Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

Ground War

Organic growing is great – but it has its downsides…

The Ecologist, October 2006

Isn’t organic growing wonderful? Here we are, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters, of course), growing our food the natural way. No artificial chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides. Making things grow using only what nature provides and knowing, when we eat it, that it’s as healthy as can be. We will never poison our soil. We will keep fossil fuel inputs to a minimum. We will live in harmony with the birds and the bees and the cute little ladybirds. We will never get cancer. We will live forever!

Hmmm. Sometimes I wonder. I wonder if I could get away with just a few slug pellets, or a dab of Roundup on that couch grass that just won’t bloody go away. I wonder if spraying those cabbage whiteflies with something developed in a lab might get rid of them more effectively than ecological washing-up liquid dissolved in tap water. I wonder if anyone from the Ecologist would find out about it, and what excuses I could come up with if they did.

Because growing food organically is tough. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are reasons that industrial agriculture has taken over the world, and one is that it’s just easier. There’s less back-breaking labour, there are more machines, and artificial pesticides and fertilisers are easier and often more reliable, in the short term at least, than their organic equivalents. We know, of course, that in the longer-term the news is bad: soil erosion, loss of fertility, mini wildlife holocausts and dodgy impacts on human health. But all that comes later. As a grower, it’s hard not to be tempted by the easy life…

Of course, I haven’t been. I promise. For three years I have tended my allotment organically, and the results have been great. So I’m not trying to put you off – I just want you to be prepared. In particular, I want you to be prepared for the full-on, day-by-day, never-ending battle that you are going to have to wage on all the other creatures who are dead set on eating your produce before you do.

Picture the scene. You’ve spent eighteen months putting together an orchard. This is the first year that you’ll be getting any fruit from it. You’re excited. One summer day you wander down there to check on the progress of your trees, only to find that half of their leaves have gone brown and fallen off. You run back home to consult your books and you find that the trees have been infected with scab, a fungal disease. What can you do about it? Nothing.
Still, never mind. You also have two plum trees, and their branches are literally touching the ground, so weighed down are they with fruit. By mid-August, the first ones are ripe. You pick one, bite into it … and discover that something else has bitten into it first. Squirming about deep inside, making short work of the fruit, is a small, pink maggot. You try another four or five: all the same. Back you go to your fruit books: plum moths. They lay their eggs on the ripening fruits in spring, and the caterpillars get to them before you do. The buggers.

Over on your vegetable patch, meanwhile, you have a whole host of other beasties to counter. The worst, the most vicious, the most utterly unsympathetic, is the slug. If you were gardening with chemicals you would cover your plot with slug pellets, which would effectively sentence them to death. But you’re not going to do that, and rightly so – pellets leach pesticides into the soil, and any wildlife which eats the dead slugs will be dead itself within hours.

But what will you do instead? A handful of slugs can munch on your lovingly-tended pumpkins, tear into your spinach and make an entire row of lettuces vanish in one night. You could rely on the birds to eat them, but the birds might be too busy uprooting your newly-planted beans or, in the case of the pair of pheasants that live on my allotment, feasting at leisure on your broccoli. And what is it that turns up at night and digs holes under your sweetcorn plants? A fox? A badger? Try fending that off peacefully using only the natural rhythms of Mother Earth. It’s enough to make you buy a shotgun.

But you know, despite it all, that you won’t. For organic growing is not just a technical issue, it’s a way of life: a way of attempting, however hamfistedly, to live within your natural means. Yes, it takes more work, and it takes more imagination too. But it’s not impossible – and when you do get it right, you feel miles better than someone who just popped down to the garden centre for a can of yellow stuff marked POISON.

Because in the end, there are solutions. Those plum moths can be kept at bay with organic pheromone traps. Burn your scabby apple leaves and with any luck it won’t recur next year. Stick nets over your broccoli and make yourself a good old-fashioned scarecrow. As for the slugs: after a few seasons of battling them, you will become hardened and ruthless. Your previous equal-rights-for-all-of-God’s-creatures position will go out of the window and you will, like me, stalk your plot, searching under leaves and chopping any slugs you find in two with a pair of secateurs.

Don’t think you could go that far? Believe me, you will. It’s war out there. Organic war, of course, but war nonetheless. There can be only one winner. Make sure it’s you.