What is an Organic Garden?




What is an organic gardening? It is not just a matter of opinion or debate, because the most common organic gardening methods have been agreed upon for a long time. It is more a matter of degree, of determining whether to employ the best practices, how to implement them correctly, or whether to choose to use less acceptable practices. In choosing your course of action, it’s helpful to remember the aspects of Green Living that apply here.


  • Seek to work with natural systems.
  • Do as little environmental harm as possible.
  • Act with deliberate care.
  • Be flexible and adaptable.
  • Use your knowledge to decide your actions.

Fortunately, there actually is a definition for Organic Gardening. It specifies the best practices for you to use in your organic garden. And since organic gardening involves living systems, where flexibility and adaptability is an inherent part of the process, the following Organic Gardening Definition* details a variety of acceptable organic practices.




  1. Soil Management: Building a healthy fertile soil is the basis of all organic gardening. Soil should be maintained in ways that develop and protect its structure, its fertility, and the millions of organisms that make soil their home. Caring for the soil involves the use of organic residues, in the form of animal manures and waste plant materials. This improves soil structure, maintains humus levels, feeds soil organisms, and provides essential plant nutrients. Read More


Best Practice


Keep the soil covered with a protective covering of living plants, including cover crops, vegetable crops, or mulching materials.

Employ manures and waste plant materials as described below.

Loosen the subsoil to break up compaction if it is present.

Improve soil drainage, or maintain free-draining soils.

Adjust pH to appropriate levels and maintain them at regular intervals.

Use a crop rotation plan for all annual plantings.



Take care when cultivating the soil to avoid damaging soil structure. Cultivate as little as is necessary.

Limit cultivation to those periods where the soil is neither too dry nor too wet.

Do not mix subsoil layers into topsoil layers and vice versa.

Qualified Acceptable


Rotary tilling is only applicable for large gardens where manual cultivation is impractical.

Not Acceptable


All other practices

Return to Top





  1. Plant Waste Materials: Organic materials should be recycled from within the garden; however these can be augmented by materials brought in from other sources. Ideally these should be from nearby organic gardens, organically-managed farms, and commercial sources, such as restaurants and coffee houses.


Best Practice


Plant and food wastes from your own household, garden and yard, including autumn leaves made into leaf mold



By-products from organic food processes and industries

Straw and hay from organic sources

Sawdust, shavings, and wood waste from sustainably harvested wood products

Microbial and plant extract compost activators

Autumns leaves from managed sources, such as municipal parks and arboretums

Organic mushroom compost

Qualified Acceptable


Straw and hay from non-organic sources after being composted for 3 months or stockpiled for 6 months

Composted green and household waste from commercial composting industries

Plant wastes from non-organic food processes and industries after being properly composted

Mushroom and worm composts made from non-organic animal manures.

Commercially produced and bagged compost made from non-organic sources, except as noted below.

Flotsam seaweed (not living seaweed) harvested from non-polluted beaches, where permitted

Not Acceptable


Any materials containing PTE’s (potential toxic elements) at levels greater than permitted

Leaves and leaf mold collected from woodlands and forests, where they are needed to complete natural processes in the forest ecosystem

Leaves collected adjacent to very busy roadways

Peat, pear moss, coir, coconut fiber, and any commercial product containing these elements

Return to Top


  1. Animal Waste Materials and Manures: Materials used to create healthy soils also include animal waste materials, especially animal manures. Fresh manures should be composted or processed in other ways before using in the garden. Animal waste from intensive meat or egg production factories should never be used in an organic garden, since they can easily contain concentrated pathogens and chemicals. Likewise, human feces and manure from household pets should never be used in the garden.


Best Practice


Non-pet animal wastes from your own household, garden and farm, including pigs, goats, poultry, cattle, and horses.



By-products from organic food processes and industries

Composted strawy farmyard, horse, and poultry waste from organic sources

Commercial manures from organic sources

Wool by products not containing organophosphate residues

Feathers from free range and semi-intensive egg and meat production farms.

Qualified Acceptable


Composted strawy farmyard, horse, and poultry waste from non-organic sources after being composted for 3 months or stockpiled for 6 months

Poultry manure and deep litter from semi-intensive egg and meat production farms, after being composted for 3 months or stockpiled for 12 months

Pig manure from straw-based meat production farms, after being composted for 3 months or stockpiled for 12 months

Processed animal wastes from slaughterhouses

Processed waste from the fish products industry

Properly treated sewer sludge and sludge-based composts, free from PTE’s (potential toxic elements)

Not Acceptable


Any materials containing PTE’s (potential toxic elements) at levels greater than permitted

Animal residues and manures from intensive poultry or livestock systems.

Dog and cat feces

Human feces

Return to Top


  1. Manure and Compost Storage and Application: In the organic garden, composts, manures, and other materials that contain soil and plant nutrients should be stored and applied in ways that avoid the leaching of nutrients into the soil. Leaching both wastes needed nutrients and pollutes groundwater and waterways. Intense concentration of some soil nutrients can disrupt soil life and may require long-term mitigation.


Best Practice


Store and compost manures indoors or outdoors under cover.

Apply no more than one wheel barrow load of well-rotted manure or compost per 6 square yard of garden surface per year

Apply manures and composts only to the soil adjacent to growing plants or to where plants are soon to be grown



Autumn or winter application of composted manure to actively growing cover crops

Application of composted manure or compost to greenhouse soils at any time

Qualified Acceptable


Autumn or winter application of uncomposted manure or unfinished compost if covered with a winter mulch of leaves at least four inches deep.

Not Acceptable


Storage of manures and waste materials that will result in the pollution of ground – or surface – waterways.

Manures stored uncovered.

Application of manure to any bare soil intended to be left fallow.

Return to Top


  1. Crop Rotation: When growing annual plants, crop rotation is an essential organic garden method in the control of soil management, and in weed, pest and disease control. It is unwise to reuse the same soil for the same plant year after year. As much as possible the position of any specific should be varied each year and returned to the same spot only after several years have passed. This method helps in the control of soil-borne diseases, minimizes problems with pests and weed infestation, and in the maintenance of the soil fertility and structure.


Best Practice


Grow plants with similar soil feeding needs, watering needs, and similar pest susceptibility together in a group.

Move that group of plants to a different location in the garden each year.

Plan to follow heavy feeding plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash in the following year, with nitrogen-fixing plants such as peas or beans.

Plan rotations that minimize the time that the soil is left bare.

Plant new perennial plants in a location where similar perennials have not been previously planted.

Ideally the minimal crop rotation should on a four-year cycle



Shorter rotations for specific conditions, such as greenhouse gardening, when special attention is given to soil health.

Shorter rotations for very small gardens, less than 100 square feet.

Qualified Acceptable



Not Acceptable


Annual plants grown in the same location year after year

Return to Top




  1. Organic Fertilizers: Organic fertilizers including bulk soil amendments should be used in the organic garden as a supplement to composted materials, or to address specific deficiencies in the soil and NOT as a replacement to manures and plant waste materials that have been processed as described above. They may be of plant, animal, or mineral origin. Organic fertilizers must be used with care and in limited amounts, since they carry nutrients in such concentrations that it is easy to unintentionally create nutritional imbalances in the soil.


Best Practice


Test your soil and purchase organic fertilizer to address specific soil deficiencies

Purchase fertilizers in limited amounts minimize the need to store organic fertilizers

Store organic fertilizers indoors and within containers with tight-fitting lids. Avoid storing in areas with high humidity.



Compost tea made from garden-made compost

Qualified Acceptable


N-Nitrogen: Blood meal in growing media and on overwintered crops and applied in spring only; hoof and horn meals

P-Phosphorous: Natural phosphate rock; basic slag; calcined-aluminum phosphate rock; meat and bone meals [Cadmium levels in rock phosphates not the exceed 90mg/kg]

K-Potassium: Wood ashes if added to compost or manure pile; plant extracts  such as sugar beet waste

Compound Fertilizers: Fish, blood, and bone meals; meat meals; seaweed meals

Liming Materials: Dolomite limestone; ground limestone; ground chalk

Minor Minerals: Calcareous magnesium rock; gypsum; calcium sulfate; magnesium rock; sulfur; calcium chloride; Epsom salts (for acute deficiencies only)

Trace Elements: [Only to address acute deficiencies identified by soil analysis] boron; copper; iron; manganese; molybdenum; cobalt; selenium; and zinc

Not Acceptable


Fresh blood

All synthetic fertilizers

‘Natural’ fertilizers, produced by environment-degrading processes: Chilean nitrate, muriate of potash, superphosphates, and kainite

Slaked lime, quicklime

Ironite: Banned in Washington State, Maine, and Canada

Return to Top





  1. Liquid Fertilizers: Like solid organic fertilizers liquid fertilizers should be used in the organic garden only as a supplement to composted materials, or to address specific deficiencies in the soil and NOT as a replacement to manures and plant waste materials that have been processed as described above. Because they are taken up by plants even more readily than solid fertilizers, liquid organic fertilizer must be used with caution. These fertilizers are applied either directly onto the plants, foliar feeds, or into the soil around the plants.


Best Practice


Test your soil and purchase liquid fertilizer to address specific soil deficiencies



Compost tea made from garden-made compost

Qualified Acceptable


Liquid fertilizers used on plants in containers, greenhouses, or in a seed-starting medium

Seaweed extracts and fish emulsions

Home-made organic liquid fertilizers to address specific deficiencies, such as eggshell tea for treating calcium deficiency on certain sensitive plants

Not Acceptable


Fresh blood and urine

All synthetic fertilizers

‘Natural’ fertilizers, made by environment-degrading processes, such as urea

Return to Top


  1. Pest and Disease Management: Prevention is the primary strategy for pest and disease management in the organic garden. Healthy plants and soil form a balanced micro-ecosystem and are naturally resistant to disease organisms. Unhealthy or weakened plants are not only susceptible to disease, but will actually attract garden pests. By providing a well-structured soil and a balanced diet of nutrients for plants; and by growing pest- and disease-resistant varieties appropriate to the climate of the site, organic gardeners create an environment in which infestations are notably absent.


The organic garden should be designed and managed to provide a diversified environment to favor beneficial creatures, such as natural predators and parasites. Organic gardeners need to be observant and aware of the flora and fauna within their gardens. They also should know that the mere presence of a pest does not always require action. Organic gardening philosophy mandates a response appropriate to the specific scale of the problem.


Good garden hygiene and the use of mechanical barriers, traps, and scare-devices complete the range of pest and disease management techniques.


Best Practice


Build soil with good structure and a balance complement of nutrients available for plants

Practice good garden maintenance and hygiene to prevent seasonal carry-over of disease pathogens and breeding areas for pests

Select plant varieties appropriate for your specific climate and locale

Select pest-resitant and disease-resistant plant varieties

Plant and sow seeds at times appropriate to your locale

Use healthy seeds, plants, and planting materials, certified as virus-free where possible

Monitor plants to catch potential problems early

Use a crop rotation scheme to minimize soil-borne pests and diseases

Companion plant or intercrop to avoid monoculture

Grow plants and flowers that attract and feed beneficial creatures, natural predators and parasites

Provide good ventilation around and within plantings

Use biodegradable materials for mechanical barriers, traps, and scare-devices

Remove the plant completely if it’s not salvageable to prevent the spread of disease and to discourage pests



Carefully introduced biological control agents

Non-biodegradable materials for mechanical barriers, traps, and scare-devices. Remove and reuse where possible

Steam sterilization of garden structures and equipment

Qualified Acceptable


Sticky barriers and traps, including those with pheromone lure

Steam sterilization of infected soils

Plant oil and mineral oil

Disinfectants based on citric acid or peroxyacetic acid for disinfection of pots, trays, equipment and greenhouses

If applied directly onto the plant to address a specific pest: Potassium soap with plant fatty acids; Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis); pyrethrum; insecticidal soap; neem; quassia; and granulosis virus, where permitted

If applied directly onto the plant to address a specific disease: Bordeaux mixture; copper sulfate; copper oxychloride; copper ammonium carbonate; and sulfur

Disposal of pest infested plant in compost material. Remove sections of the plant where the pests are still present and compost parts that are merely eaten or desiccated

Not Acceptable


All other pesticides, including nicotine, aluminum sulphate, and metaldehyde

Disposal of diseased plants into the compost

Return to Top


  1. Weed Control: Weeds are defined as a plant that you don’t want to grow where it is growing. All weeds have a beneficial aspect; they provide food and shelter for a host of natural creatures and are a useful source of materials for composting. They should be allowed to grow where possible, eliminating them only when they compete with chosen crops. There is a wide range of cultural techniques for keeping weed from growing in unwanted places, but there are no herbicides that are acceptable in the organic garden.


Best Practice


Use a crop rotation scheme to minimize perennial weeds

Varying weed-suppressing and weed-susceptible crops

Hand-pulling of weeds and hoeing

Intensive planting methods, groundcover plants, and cover crops

Biodegradable mulches of organic origin

Creating good solid foundations for pathways



Digging out weeds or digging weeds into the soil

Biodegradable mulches of non-organic origin

Pointing joints between pavers, slabs, bricks, etc. with cement mortar

Qualified Acceptable


Rotary tilling

Non-biodegradable mulch, preferably water-permeable, and that can be reused

Permeable non-biodegradable mulches or barriers under path surfaces or around perennial plants


Not Acceptable


All synthetic weed-killers and herbicides, including glyphosate

Return to Top




  1. Planting Materials: Ideally organic gardeners grow your own plants from organically grown seed, tubers, and bulbs. Your suppliers should be in the same climatic or eco-region as your organic garden, and be geared towards providing plants, bulbs, and seeds that are adapted to you locale.


Best Practice


Plants grown to certified organic standards

Organically grown seeds, tubers, and bulbs

Plants and seeds specifically grown for your eco-region



Conventionally grown seeds, plants, and other planting material not treated with chemicals

Planting materials ordered by mail or internet and adapted for your eco-region

Qualified Acceptable


Plants materials grown using non-organic methods

Planting materials ordered by mail or internet and able to be grown in your eco-region

Rooting powders not containing fungicides

Not Recommended


Rooting powders with fungicides

Planting materials harvested from the wild

Seed treated with chemicals after harvest

Seeds or planting materials from genetically modified cultivars

Planting materials ordered by mail or internet from overseas

Return to Top


  1. Growing Media: In the organic garden, growing media such as potting soil and seed starting mix should be made from organic sources and should be free of chemicals, hormones, and non-organic amendments. Purchased products should be free of peat and coir, and should bear an organic certification. Homemade media should only include materials described below.


Best Practice


Homemade growing media made only from the materials listed below.

Organically certified commercially produced growing media



Organically certified commercially produced growing media containing recycled or composted peat moss

Qualified Acceptable


Perlite, vermiculite, bentonite, and zeolites that have been chemically processed

Organic growing media containing peat moss

Not Recommended


Growing media using materials not listed above

Return to Top


  1. Container Gardening: Whenever possible, grow plants directly in the ground to allow ample room for root development. However, it is possible to have an organic garden in confined spaces. In city gardens and container gardens, plants will be inevitably be restricted by the constraints of their containers. Develop and maintain a gardening regimen that gives your plants the additional, timely care that they will required to thrive.


Best Practice


Organic growing media with recycled waste materials as the major source of fertility

Plants and seeds as describe above

Containers of appropriate size to allow the plants to grow without deformation

Containers with proper drainage

Hanging basket liners made from recycled materials such as wool

Additional feedings with compost, manures, or similar commercial products as described above

Additional watering to insure that the roots do not dry out

Judicious watering to insure that the roots are not waterlogged



Organic growing media with organic fertilizers as the major source of fertility

Additional feedings with organic fertilizers as described above

Qualified Acceptable


Commercially available organic liquid fertilizers

Not Recommended


Hanging basket liners made from peat moss

Other liquid fertilizers, especially chemically based synthetic fertilizers

Return to Top




  1. Safe Garden Materials: Wood Preservatives by their very nature are toxic and persistent. In the organic garden they should be avoided where possible. Their use should be restricted to structural members, where decay could prove a safety hazard. Wood that is in contact with both the air and soil is at most risk.


  1. Stewardship: Organic gardening as a green living philosophy is intimately linked to the world and concerns environmental stewardship beyond the borders of your garden. All human activities have the potential to pollute, decrease habitat, and impact bio-diversity. This is particularly important for the organic garden, since it relies on the health of natural systems for pest and disease control.


  1. Conservation: Create a diverse environment, both in the garden and further afield. Plant a wide variety of species in your organic garden. Give preference to native or locally adapted varieties and avoid highly bred cultivars and hybrids. Create areas where beneficial animals and insects can live, find food, and breed.


Best Practice


Purchase garden materials, seeds and plants from local organic nurseries.

Avoid using power tools, especially with small fossil fuel motors. A single lawn mower can pollute as much as five cars. Use hand tools where possible.

Use only natural or basic materials in the garden, such as untreated wood, stone, metal, brick, and concrete masonry. Use new wood only from certified-sustainable sources.

Create or maintain natural habitats in or near your garden, such as hedgerows, natural borders, woodland, or wetlands.

Provide an area of uncut grass and weeds as an insect and bird habitat.

Create a pruning, cutting and weeding schedule that allows plants to flower and produce food for birds and insects. Do not disturb bird nests.

Recycle and reuse materials in your home. Compost food waste.

Select native plant species or non-natives for specific purposes, such as attracting a particular beneficial insect



Purchase garden materials, seeds and plants to be delivered by post from organic nurseries within 500 miles of home.

Where the scale of a project necessitates using a power tool, opt for electrically powered tools.

Use of treated wood, if not in contact with the soil AND treated with benign materials, such as linseed oil.  Use of synthetic wood made from recycled polystyrene.

Qualified Acceptable


Hot dry bonfire to dispose of diseased plant materials

Not Acceptable


Bonfires, except as noted above

Lumber from non-renewable sources, except where it is removed from the waste stream

Manures stored uncovered

Purchase of materials transported from long distances, when suitable materials are available locally.

Dumping of organic waste without processing

Clearing away all plant debris from under hedges, around shrubs, except in conjunction with a specific disease control method