Introduction to Organics

Club Member, Toni LiCausi, gave an in depth organic gardening program at the 2012 NW Arkansas District Meeting called 'Introduction to Organics'.

Introduction to Organics

Tony LiCausi

“Soil and dirt are two different things. Dirt is an inert planting medium that holds up plants. Soil is a wonderfully dynamic, ever-changing, complex, living system of life, energy, organic matter and minerals. Soil like all parts of the environment, is fragile. It is also hard to repair once damaged. Unfortunately, most conventional landscape and agriculture procedures have damaged and are continuing to damage the soil. The key is to stop the damage by starting to use management techniques, soil amendments, fertilizers, and pest control products that benefit soil health.”

Quotation from Malcolm Beck


It is not a chemical vs. organics question. Everything in the world is chemical. Even air and water are composed of chemicals such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. The words "chemical" and "organic" are equally misused and misunderstood.

For example, there are products acceptable for use in an organic program that have low toxicity, but are not truly organic; and some organic products are extremely dangerous and not acceptable in a wise organic program. The point is that the two words, "chemical" and "organic" have become the passwords for the two philosophies. Chemical represents the university-taught approach of force-feeding the plants using synthetic fertilizers and trying to control nature using toxic synthetic pesticides, while organic; represents the approach of working with nature to improve soil health and using only products that increase the chemical, physical, and biological balance in the soil.

It's a big misconception that organic methods are simply safer ways to kill pests. The basis of organics is an overall philosophy of life, not just a simple decision about what kinds of garden products to use.

The organic philosophy relates to the ability to see and understand natures systems and work within those systems. The chemical philosophy teaches that man and his products can control nature. But nature can't be controlled - it's really futile to even try. Many farmers have come to see that and they are now realizing that we must stop taking the carbon and the life out of the soil and the land out of production. The landscaping industry is also moving, although slowly, toward the organic philosophy, primarily because of the tremendous public demand for safer and more environmentally sensitive techniques and products. The biggest surprise is often the fact that organic programs actually save money.

Another difference in philosophy relates to fertilization. Traditional "chemical"; proponents say that plants must be fertilized with a 3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio fertilizer four times a year. The organic philosophy contends that the soil should be fed and balanced and that plants don't need to be force fed.

Balancing the soil is not discussed very often, if ever, in the synthetic chemical programs. The synthetic fertilizers are never really balanced. They have a poor compliment of trace minerals and no organic matter or carbon. The balance of chemistry, physics and biology is the key. If the soil is biologically healthy, the physics and chemistry will also be in balance. The pH will be between 6.2 and 6.5, earthworms and microbes will be in the proper populations. In healthy soil calcium will represent approximately 60 - 70 percent of the available chemical nutrients, magnesium 10-20 percent, potassium 2-5 percent, and sodium .5-3 percent, and all the trace elements should be in their proper relative proportions.

Another advantage of balanced soil chemistry is that fertilizer inputs can be greatly reduced. Once the soil is balanced properly, the maintenance of plants can be done primarily with mulches, compost, foliar feeding, and an occasional application of carbon based natural organic fertilizers.

A chemically, physically and biologically balanced soil will have proper tilth, positive drainage, and the correct populations of living organisms. All you have to do is stop killing the life in the soil with the quick-fix poisons. The end result is healthy plants, animals and people.


There are two major soil pollutants - unbalanced, high-nitrogen, synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers are the most common chemicals used in farming, gardening, and landscaping. These man-made fertilizers are merely soluble salt compounds, usually found in granulated form, and are relatively inexpensive. Synthetic fertilizers provide nothing to benefit the soil; in fact, they leave considerable amounts of salt residue and other contamination. There most serious flaw is the lack of carbon.

Since the plants will not absorb large quantities of salt, continued use of salt-based fertilizers can lead to a loss of plant quality, loss of productivity, and, in extreme cases, phytotoxicity (poisoning of the plants). These fertilizers repel and kill beneficial soil microorganisms and earthworms, they are harsh and interfere with the natural chemical, physical, and biological systems in the soil, and they feed plants too fast with an incomplete diet.

High levels of nitrates, which are created by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, are carcinogenic and frequently show up in our drinking water. Because of the overuse of high nitrogen fertilizers and the plant's inability to use large amounts of nitrogen, the excess is simply leached or washed away and ends up ultimately in our streams, lakes, and aquifers. Some of it volatizes into the air, adding to air pollution.

Pesticides are the second most common chemicals applied to plants and soil. Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides and any other poisons used to kill plants or animals. Toxic pesticides disturb or destroy the biological activity of the soil. Pesticides will also affect plant growth, and, when absorbed by the plant, begin passing through the food chain. All living organisms are affected - microorganisms, insects, animals, and people. If used too often at excessive rates, pesticides can virtually sterilize the soil if leaching does not occur - and of course the leaching causes other problems.

When pesticides are leached out of the soil, they end up in streams or ground water, available to enter the food chain again. Hugh amounts of toxic chemicals are used on home lawns and agricultural crops, making the use of chemicals a serious problem in urban as well as rural areas. Insects and diseases get blamed for the use of these toxins, but the pests are not the problem, only the symptoms of the problem. The real problem is poor soil health, and that problem is increased with each application of toxic chemicals. Chemical programs create a drug dependency and, unfortunately, they have controlled mainstream agriculture and horticulture since World


The damage to our soil's health can be reversed by returning it to a natural balance. Those in the landscape industry and the agriculture industry must take the lead, but homeowners must also get involved in reducing and ultimately eliminating the toxic chemicals we dump into our environment.

Besides being dangerous, they aren't necessary. The organic method works better. Years ago, J.I. and Robert Rodale began the organic movement in the United States using the studies and writings of Sir Albert Howard of England and Dr. William A. Albrecht of the University of Missouri. Rodale convinced many home gardeners and some farmers to add humus to the soil through organic matter and minerals through natural rock powders to improve the health and nutrition of food crops. The idea was quite simple; healthy soil produces healthy plants; healthy plants produce healthy animals and humans. It's possible that the simplicity has been one of the major roadblocks.

How could something so simple work? Another powerful obstacle has been the concern, "How are we going to make money?" The purpose of this course is to explain how the natural organic method works and what products are best to use in a complete organic program. The goal is to convince you to use an organic method on the farm, the ranch, in landscaping and in greenhouse operations. You will learn that organic land management offers reduced long-term costs and liabilities and creates and maintains a safe, healthy environment for all concerned.

Food crops grown organically are a critical ingredient in eliminating disease. The elimination of pesticide residue is important, but not the most important issue. Health is the primary issue, and real health comes from eating food containing a proper balance of mineral nutrients, antioxidants, and energy. Healthy food can only come from healthy soil.


Sunlight is the source of all energy. Green leaves are the instruments for gathering in sunlight. Sunlight energy and the gas called carbon dioxide (C02) enter the foliage of plants to combine with water and chlorophyll to form sugars, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates - the food stuff of plants. This process is known as photosynthesis. This naturally created food is transferred from the foliage through the stems and limbs down through the trunk into the roots and out into the soil in the form of exudates. Exudates in the form of dead cells and gel-like materials leave the roots through the root hairs and enter the rhizosphere to feed beneficial soil microorganisms. The rhizosphere is the soil area that is immediately adjacent to the roots. It is the location of the heaviest concentration of microbiotic activity. Some of the beneficial soil microorganisms include; mycorrhizal fungi, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, yeasts, algae, cyanobacteria, actinomycetes, protozoa, mites, beneficial nematodes, and other small animals. Here the roots and soil are working together to produce and release nutrients to feed the plant.

Microorganisms of all sorts feed on the soil's energy-rich substances, releasing a vast array of minerals, vitamins, antibiotics, regulators, enzymes, and other compounds that can be absorbed into the roots and taken back into the plant to produce strong growth and increased pest and disease resistance. Roots take up nutrients from the soil and pass them up into the plant, causing stem and leaf top growth.

Whether the plant is a bluebonnet, bur oak, or blue grass, this natural process is the same and only works at its full potential and efficiency if the soil is healthy. That can only happen in the absence of synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides.


1. Make Good Plant Decisions - Stop catching the grass clippings. Allow the clippings to return to the soil. Use native plants when possible or well-adapted introductions. Always use the well-adapted plants for specific environments. Plant annuals in the proper season and use diversity in your plantings. If you don't use adapted plants, the rest of rules will do little good.

2. Stop Using Toxic Chemicals - Stop harming the soil life. There are millions of types of insects and microbes, but only a small percentage are considered harmful, the others are known to be beneficial. Pesticides and harsh synthetic fertilizers hurt or kill both. Two big lies exist and control the industry. These lies have been in power since just after World War II. Before that time, gardeners, farmers, and ranchers did a pretty good job of using organic techniques - that's all they had. Yes, even in those days much of the land was "worn out" by over producing and that was ignorance of the importance of replenishing what's taken away from the soil in the form of crops and what literally vaporizes by tilling and leaving the soil bare. Carbon escapes as carbon dioxide when the land is left bare and/or tilled too often.

Big Lie Number 1. "Plants can't tell the difference between organic and synthetic fertilizers." Well yes they can. The traditional argument is that plants can only take in fertilizer elements in the basic or ion form. It's a silly notion. These same people will instantly agree that plants take in water-- H2O is a molecule, not an ion. Plants do not take in H and O ions. To make the example more dramatic, water a white flowering plant with blue, red, or any color dye. The color will move easily into the plant and discolor the flower. Is the dye a basic element or ion? Of course not, it's a very large molecule. One more - herbicides that enter plants and kill by interfering with the normal cellular growth are not ions, they are huge, complex molecule.

What do they do - disassemble into carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, enter the plant and then reassemble? It would be a funny thought except that this inane comment is often made in total seriousness. Dr.Bargyla Rateaver’s books not only explain how plants absorb chunks of materials, including whole bacteria, they have electron microscope photos of the process in action.

There are other differences as well. Organic fertilizers, whether they are meals, manures or composted plant material, contain N-P-K, trace minerals, enzymes, vitamins, and lots of organic matter. 100 percent of each bag’s ingredients is useful to the soil and plants. Artificial fertilizers are primarily water soluble mineral salts and phosphorous. There are rarely very many trace minerals included and usually zero organic matter. Some of the synthetic fertilizers have sulfur or polymers to slow down the release process - a move in the right direction but the organic products all have natural slow release. A large percentage of the synthetic fertilizers leach through to soil to contaminate the water supply.

One more problem, a large percentage of each bag of artificial fertilizers is a mystery. For example, one of the most commonly recommended fertilizers has an analysis of 15-5-10 (the 3-1-2 ratio that’s commonly touted). This particular fertilizer contains 15 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorus, and

10 percent potassium - adds up to 30 percent. OK - what’s the other 70 percent of that bag of fertilizer? Beats me, too. That’s the problem. Believe it or not, most states, do not regulate the inert ingredients in fertilizers, and basically anything can be used, including industrial waste and heavy metals.

How do you know for sure? Simple - ask the supplier to give you a total analysis. You might notice their knees buckle a little. Although some of the artificial stuff is very clean, I still don’t recommend it. Most artificial fertilizers feed plants too fast and a glut of nitrogen causes weak cells and plants that are more susceptible to insects and diseases. Yes, the plants can tell the difference.

The 2nd Big Lie - “Toxic chemical pesticides are necessary to control pests and perfectly safe when used according to label directions.” I spend my life these days explaining this in detail, but here’s the concept in a nutshell. If pesticides worked, this lie might not be so bad - however, there is more money spent today on pesticides than ever before, yet about one-third of all food crops are still lost to pest insects. That’s the same percentage as before the pesticides became available. Toxic pesticides kill beneficial insects and beneficial microorganisms. They also damage the frogs, toads, lizards, birds, bats, and other good guys. The irony is that these high tech pesticides damage the animals that provide powerful natural pest control. Furthermore, healthy soil produces healthy plants that have a natural insect and disease resistance. Adapted plants that are planted in soil full of compost, rock powders, living organisms, and available nutrients are not in stress and don’t attract insect pests and pathogenic microorganisms.

3. Build Soil Organic Matter Content - Start using compost, rock powders, sugars, and natural organic fertilizers. Use compost to prepare beds and gardens and apply natural fertilizers. Nature has built and maintained fertile soil since the beginning of time in the forest and on prairies through a constant recycling of dead plants and animal life. Stimulation of microbial activity in the soil is the most important way of building soil organic matter. The waste materials and dead bodies of microbes are the most common source of organic matter (humus). Aerating the soil can speed up this process.

Increase the air in the soil through mechanical aeration when needed. Liquid bio-stimulants and/or living organism products can serve the same function. Use deeply rooted cover crops, encourage earthworms, add compost, and mulch all bare soil. All life needs oxygen, and that includes the soil microorganisms. The sticky substance given off by healthy microbes as they break down organic materials glues the soil into a crumb structure creating the perfect air-to-soil ratio.

Mulch the bare soil. Nature doesn’t allow bare soil and neither should we. For shrubs, trees, and ground covers, use at least one inch of compost and three inches of shredded tree trimmings. Partially completed compost is also an excellent topdressing material. Natural mulch preserves moisture, helps to eliminate weeds, and keeps the soil surface cooler, which benefits earthworms, microorganisms, and plant roots. Do not pile mulch onto the stems or trunks of plants, however.

4. Build Mineral Content of the Soil - Add finely crushed volcanic rock to all planting beds, lawns, and gardens. Nature has maintained the mineral balance through volcanic eruptions, glaciers movement, and bed rock erosion. Don’t worry about pH. When a balance of natural materials are used, pH will move to the correct level. Additional volcanic rock is not needed in volcanic soils. Useful products include lava sand, basalt, zeolite, and also nonvolcanic rock such as humates, rock phosphates, and other rock material that is different from the base rock on the property.

5. Use the Least Toxic Pest Control Products Available - Choose repellents and biological products first since they don’t hurt beneficial insects and other life. Avoid even the organic pesticides like pyrethrum and rotenone. Toxic pesticides control pest poorly. Because they are indiscriminate and kill more beneficials than pests, they actually make insect and disease problems worse. The sellers of toxic pesticides are the only ones who benefit from their use.

6. Encourage Biodiversity - Encourage life and biodiversity by introducing beneficial insects and protecting those that exist. Plant cover crops and hedgerows. Purchase and release ladybugs, green lacewings, and trichogramma wasps. You’ll need to buy less every year because natural populations will establish.

7. Water Wisely - Irrigation should be done thoroughly and deeply, but less often. Healthy soil that results from the organic program holds moisture at the right level for a longer period of time. Over-watering is one of the most serious mistakes made in landscaping and farming.


The next step in becoming organic is to recreate the forest floor in all your beds, veggie gardens, and ornamental gardens. Pastures and turf also need to have the components of the forest floor. A natural forest floor cross section looks like this; the top two to four inches are mulch - leaves, twigs, bark, dead plants, dead bodies of animals, and animal manure. Below that is one to two inches of one-year-old organic matter and well broken-down humus. Below that is a mixture of humus and the rock particles of the area. Minerals are contained in the humus and in the broken-up pieces of the base rock material.

Below that is the subsoil. Earthworms, insects, and roots are mixed all throughout the layers. The top seven inches of the forest floor is the area that is the most well-aerated and hosts to the bulk of soil biology. That layered structure, transitioning down from rough mulch to subsoil, is exactly what we want to create in the vegetable garden and in the ornamental garden.

This very definite layering of rough mulch on top of humus and native soil is nature’s way of covering, protecting, and stimulating the soil. Nowhere in the wild will Mother Nature allow the ground to be bare, except for deserts and naturally eroded areas.

There are several ways to create a manmade “forest floor.” The easiest way is to take the leaves from your own property or from the bags unenlightened neighbors have left along the street and dump them onto bare areas in the planting beds. The depth of this raw material can range from eight to twelve inches. This easy method can also be done with clean hay, tree trimmings

mulch, and most any raw organic material. Fine-textured matter such as sawdust, if used at all, should be applied in thinner layers since there is less air space between the small pieces and, therefore, less oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange at the soil surface. It’s better to compost fine-textured materials such as sawdust or other fresh materials before using them on the beds. Raw sawdust can also rob nitrogen from the soil.

A better way to create the “forest floor” is to use partially completed compost. The texture of the material will be better and the resulting improvement to the soil will be faster. Partially completed compost means you can still identify a portion of the raw materials. The texture is better because a mix of large and small particles and decomposed particles will exist. Soil improvements will be faster because of the high populations of beneficial microorganisms. I use partially completed compost as a mulch at a depth of two to four inches.

To go a step farther, apply a layer of completed compost on the bare soil at a depth of one to two inches and cover the compost with a thick blanket (three to four inches) of shredded native tree trimmings, hard-wood bark, pine-needles, or clean hay. Pine bark can be used, but it is my least favorite choice because its flat pieces can plate and seal off oxygen and it can move around easily from wind and water.

My favorite mulch is living mulch, or partially composted shredded native tree trimmings. I do not recommend mulches made from paper, plastic, rubber, or gravel unless you have no source of natural vegetative materials. Various mulching methods will work to keep the soil temperature and moisture correct, prevent wind and water erosion, and stimulate the life in the soil. Covering bare soil with mulch is probably the single most important aspect of organic gardening.

Here’s the ideal way to replicate the “forest floor.”

Step 1: Aerate by punching holes in the ground.

Step 2: Spray the soil with compost tea, seaweed, or some biological stimulator.

Step 3: Apply a light coating of finished compost - just enough to barely cover the soil. Earthworm casting can be used for this.

Step 4: Apply a two-to-four inch layer of shredded native tree trimmings mulch.

We’ll never be able to do as good a job as Mother Nature in creating the forest floor, but we can come pretty close.