Organic vs Synthetic debate :)

howelbama(7 NJ)May 9, 2012

Everyone seems to love to debate this topic, so I thought I would start a thread for fun and see where it goes.

I am no scientist and have no formal horticultural training, it's just a hobby for me.

My view on containers is that synthetics are the way to go and the organic approach should be left to raised beds and growing in-ground.

I look at containers like a fish tank, a closed system. The fish in your fish tank rely on specialized bacteria to break down their waste and prevent the fish from dying due to ammonia, nitrite, and or nitrate poisoning. In order to maintain these bacteria populations, frequent water changes are required.

When growing organically, all sorts of microbes are needed to make the nutrients available to your plants and support a healthy root zone. In a container supporting these microbes would require frequent refreshing of the growing medium similar to water changes in an aquarium. This would be sure to be stressful on your plants and be quite a bit of maintenance on the caretaker, just as in my opinion, doing water changes on an aquarium are. Which is why I no longer keep fish.

This is why I fell synthetics are the way to go in containers, and organics are perfect for growing in-ground.

Of course, the bigger the container, the more stable the closed system becomes. Just like with aquariums, the bigger the tank the less frequently you have to do water changes (as long as the fish population is reasonable). So, maybe in really large containers organic approaches become possible, but why wouldn't you just grow in the ground then?

Just a thought that I felt like putting out there.

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dirtguy50 SW MO z6a(6a)

Do a seach and wear youself out.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 12:30AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

Not that I think we need further debate on this subject, but I must ask why you think the size of the container, moves it out of the container category? Al

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 7:50AM
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howelbama(7 NJ)


I'm not suggesting that the size of the container moves it out of the container category, only that things become more stable in a closed system (container), the larger that system is. Assuming that the life (number of plants, etc...) in that system is not overcrowded.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 9:57AM
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It is my belief, using science, physics, and a lifetime of experience as my "sources", that organic methods are best saved for the garden beds... while a more inorganic approach works much better for plants confined to containers, regardless of the size... for one simple reason: the same environment that mother nature provides in our garden beds, the ground, is not present within the confined space of a container and what it must contain to maintain healthy root systems.

Mother nature provides an army of creatures, both large and small, that all work in conjunction to break down organic matter into usable food for plants.

Within containers, this same army of creatures is not present, nor is it possible or feasible to try to duplicate and keep balanced. Therefore, feeding organic plant foods that are not completely broken down and immediately usable is a worthless enterprise.

And that is my opinion on the issue, based upon many years of trial and error, and finally learning the solid science behind it all.

It can be as complicated or as easy as you want to make it. I was incredibly lucky to have found tapla, who took all the complication and broke it down into easy to understand terms for the layman. The article, the main one, is usually positioned on the first page here, within this forum. It's entitled "Container Soils - Water Movement & Retention", and I believe it's up to its 14th time of being renewed, as the most popular and educational article.

Happy Growing!

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 11:46AM
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I find it challenging to grow organically in

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 12:53PM
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12 cu ft = ~80 gallons. Wow those are big containers!

My completely organic, 18 gallon totes are wonderfully successful. I too enjoy wonderful vegetables from a zero-cost worthless enterprise.

I prefer the scientific method of experimentation, observation, and recording results.

A lot of good reasons are shared on this forum on why organics aren't good for containers, but I've just decided to try every method and see which does best in my climate with my watering system.

Over 15 years of growing I've tried hydroponics, SWCs, 5:1:1, gritty type mix, foliage pro, organic fertilizer and organic mixes, ...

My best results so far are with organic mixes (leaves and forest mulch). This is partly due to the fact that these mixes are more robust, because the plants are more able to deal with water stress (and transplant shock) in an organic mix than in a synthetic mix. My watering method is a timed drip system which is not ideal for a 5:1:1 or gritty mix in a dry climate.

Just posting this so some people won't be scared off from trying organics if they are looking for advice.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 4:07PM
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prestons_garden(9B SZ 22 HZ 6 SoCal)

You can have success either way as long as you understand the concept.

Read, read and read some more. Then get outdoors and enjoy learning the ups and downs of a great hobby, gardening.

Have a nice day,

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 6:42PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Here's my take: It's not that you can't grow healthy plants in containers while trying to be as 'organic' as possible, using soil amendments and other nutritional supplementation methods that would qualify you to lay title to being strictly organic - you can. I think though, to do it well, the learning curve is much steeper and the likelihood of problems relative to nutrition greater. Additionally, unless you understand watering technique and managing water retention well, that can often be an additional problem because most growers that want to be 'organic', usually want to use a large measure of compost and other pine matter as a primary fraction of their soil, which we have seen thousands of times to be an issue especially difficult for beginners to deal with.

Finally, a grower can institute a nutritional supplementation program in 5 minutes that ensures immediate delivery of a full compliment of nutrients normally derived from the soil, and be sure what and how much is available, and when. When depending on the breakdown of organic soil ingredients, such is not the case, so there is a greater degree of speculation and guesswork that makes it very difficult for even skilled observers to pinpoint nutritional disorders that might occur.

It's easier using synthetics, and they eliminate a significant amount of guesswork. It's also easy to straighten out a problem supplementation program when using synthetics, but it's extremely difficult to try to tell someone what to do to correct nutritional problems when they are depending almost entirely on the breakdown of soil components for their plants' nutritional needs.


    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 9:05PM
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I could not agree more with what everyone said!!!

When it comes to container gardening I now use all in-organic fertilizer.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 10:06PM
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I guess part of the issue is why do organics in containers when I think we can agree that organic is much more difficult in containers?

Some think organic is healthier. I don't buy that. Plants use the same nutrients and don't care what the source is.

If the reason is environmental, which is the real reason for organic, it makes total sense in the ground, but not so much in containers, where run off is minimal, and we are not preserving a soil food web. I use synthetics in containers, and organic in ground. Best of both worlds.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2012 at 7:21AM
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Capo - I don't want to challenge your opinions, but I'd like to add a couple comments.

Some think organic is healthier. I don't buy that. Plants use the same nutrients and don't care what the source is. The connection between soil health, plant health, and human health is a poorly understood area of science and one that will become increasingly critical in the future. Synthetic fertilizers simply do not offer the spectrum of nutrients available through organic sources. Sure, plants grow well enough on a diet of NPK + macro and micronutrients. But that limits the nutritional value of the crop. If you're growing a Japanese maple, that's not a chief concern, but with regard to plants destined for human consumption, it's an important point. The trouble is, so much of the research is focused on crop yields, that crop quality is given short shrift.

it makes total sense in the ground, but not so much in containers, where run off is minimal Properly used, field-applied fertilizers are not a major source of pollution - certainly not at the home garden level. Phosphorus, which is of primary concern, is very immobile - moving through the soil profile at only about 1/4" per year. At the same time, phosphorus which leaches out of containers is prone to become a source of pollution because it is not being incorporated into the underlying soil. If you are growing on hard surfaces - driveways, patios, decks, etc. this is doubly true - it will be carried by rainwater into the sewer system and beyond.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2012 at 8:59AM
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tapla let me know if i am wrong here.
I double dig my in ground beds & add compost for years to come. Will leaves these beds to my children to garden.
But the new fad raised beds with to tilling, but cardboard bottoms & mostly store bought soil/compost mix are above ground container of a kind. I do not have them, but have heard they work well.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 12:31PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Are you maybe referring to raised beds or lasagna gardening?


    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 8:03PM
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Fortyonenorth: Organics still have to mineralize nutrients which is basically the same forms used in synthetics before plants can use them. I've seen no evidence that organics are more nutritious so far.

As far as synthetics on soil, I do agree that they can be used in a responsible way, especially in the home garden.The real issue is commercial growing, where synthetics are used with insufficient organic materials, causing degradation of the soil, and requiring even more synthetics as time passes increasing runoff. For the home gardener, it is very easy to go 100% organic and not requiring any synthetics.

As far as container runoff, my point is that it takes far less fertilizer on a per plant basis in containers then in the ground. I agree that people should not run off into a sewer. I let mine run off into grass, and don't even see any difference in growth from areas that don't see container run off.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 8:01AM
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