A Brief History of Organic Gardening

Jerome Irving Rodale, founder of organic gardening movement

Jerome Irving Rodale, founder of organic gardening movement

“The Best of Organic Gardening” (Rodale Press) is sure to become a classic. Fresh off the press, it is a book you must get if you are thinking of planting a vegetable garden – an activity we in Los Angeles can do any time of the year.
The organic agriculture and gardening movement in the United States, the 50th anniversary of which is celebrated in this volume, can be traced to the work of two men, Sir Albert Howard and Jerome Irving Rodale. And their work, to be precise, owes quite a lot to India.
It was in the unmodernized world of colonial India that Howard discovered that the health of plants depends on their mineral nutrition. Sent by the English government to improve farming methods in India, he found, instead, that it was modern agriculture that needed improvement. In his experiments, Howard learned that plants grown with mulch and compost – by age-old methods – were more robust than plants grown with artificial fertilizers. Moreover, cows nourished on fodder grown in composted soil were healthier than cows that grazed on chemically grown feed.
Howard’s contribution was to develop methods of rapid composting that would make organic farming economical. He was convinced that people would be healthier if they consumed organically grown food. At a boarding school in New Zealand where children ate vegetables grown in Howard’s compost (they had eaten chemically grown vegetables previously), there was a significant reduction in illnesses such as measles, scarlet fever, influenza and the common cold. These findings were reported in The New York Times and in the Lancet, a British medical journal, in 1940.
At about this time, the life of J.I. Rodale, a magazine publisher, was changed permanently when he read Howard’s seminal book, “An Agricultural Testament.” Rodale was so inspired that he bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and, after doing some vegetable farming of his own, started writing about organic growing in a magazine devoted to the subject. Howard, who became Rodale’s co-editor, is perhaps best-remembered for the opinion that ”Artificial fertilizers lead to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”
According to the organic doctrine, compost – which is made of manure, vegetable peels, yard waste, sawdust and most other leftovers from living things – is the key to making healthy soil that makes healthy plants that make healthy people. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not part of the organic equation, since they result in unhealthy soil and unhealthy plants, which create unhealthy people.
Although amending the soil with compost to a depth of 20 inches is the ideal means of preparing a garden, one famous gardener, as reported in “The Best of Organic Growing,” learned to grow vegetables the easy way. In fact, she completely stopped using a shovel and a spading fork. Her name was Ruth Stout, and she was casually taking care of a 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden at age 80.
Stout was the all-time champion mulcher. Her implementation of the sweatless vegetable garden occurred one spring when, noticing that her asparagus was growing wonderfully in soil that hadn’t been dug in 10 years, she wondered if other crops would grow equally well without disturbing the soil. “So a little fearfully, I started to put in peas and spinach, intending to dig a minor trench first to loosen the earth. But I found that the mulch (leaves and hay) that I had dumped on the garden in the fall (to be plowed under in the spring) had kept the earth soft and moist; I merely needed to clear a spot with the rake and drop the seeds. And having once started to take things into my own hands, I kept on. If I scramble and get lots of mulch, I thought, and wholly cover the garden with it (6 or 8 inches thick), no weeds can get through, and the sun can’t bake the soil. Even by the end of June, when I plant the last corn and the second beets, carrots and so on, the ground will surely still be soft.
“Our milkman, a farmer, was glad to give me what he called ‘spoiled hay’ and I called wonderful mulch. I spread it thickly over the entire garden, except, of course, on top of the seeds I had just planted. In a couple of years I abandoned all commercial fertilizers.
“After putting the hay around, I soon found that the only jobs left were planting, thinning and picking. Whenever I wanted to put in some seeds, I raked the mulch back and planted, and later, when the seeds had sprouted, I pulled the mulch close around the little plants, thus keeping the ground around them moist and outwitting the weeds.
“If you have to garden and are not very enthusiastic about it, my method is your answer; you can do the job with minimum time and labor. And if you love such work, it is also the answer; you can keep at it indefinitely. So get rid of your hoes, spades and cultivator.”
Tip: To immediately start a carefree vegetable garden a la Ruth Stout, spread hay or straw over the ground now. Winter rain (or irrigation) will start the decomposition process and soften the soil for planting. Hay and straw are available at several Valley feed dealers, including the Red Barn in Tarzana.

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