Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.
The Latin words hortus (garden plant) and cultura (culture) together form horticulture, classically defined as the culture or growing of garden plants. Horticulture is also sometimes defined simply as “agriculture minus the plough.” Instead of the plough, horticulture makes use of human labour and gardener’s hand tools, although some small machine tools like rotary tillers are commonly employed now.
Mulches, cover crops, compost, manures, vermicompost, and mineral supplements are soil-building mainstays that distinguish this type of farming from its commercial counterpart. Through attention to good healthy soil condition,1 it is expected that insect, fungal, or other problems that sometimes plague plants can be minimized. However, pheromone traps, insecticidal soap sprays, and other pest-control methods available to organic farmers2 are also utilized by organic horticulturists.
Horticulture involves five areas of study. These areas are floriculture (includes production and marketing of floral crops), landscape horticulture (includes production, marketing and maintenance of landscape plants), olericulture (includes production and marketing of vegetables), pomology (includes production and marketing of fruits), and postharvest physiology (involves maintaining quality and preventing spoilage of horticultural crops). All of these can be, and sometimes are, pursued according to the principles of organic cultivation.
Organic horticulture (or organic gardening) is based on knowledge and techniques gathered over thousands of years. In general terms, organic horticulture involves natural processes, often taking place over extended periods of time, and a sustainable, holistic approach - while chemical-based horticulture focuses on immediate, isolated effects and reductionist strategies.
There are a number of formal organic gardening and farming systems that prescribe specific techniques. They tend to be more specific than, and fit within, general organic standards. Forest gardening, a fully organic food production system which dates from prehistoric times, is thought to be the world's oldest and most resilient agroecosystem.3
Biodynamic farming is an approach based on the esoteric teachings of Rudolf Steiner. The Japanese farmer and writer Masanobu Fukuoka invented a no-till system for small-scale grain production that he called Natural Farming. French intensive and biointensive methods and SPIN Farming (Small Plot INtensive) are all small scale gardening techniques. These techniques were brought to the United States by Alan Chadwick in the 1930s.4 This method has since been promoted by John Jeavons, Director of Ecology Action.5 A garden is more than just a means of providing food, it is a model of what is possible in a community - everyone could have a garden of some kind (container, growing box, raised bed) and produce healthy, nutritious organic food, a farmers market, a place to pass on gardening experience, and a sharing of bounty, promoting a more sustainable way of living that would encourage their local economy. A simple 4' x 8' (32 square feet) raised bed garden based on the principles of bio-intensive planting and square foot gardening uses fewer nutrients and less water, and could keep a family, or community, supplied with an abundance of healthy, nutritious organic greens, while promoting a more sustainable way of living.
Organic gardening is designed to work with the ecological systems and minimally disturb the Earth’s natural balance. Because of this organic farmers have been interested in reduced-tillage methods. Conventional agriculture uses mechanical tillage, which is plowing or sowing, which is harmful to the environment. The impact of tilling in organic farming is much less of an issue. Ploughing speeds up erosion because the soil remains uncovered for a long period of time and if it has a low content of organic matter the structural stability of the soil decreases. Organic farmers use techniques such as mulching, planting cover crops, and intercropping, to maintain a soil cover throughout most of the year. The use of compost, manure mulch and other organic fertilizers yields a higher organic content of soils on organic farms and helps limit soil degradation and erosion. 6
Other methods can also be used to supplement an existing garden. Methods such as composting, or vermicomposting. These practices are ways of recycling organic matter into some of the best organic fertilizers and soil conditioner. Vermicompost is especially easy. The byproduct is also an excellent source of nutrients for an organic garden.7
Differing approaches to pest control are equally notable. In chemical horticulture, a specific insecticide may be applied to quickly kill off a particular insect pest. Chemical controls can dramatically reduce pest populations in the short term, yet by unavoidably killing (or starving) natural control insects and animals, cause an increase in the pest population in the long term, thereby creating an ever increasing problem. Repeated use of insecticides and herbicides also encourages rapid natural selection of resistant insects, plants and other organisms, necessitating increased use, or requiring new, more powerful controls.
In contrast, organic horticulture tends to tolerate some pest populations while taking the long view. Organic pest control requires a thorough understanding of pest life cycles and interactions, and involves the cumulative effect of many techniques, including:8
• Allowing for an acceptable level of pest damage
• Encouraging predatory beneficial insects to flourish and eat pests
• Encouraging beneficial microorganisms
• Careful plant selection, choosing disease-resistant varieties
• Planting companion crops that discourage or divert pests
• Using row covers to protect crop plants during pest migration periods
• Rotating crops to different locations from year to year to interrupt pest reproduction cycles
• Using insect traps to monitor and control insect populations
Each of these techniques also provides other benefits, such as soil protection and improvement, fertilization, pollination, water conservation and season extension. These benefits are both complementary and cumulative in overall effect on site health. Organic pest control and biological pest control can be used as part of integrated pest management (IPM). However, IPM can include the use of chemical pesticides that are not part of organic or biological techniques.910
- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service on healthy soils Retrieved 2009-3-8
- Organic pest control strategies Retrieved 2009-3-8
- Douglas John McConnell (2003). The Forest Farms of Kandy: And Other Gardens of Complete Design. p. 1.
- Intensive Organic Gardening, Ohio State University Extension Factsheet
- "Ecology Action". Retrieved 2010-11-07.dead link
- "Benefits of Organic Gardening". Retrieved 2011-05-25.
- "Build a Vermicompost Bin". Retrieved 2009-02-03.
- Organic Pest and Disease Management Guide, Cornell Univ Retrieved 2009-3-8
-  Retrieved 2010-27-10
- Organic Materials Review Institute on allowed substances Retrieved 2009-3-8
- Eliot Coleman. The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener. Chelsea Green, 1995. ISBN 0-87596-753-1
- Karan Davis Cutler, Barbara W. Ellis, and David Cavagnaro. The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener : A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically. Wiley, 1997. ISBN 0-02-862005-4
- Tanya L.K. Denckla. The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food. Storey, 2004. ISBN 1-58017-370-5
- Barbara W. Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley, eds. The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control: A Complete Problem-Solving Guide to Keeping Your Garden and Yard Healthy Without Chemicals. Rodale, 1996. ISBN 0-87596-753-1
- Anna Kruger, ed. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. DK, 2005. ISBN 0-7566-0932-1
- Edward C. Smith. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible. Storey, 2006. ISBN 1-58017-212-1
- Steve Solomon. Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times. New Society, 2006. ISBN 0-86571-553-X
- Paul Stamets. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Ten Speed, 2005. ISBN 1-58008-579-2
- HRH The Prince of Wales and Stephanie Donaldson. The Elements of Organic Gardening. Kales, 2007. ISBN 0-9670076-9-0