What is Organic Gardening? Part One


Robins nest in my semi-dwarf apple tree. A diverse, functional ecosystem requires a sustainable balance of prey and predator species.

In a previous post, I made the outrageous claim that only two tools are essential to organic gardening, a few soaker hoses and a diverse, functioning backyard ecosystem.  The soaker hose quip was a joke, of course, although they are high on my list of excellent garden tools.  I was serious as a train wreck about successful organic gardening being rooted in a diverse, functioning ecosystem.

I must be sho’ nuff knotty-headed to claim that I know something about organic gardening that hasn’t already been said in one of the ten thousand books published on the subject.  I don’t.  But I am a professional academic.  I am trained to read and digest books by the truckload and to think about them comparatively, to think about what themes unify them or differentiate them, to identify the ideological webs in which prosaic technical matters (for example how to compost) are couched.  I have read or collected hundreds of books on various aspects of organic gardening, orchards, animal husbandry, xeriscaping, composting, bee-keeping and land management.  I have attended lectures, conferences, and technical demonstrations.  I’ve attended workshops and taken Master Gardening courses.

Most all of the materials I’ve examined thus far have a unifying theme: the power of nature to feed, clothe, and house human beings sustainably.  However, with one or two notable exceptions, organic gardening books and manuals fail to discuss in explicit terms the seamless connection between gardens and the ecosystems that support them.


Rabbits nest in my shade garden yearly. Rabbits are part of the prey-predator balance that makes up a diverse, functioning ecosystem. Rather than pests, rabbits enhance soil quality and fertility.

It is my opinion that organic gardening would better be taught as a sub-field of applied ecology rather than as a range of particular agricultural or farming techniques, products, or practices.  In my opinion, conventional gardening and even commercial agriculture should be taught in a like manner.  Harrumph.  Fat chance.

From an environmental ecology point of view, there is no such space as “garden.”  There is no such space as “backyard.”  The linkage between “private” and “property” is entirely irrational from an ecological point of view.  From the perspective of ecology, there are only continuous, contiguous, porous ecosystems (ultimately The Ecosystem, a unified planetary system) parts of which are robust, parts of which are in crisis, all of which seek optimal equilibrium.


Chokecherries: Edible for humans, but I plant them to feed songbirds during the winter. My ecosystem-er rule: everything in my yard must feed or house someone.

I wish I could make up words.  Instead of “gardener” I would like to call myself an “ecosystem-er” because my experience of organic gardening has been one of ecosystem management rather than gardening technique.  To grow food organically, I had to learn to spend less time thinking about my beautiful kale and cauliflower and more time enabling the ecosystem to tolerate the strain of growing it.  To organically garden  sustainably, we may have to spend more time remediating the negative impact that growing kale and cauliflower has on the ecosystem in which we grow it.  Because growing and harvesting food in a sub/urban backyard (or on a farm, for that matter) just isn’t “natural.”

Uh oh.  Now I’ve put my foot in it.


Creating a small patch of pseudo-woodland ensures plenty of cover for birds and places for beneficial insects to reproduce

Brace yourselves: here it comes, straight from the hip.  I am calling organic gardeners, gurus, and retailers out (especially retailers!)  on the erroneous, romanticized belief that gardening is “natural,” that gardens are “natural” spaces, that gardening done “naturally” does no harm, or even improves the environment.

Guess what?  Human beings evolved as mobile, foraging, opportunistic scavengers.  If the idea of “evolution” makes your hair stand on end, never fear.  I can make my point by taking the conversation to Genesis:  farming was a divine punishment.  The Garden of Eden involved a tiny number of people wandering about nekkid as jaybirds, feasting on nuts and berries.

Human beings evolved (or were created) to forage and to be mobile.  That is our ecological niche.  Wherever and whenever human beings have settled to live in one place for generations without relocating, wherever and whenever human beings have sunk spades or plows into the earth to open it for seed, wherever and whenever human beings have sown and irrigated a limited number of crops year after year in order to sustain themselves in sedentary splendor, Mother Nature has had a single resounding reply, “NO.”

And honey, as a historian I will tell you straight up and with great confidence: Nature. Always. Eventually. Wins.


Illinois’ native tall grass prairie species. Planting them  helps maintain a functional balance of predator-prey species in and around my vegetable garden. It’s predator/prey species who do the majority of the fertility, soil quality, and pest control work that typically we associate with “gardening.”

Stay tuned for more on organic gardening as ecological restoration and remediation.  We will look at:

  • What constitutes a robust ecosystem? The predator/prey dynamic;
  • What can I do to remediate my sub/urban backyard ecosystem? Building food and shelter;
  • Whaddya mean, kill my lawn?!  Down with monoculture!!
  • How can you argue that gardening stresses an ecosystem?  All about eating dirt;
  • For real you don’t have bird feeders?  Incompetent birds unwelcome here;
  • You mean I don’t have to keep a compost pile?  Whatever did Mother Nature do before humans began leaving  piles of crap around?

2 thoughts on “What is Organic Gardening? Part One

  1. Margaret Katranides says:

    Conservancy magazine has taught me that prairie dogs are good for the prairie, and hence for the ranchers and their cattle. Now how to convince the ranchers not to kill the prairie dogs?

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      I have read that an increasing number of ranchers getting on board with ecosystemic ranching practice. There are many publications on this subject written from within the livestock community; and there are activists from within the ranching community (as compared to conservation activists… who tend to meet resistance) who are advocates and educators. I believe “a change is gonna come” and that it is coming slowly from within. There are some great books about native restoration and land management for ranchers and other pasture keepers.

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