What’s In The Bag?  About Organic Gardening Soil

For most of us that prefer to buy organically grown food, we first think that the food hasn’t been sprayed or the animals we may be eating ate food that wasn’t sprayed with harmful chemicals. That is a great start but not where it all “starts”.  Certified organic food is grown from organically produced seeds and grown with organically approved compost, soil and plant nutrients.  And, I may grow my vegetables in my backyard garden using organic methods, but as I experienced this morning, finding an organic plant start in the variety I want may not be as easy as I’d hoped.  In the end I bought three starts of cilantro that were not certified organics but will grow them organically in my yard.  All this is to say that growing organically is complicated. 
While the vast majority of us don’t favor being governed by regulations, the complicated nature of farming, let alone organically, gives rise to governmental regulations, both federally and state by state.  This is where, at least as far as soils are concerned, farming gets separated from home gardening products. Certified organic farms are more highly regulated than bags of soil bought at your local nursery or other retail outlet. Following are the basics of soil regulation for certified organic farms:

“In order to be certified organic, crops must be grown on land free of prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest…..National organic standards require producers to use organic agricultural methods and materials that cover soil fertility, the application of manure, crop rotation, and composting. National organic standards prohibit the use of municipal solid waste and sewage sludge as compost ingredients. Organic producers also must follow a National List of Acceptable and Prohibited Materials concerning pest control treatments, fertilizers and seed treatments that they use. All agricultural materials must be evaluated for their long-term effects on the environment and not simply whether they are synthetic or natural.”  Organic Trade Association 

So let’s switch to bagged organic potting or organic gardening soil sold at retail stores. These products are regulated by state departments of agriculture and their individual definitions of organic.  In talking to these folks, they will more likely define “organic” as material that is carbon based [nothing to do with being ‘free of harmful chemicals’].  States often keep a list of “organic” materials and another list of “natural” materials.  For example, one state may say that perlite and pumice are not organic, but natural. Another state may allow them to be on the organic list, although that may have come about because of an arbitrary decision.  The issue has nothing to do with chemical treatment of the soil in any time parameter, but whether they could be on one list or another because they are from a carbon life form (plant or animal). Currently soil and compost cannot be “certified organic”.  They can be on “organic material lists” approved for certified organic farming and/or food production and handling. Some states like California, are more highly concerned that “organic” potting soil or compost sold in bags for home gardening use could get into the hands of certified organic farmers. California has recently clamped down on the use of “organic” on retail gardening products. Any claims of “organic” potentially used in certified organic food products must be processed through the state’s own organic certification process.

Suffice it to say, from a soil perspective, certified organic farming and organic gardening are two very different things. “Organic” on the labels of bags of soil you read at stores is not the same meaning as “organic” applied to certified organic farming.

Green Planet Naturals (GPN) Compost is on the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Organic Material List, and is approved for use in certified organic farming and food production. All of our soil and planting mixes include Green Planet Naturals organic Compost in the formula. We use pumice in our planting mixes, which in the state of Oregon is considered a “natural” material because it is a mineral, not a carbon life form. All of the other ingredients in Green Planet Naturals soil mixes are organic from the perspective of bagged soil because those ingredients are carbon based – such as spaghnum peat moss, coco coir, and worm castings.  That said, a number of ingredients used in GPN products are on organic materials lists, meaning they are approved for organic food production. 

By Linda Brown, General Manager, Green Planet Naturals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *