Down to Earth: True Organic Fertilizer

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I’ve always tried to garden ­organically. I don’t use chemical sprays on my herbs and vegetables, I resist using chemical fertilizers unless there is no other alternative, and for the most part, I rely on my compost pile for soil amendments. So I read with ­interest an article in an organic gardening magazine some years back about building soil by taking advantage of all the free stuff available in the countryside. The author suggested that readers could haul off truckloads of chicken litter from the big, commercial chicken houses and harvest cotton hulls from roadside ditches in areas where cotton is grown.

Because I knew that both of these suggestions were unacceptable, I called the magazine’s editor to ask why it was calling these sources organic. She seemed surprised I’d asked. “Chicken litter is just manure and feathers and some sawdust from the floor,” she told me. I live in the top poultry-producing state in the United States, and I know that not one organic organization certifies the use of chicken litter for organic herb and vegetable growers. I ­explained that chicken litter can contain insecticides and other toxic chemicals that may persist in the soil if the litter is tilled in as an amendment. An insecticide added to the feed of chickens and turkeys raised commercially for meat reportedly doesn’t break down in the bird but passes through it into the manure, where it is then activated and kills fly larvae. The chemical may persist in the manure for many months and may be harmful to plants growing in soil on which the manure has been spread.

The editor then focused on the cotton hulls, saying that she had driven through cotton-growing areas and seen the piles of cotton hulls that had washed down the rows into roadside ditches after a rain. I had checked that out with a couple of cotton growers, one in Arkansas and one in Tennessee, and I had done some library research as well. All three sources agreed that the three most heavily sprayed crops in all of agriculture are ­cotton, tobacco, and ­soy-beans. A third cotton grower, who uses relatively inorganic methods, hooted at the idea of ­collecting cotton hulls. “Do you know how many chemicals–really harsh, toxic chemicals–we have to use to grow cotton commercially?” He added that he would never even consider putting cotton hulls in his compost or his kitchen garden, “not in soil where I grow basil or thyme or even sage. I don’t want that stuff around my food.”

“You’re teaching a whole army of readers to use materials on their herb beds that are not even close to ­organic; they’re going to believe it because they read it in your magazine,” I said to the editor. “Would you run a correction?” She wouldn’t. But she thanked me for calling.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that people think they are using organic materials around their mint and fennel beds that are far from organic. Maybe adding cotton hulls full of poison to the soil isn’t a long-range problem. Maybe insecticides won’t get into my lavender or find their way into my lemon verbena tea or wind up in the lemon balm cake that I serve on my porch each summer. ­Perhaps they wouldn’t leach into the soil and kill off earthworms or ladybugs or bluebirds. But I’m not taking any chances, and I’m keeping them out of my garden. I don’t want my garlic bed awash in poison residue, nor my thyme having to tiptoe over tainted soil in search of a healthy place in which to root.

I’m far from a fanatic on these things, but if given the choice–if I can be sure that what I’m putting on my garden, and thus into my mouth, is healthy–I’ll choose the healthy soil amendments every time. There probably aren’t any purely organic fields or gardens left in our country, thanks to pollution in the streams and acid rain, but I’m not going to knowingly haul truckloads of chemicals home and spread them on my herb beds, tilling them in where they may poison the plants I love. I’d like to leave my herbs as I found them: fragrant, flavorful, and healthy.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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