Why We Switched To Non-Organic Gardening

Challenges, Techniques

USDA Organic SymbolWe have had an incredible year in the garden this year.  We made a few small changes to our techniques and have really noticed a difference.  Probably the biggest difference was a switch to non-organic gardening techniques!

For almost the entire time that we’ve gardened, we’ve held true to organic techniques.  The term organic means different things to different people.  To us, organic gardening essentially means not using chemical derived fertilizers.  In the past, we have heavily relied on things like fish based fertilizers, compost and other organic based plant food.  It just seemed like the right thing to do.

When we started gardening in Fairbanks, we really struggled with many of our plants.  We just weren’t seeing the growth we wanted to see.  The cooler summers here really are something to overcome, growth is all ready slowed.  Not to mention, our short season is absolutely unforgiving.  We have from June 1st through basically September 1st.  Outside of those dates, there is only luck.

As we were planning our garden this year, a thought occurred to me.  Virtually every greenhouse operation that I’ve been familiar with does not use organic fertilizers.  I thought about that and realized that if organic fertilizers were truly superior, every greenhouse would be using them.  It’s not only about cost – there’s not a major gap in cost between organic versus non-organic fertilizers.

Jack's All Purpose FertilizerOne of the decisions that I made this year was to venture into chemical fertilizers with our garden.  I had done some research on these and found some in particular that intrigued me.  I’m not talking your run of the mill “Miracle Grow” that you find at the big box stores.  I’m talking high-grade, commercial fertilizers.  The stuff that the pro’s use.  I settled on the brand J.R. Peters, a company that has been in the fertilizer business since 1947.

There’s a lot of snake oil in the gardening market.  Hundreds of manufacturers are putting out products, many of which don’t work as well as they should.  In particular, I’m suspicious of the offerings found in big box stores.  Why?  They’re cheap.  It’s a loss-leader!  They’ll sell you the cheap fertilizer and then you’re back 3-4 more times to buy more stuff to try to fix the things that are going wrong with your plants.

What attracted me to J.R. Peters was the fact that their business wasn’t just fertilizer.  They are primarily a laboratory that does soil analysis.  Farmers from around the U.S. send soil samples to them to have it analyzed so these farmers can make decisions on exactly what to put into their soil to make the results they want.  This company is using science not only to help farmers produce better food, but I was fairly convinced they used that same science to create their fertilizer products.  But, the proof is in the pudding as they say.

The scientist in me tells me that if a plant can use chemically derived nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients – then it’s the “real deal” so to speak.  Nitrogen is nitrogen.  Potassium is potassium.  It doesn’t matter how you get there.  I also think that there is much less variability when it comes to chemical fertilizers than organic ones.  Organic fertilizers depend on complex biochemical reactions and processes which I believe causes variability that can ultimately affect your plant’s health.

Poblano peppers growing in Fairbanks, AK

This is an example of the yields we are seeing. Despite a very cool summer, our pepper plants are maturing out quite nicely and yields are higher than we’ve ever seen in the past when using organic fertilizers. We even have a bell pepper, grown outside and it’s starting to change colors in early August! That’s almost unheard of.

I am here to tell you, this decision has probably made the biggest difference in plant growth and harvest yields that I have seen since I started gardening many years ago.  We are seeing larger plants, better yields and overall better plant health than I have ever seen in our gardens.  Where we have struggled with deficiencies in the past, we haven’t seen as many of these problems this year.  The only problems we are having are due to our unseasonably cool summer!

When you think about it, yields make the biggest difference in gardening.  You’re investing six months into your garden and that doesn’t change if you have low yields or high yields.  It only makes sense to pursue the greatest yield, and that’s especially true when gardening in Alaska.  Our high amounts of light put a lot of demand on our plants.  They are photosynthesizing 18+ hours per day during the summer – they need a LOT of food, readily available.

Growing OnionsAs for quality of the produce, honestly, I can’t tell the difference between an organically grown zucchini and a non-organic one.  I think that “being the farmer” makes a bigger difference in freshness and produce quality than any difference that could be seen between organic and not.  We can control the harvests, preserve for freshness and make certain that no bad stuff is in or around our produce.  What makes a difference to me is seeing higher yields than we ever have – if the fertilizer wasn’t good, I’m confident we wouldn’t see that result.

Gardening has been an interesting journey in learning for me.  I don’t know that this decision to pursue non-organic fertilizers will be a permanent one, but I’m very glad that I experimented.  I am certain that there are organic products out there that rival the quality I’m seeing from a quality non-organic fertilizer.  At some point, though, I do have consider cost – we’re operating nearly 2,000 square feet of gardening space and fertilizing that space isn’t cheap.  For now, I think I will continue to use J.R. Peters products since they are clearly working for me.

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