Growing things without using synthetic fertilizers or insecticides is gaining new attention, but it is a very old concept.
In the years before chemicals were introduced, there was no way to garden but organically.
"It's ridiculous to say that crops won't thrive without chemicals," said Mike McGrath, editor in chief of Organic Gardening magazine.
"True gardening is growing without the use of chemicals. People who go out and soak the garden with chemicals aren't gardeners, they're mad scientists."
Organic gardening lost popularity in the late 1940s when using petroleum-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides became the "new and better way" to farm and garden.
Farmers and home gardeners began using tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides without much thought until the 1960s and early 1970s, when scientists began discovering how these chemicals harm the Earth.
Since then, scientists have found that much of the ground water in the United States is contaminated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, including California's, which is in "pretty bad shape," said entomologist Michael Atkins, one of the founders of Safer Inc., a company that produces organic pesticides.
Research has shown for years that chemical pesticide use has led to a decline in the numbers and health of many animals. And now there is alarming evidence that artificial pesticides and industrial chemicals are causing sexual confusion and an inability to reproduce in some animals.
Unlike organic fertilizers and pesticides, which quickly degrade to harmless compounds when exposed to sunlight and air, synthetic chemical fertilizers and insecticides last much longer. A case in point is DDT. The pesticide was used throughout the United States until it was banned in 1970. Now, nearly 25 years later, it continues to be a problem.
"DDT is still showing up in ground water and soil samples in many agricultural regions," Atkins said.
"We're finally beginning to understand the total costs of our habits when it comes to chemicals," said Bill Roley, who is director of the Laguna Beach-based Permaculture Institute of Southern California, which is an educational nonprofit organization that deals with the relationship between water, waste and soil.
"Using chemical fertilizers does produce a lot quickly, but you don't feed the soil," Roley said. "If you add up the costs in terms of health and depletion of natural resources, chemical fertilizers aren't such a bargain."
In recent years, many home gardeners have given up chemicals.
"In the second half of the 1980s we saw an organic gardening boom," Atkins said. He noted that Safer, which was started in 1981, was doing $10 million a year in business by 1991.
Big business has even started to grow produce organically in response to customer demands and because many chemicals are being restricted.
Southern California is a leader in the production of organic produce.
In north San Diego County, there are about 400 organic farms, the highest concentration in the state and probably the country, said Faustino Munoz, farm adviser for UC Cooperative Extension in the county. He regularly advises small farmers, many of whom choose the organic route for health reasons and because they are interested in long-term viability of their farms.
"I farm organically because I can't in good conscience cheat the Earth," said Jerry Weiss, owner of Rocky Peak Farms in Fallbrook, a farm and a retail store. "Studies show organic foods are three to four times higher in minerals than non-organically grown foods."
Prolonged use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can eventually sterilize soil. There is also the danger of overfertilizing with chemicals, which quickly enter the plant's system and can burn roots.
Organic fertilizers work differently than chemical fertilizers. Organic ones usually require soil bacteria to break them down before they are taken up by plant roots, so plants are fed slowly over a long period of time, said Roger Aguinaga, owner of Aguinaga Fertilizer Inc. in Irvine, which provides organic fertilizers and soil amendments to homeowners and farmers.
"Organic fertilizers also don't become soluble and leach into ground water like their synthetic counterparts," he said.
Margret Wagner of Orange is among gardeners who have embraced the organic concept. She has been gardening organically for five years at the Fullerton Arboretum, where she is chairwoman of the demonstration garden for the California Organic Gardening Club. She also has a private garden on the arboretum grounds.
"I garden organically because I feel it's important not to poison the soil with chemicals that have a long life," she said. "I also don't want to kill beneficial insects. And organic gardening is cheaper; I fertilize with compost, and mulching keeps watering down."
To successfully garden organically, you must emulate nature, rather than fight it. If you've been using chemical methods, take heart. It's never too late to rebuild your soil.