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Growing a Healthy Organic Garden

Dear Joel,

If I purchase conventional seedling plants of tomato, eggplant, squash, etc. that are not organic, would they grow to be just as healthy as organic if I put them in a prepared organic soil to mature and produce fruit?

Thank you,



Dear Rosanne,

Mayday, mayday! Slippery slope. Trick question. Complex issues.

If you can’t find organically grown bedding plants or seedlings in your area, don’t worry about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s an issue; what it means is that you’ll be far better off with a garden that’s not pure than no garden at all. You have to start somewhere, and you have to bloom where you’re planted. You can’t always have your “druthers” just the way you want them.

While I certainly prefer organically started plants, lots of times they aren’t available from our local sources so we do the best we can, and they do great. Could you tell the difference? Perhaps. But it’s not enough to keep you from planting what’s available. It’s not a perfect world, so be glad you’ve got ground for a garden, plant something, and keep looking for organic sets, but don’t sweat it if you can’t find them.

The health of those sets is determined far more by timing (soil temperature, day length, etc.), soil fertility, and sturdiness than whether they grew in organic potting soil. The most common malady is legginess or spindliness, caused by either placing grow lights too far away and/or by not hardening off. You want thick, stout stems, not tall, spindly ones, and that is not primarily a result of growing medium but of management during the starting process.

What I’m getting at here is that organic is not a comprehensive term. Many of the most important production variables are not addressed at all in organics. Organic soil will never compensate for production management mistakes. I’d much rather have nonorganic sets grown with all the production variables right than organic sets grown with even one production variable wrong. This is why the question is complex.

And in the end, no matter what you do, if you over water, under water, over fertilize, under fertilize, plant in too hot or too cold soil, too wet or too dry, etc. the plant will be stressed and not healthy. Health is way more than organics. Organics is just one tiny slice of health. You can eat the most organic diet in the world but be stressed about marriage problems, financial problems, work-related problems, and get an ulcer or have stress-induced high blood pressure. Organics are just one part of the picture.


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