Growing your own is a great way to get organic produce, especially the delicate goodies like sweetly pungent Genovese basil, super-tasty little crookneck summer squash and heirloom tomatoes that cost a fortune at the farmers' market. It's certainly the least expensive way to get organic flowers. And it would appear to be foolproof in the deception department; there's not much room for funny business between the backyard and the house. But even in your own garden it pays to be savvy about the label, because pesticides and fertilizers are not regulated the same way as food.
For all their flaws, which grow more numerous with every passing day, the USDA organic food standards are at least explicit about which pesticides and fertilizers are on the OK list. But the pesticides and fertilizers themselves are governed - by the FDA and the EPA - according to different rules. "Truth in labeling" for gardening products means, among other things, that fertilizers must contain the nutrients they claim to contain. Pesticides must state their level of toxicity to humans and a tiny number of other creatures; and their active ingredients must be listed, along with their percentage in the mix. (Most pesticides are more than 95 percent "inert ingredients," the identity of which can be - and usually is - secret from all except the manufacturer and the regulating agency). Result? A fertilizer can say on the label approved for organic growing when the approval comes only from the maker's Aunt Maude. Same goes for pesticides â or garden clogs, if it comes to that.
Fortunately, there's an equivalent to "USDA certified organic" for gardening products, and that's the OMRI seal. It guarantees the product has passed muster with the Organic Materials Review Institute, a non-profit that helps commercial growers be sure they can use whatever-it-is without risking their organic certification. Not all OMRI-certified products have the seal on the label, but they are all listed on the OMRI website, so you can easily check out anything you think you'd like to use. The service is free. And so is the frequently updated listing of organic seeds.
Writer Leslie Land blogs about gardening, food and design at Leslieland.com.
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