Until the 1930's it was accessible only by coastal boats and very rough roads. In winter, by even rougher roads and no boats. Farmers here used to barter vegetables for fish from the small coastal villages. There was very little cash until the gypsum mine started up in the 1930's.

    Given all that, I'm very doubtful that sacks of fertilizers or pesticides were brought in on the boats or over those rough roads. Which brings me to a possible definition of 'old-time organic' as 'using no off-farm inputs'. Which is actually close to my definition of organic/sustainable farming.

    Some knowledge of chemicals and their benefits and hazards was here though. At the museum I found a book called Fertilizers: the source, character and composition of natural, home-made and manufactured fertilizers and suggestions as to their use for different crops and conditions, by Edward Voorhees, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Professor of Agriculture Rutgers University, 1902.

  • Michael
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Paulns: I think you may have darned near hit the nail on the head with the on-farm inputs only rule idea. No doubt there could be some exceptions like dragging seaweed in from the coast but the idea is sound.

  • peter_6
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    paulns: in my book one of the elements of sustainable gardening and farming is no (or absolutedly minimal) imported elements: fertilizer, soil amenments, seeds even. Sustainable for me means something you can do for 10,000 years without loss of fertility or nutritional value of the produce. Self-sufficiency is also a biodynamic principle; another one is incorporation of animals into the garden or farm -- the two priciples go together. Really old-time gardening and organic gardening share the self-sufficiency principle, I believe. For this reason it distresses me when people reach for "products"; I may be Quixotic, but I intinctively distrust "products". I can't manage complete self-sufficiecy of course, but it's a very propoer aim. Another thing distresses me is when people ask what is the organic equivalent of a non-organic fertilizer, weed killer, or pesticide. The essential answer is that there are none; organic is a totally different system of vegetable culture. Regards, Peter.

  • dchall_san_antonio
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Way to go Nandina! Good stuff there. Is that document available on the web? Or could it be scanned? Being a government document it is not copyrighted (I don't think).

    Good info in peter_6's message, too.

  • brass_tacks
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Nandina,
    About the road dust ... I read a paper not long ago about a study that had been made and observed that citrus trees near a dusty road had a lower insect count compared to the trees further into the grove.

    When I imagine 'old-time gardening' there is this picture of being very vulnerable to the forces of nature, cumbersome tools, no electric, no sewers, no running water, root cellars, no phone, no UPS, vision that fails and I can't read.

    Now we have so many options available to us. We are less vulnerable to the forces of nature because we have more ideas and products available for solutions. We have the great counsel available from places like this and the many books and studies, etc. While the information about the kinds of minerals, etc. that are good for growing, I don't believe that there was the passion to know as there is today.
    tricky question :)
    Brass

  • nandina
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Dchall, I did some searching and the book from which I quoted (186 pages) does not seem to be available on line. It is but one book in a series of annual MA. agricultural reports. I suspect the whole series was available at the MA. Horticultural Society library. But, that very valuable library collection was auctioned off a few years ago to raise money for the Society and can be located in parts all over the country in purchasers collections.

    To brass tacks...interesting report on road dust as a possible insecticide. I suspect Paul (and others) will give this a try.

    Paul, hopefully you will keep us updated on your research project of using only what is on your land. I will have a few more old time suggestions for you shortly.

  • paulns
    Original Author
    12 years ago
    last modified: 6 years ago

    Alas our road was paved a few years ago, despite a petition I sent around...Isn't there a product on the market that's similar, a clay dust? I'll try spraying diluted seaweed.

    According to Eliot Coleman our pests are our own fault (if I read him right) - wrong varieties/wrong soil.

    I should point out that we're not sustainable. We still buy most of our seeds, some of them hybrids at that. We offer a huge range of vegetables and berries for one acre, and don't have time to add seed saving to our chores, nor have room to produce our own cover crop seed. But we're working on that. (And we encourage self-seeders.) We've joined SOIL, in hopes of getting an apprentice this summer.

    Also, the place we get manure from, and the beaches we get eelgrass and seaweed from are 2+ miles away, so we drive to get them. Our livestock consists of four laying hens. Come to think of it, who the h*ll do we think we are---?
    :)
    I should say, we see this educational project as a sharing of information, a chance for the whole community to learn from each other, not just us showing and telling. The thought of regional food-independence is exciting, and the driving force behind our efforts.

    That was an interesting comment about bomb-making and nerve gas as antecedents btw