Organic. What's In a Word?
Understanding the Meaning of "Organic"

By Paulette Mouchet

The word organic is used by different people to describe many different things. A doctor would say organic in reference to a body organ such as the heart or liver. A chemist would say organic meaning a substance that contains carbon. A biologist would say organic meaning something has the characteristics of a living organism. And, the United States Department of Agriculture defines organic as, "a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act." 

In the gardening community, when someone says "organic matter," they are generally referring to vegetative material that can be decomposed or rotted; not products that meet government requirements for being labeled as organic.

Where things get confusing for newcomers to gardening is that organic matter (a.k.a. vegetative material) may or may not be legally labeled organic (meaning it was produced by government regulated methods).

For example, many gardeners call grass clippings organic material meaning the grass is vegetative and can be decomposed. However, the clippings may be from grass that was fertilized with chemical fertilizer and sprayed with herbicides. Such clippings are organic material but they cannot legally be labeled organic if the grass was not grown organically per the rules and regulations established by the USDA's National Organic Standards Rule. If you were to buy a bag of these grass clippings, it would be labeled "Grass Clippings" would not carry the USDA Organic Seal.  

So, when a gardener suggests that you add organic matter to your garden, they are talking about adding vegetative matter such as animal manure (from herbivores only), grass clippings, leaves, alfalfa hay, coffee grounds, nut hulls, coir, redwood compost, etc. 

As for the USDA and the National Organic Standards Rule, in October 2002, after more than 10 years of wrangling, the USDA adopted national organic standards that prohibit the use of animal byproducts, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, irradiation, and genetically modified organisms in organic products. The new standards provide a means for certifying farmers and growers, and accrediting the certifying agencies. 

Now, by law, if a product is labeled "100% Organic" it must contain only organically produced raw or processed products. And this organic product may carry the new USDA Organic Seal. But there's a little twist. Products that are almost 100% organic can be labeled "Organic" and carry the USDA Organic Seal. These products must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients, and the remaining ingredients must be nonagricultural products that appear on the National List of allowed ingredients or be agricultural products unavailable in organic form. 

The new national organic standards acknowledge that organic production enhances the ecological balance of the planet, and that organic agriculture promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity; all of which is good for Mother Earth.

Individual organic gardeners together with larger organic farmers and producers are making important contributions to the overall health of our planet and our neighbors. Following are some resources for those interested in learning more about organic gardening:

OG (Organic Gardening) magazine, P.O. Box 7320, Red Oak, IA 51591, (800) 666-2206,  the granddaddy of organic gardening information. Rodale Press, the magazine's publisher, offers many books on organic gardening. 

Paulette Mouchet is editor of The Rose Garden, a monthly newsletter devoted to fine organic gardening for roses in temperate climates. 

Reprinted from "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of the Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor. 

© Copyright Paulette Mouchet. All rights reserved.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

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Updated January 4, 2016