Organic Growing

Organic Growing

            You're probably aware that there is no legal definition of the word organic, so labeling is tricky. There isn't really a scientific definition of the word either, which you would imagine could obstruct any attempts to make laws. But, seeing how our judicial system works, it wouldn't surprise me if they ignored the science yet again.

            To illustrate the difficulties, I'll tell a story about my organic gardening grandmother. She subscribed to the monthly 'bible' of organic gardening in the 60's, Organic Gardening by Rodale publishing. If you haven't seen this mag, I'll say that some of the articles could swing in the direction of woo*, but most authors attempted to be scientific.

            She and my mother kept a few boxes of concentrated 'salt' type fertilizers like Peters brand around, but they were for houseplants. I noticed one day that there was a bag of something like superphosphate in the garden shed. This is years ago, so my memory is not crystal clear on this. It could have been something else, but superphosphate is perfect to illustrate, so it's going to stay in the story.

            I brought the bag to Freda and asked her, "Is this stuff organic?" She explained that it was mined from the ground and was a natural rock product, but that some people considered it not to be organic. and would use an only bone meal, bat guano or some other 'organic' source of P. Of course, my next question was, "Well, what is the definition of organic, then?" She didn't answer right away, but after a few seconds thought said, "I suppose I draw the line at pissing off the worms. I don't see any signs that the superphosphate upsets the soil organisms much."

            Ever since then, I've used that kind of thinking to guide my growing towards what I think is truly organic. The key part of that phrase is 'what I think'. Other gardeners may have completely different ideas of what organic means, and I have to respect that.

            In retrospect, the brand of organic that I inherited from my wise Swedish grandmother was reasonable and scientific. She counseled that by definition, organic methods should be easier and less time-consuming. Feeding plants are complicated, so don't try. Feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants. It's not just easier, it's wiser. And, most importantly, don't piss off the worms!**

*Google 'biodynamic agriculture' to see what I mean

**Even earthworms could be accused of being not 'organic'. They're invasive species in the US.


Controlled Environment Grow Rooms

            Beginner gardeners always seem confused by the chaos of plant growth and often fully embrace a philosophy that I call 'plant bondage'. Neat rows, trimming, tying, pinching, weeding in an effort to impose their perception of order on the chaos. Indoors, beginner cannabis gardeners often try to achieve a completely controlled environment, usually at great expense and time consumption.          

            I have to say that in my opinion, complete control of any growing environment, even a totally sealed one, is a pipe dream. Possible on paper only. The real world result is always varying degrees of loss of control of any of the infinite variables in a natural system containing organic elements (plants). The loss of control doesn't always mean loss of crop (cannabis is tough), and when stresses are low, can even go completely unnoticed by the beginner gardener.

            It's normal for any field of study to seem much simpler at first glance than after years. This is especially true with systems of nature. It's safe to assume infinite complexity and the probability that we will reach a limit of our understanding at some point. Gardening is like this. In the beginning, control is a tempting idea. As we learn more, we see more order in parts of the system that previously looked chaotic, which somewhat relieves the urge to plant in rows, so to speak.       

            I feel that the idea of controlled indoor growing environments is something that is only marketable to people that really don't like the idea of gardening because they think that soil is 'dirty'.

            Water is the great sorter. People who understand this can find gold in streams just by looking at the way the water flows. The water is flowing in such a way that all the heaviest stuff ends up over here.

            By comparison, the soil is the great sterilizer. Nature's cleanser. At first, it seems counter intuitive because a teaspoon of soil (from anywhere in the world) contains a vast amount of variation of soil organisms. But, the soil is like democracy, no single kind of organism can 'take over' because there's always a system of checks and balances.

            The soil is far from 'dirty'. It's probably one of the cleanest mediums on earth, at least from a point of view of threats to us humans. Oh sure, there's botulism and all kinds of horrors in there. But, they are in very small amounts. Are those small doses of botulism dangerous to us? I would argue that they are the exact opposite. In fact, I propose we call them 'environmental vaccinations' because that's exactly what they do for us. It's no coincidences that children raised in the country have far fewer allergies and immune system problems than city kids. It's science.

            Soil provides us with the exact right size of the dose of an infinite catalog of threats to our health so that we can overcome them as opposed to being overcome by them.

            I think that the main problem with all kinds of controlled growing environments is that they are filthy, in the real sense of the word. To the untrained eye, it looks clean and bright. To me, it's a very dirty place. Anyone who's grown with hydroponic systems will have seen those slimes that appear when temperatures go up and dissolved O2 goes down. Some hydro growers try to be 'organic' by using fertilizers like molasses, which does work well in soil but is disastrous in a hydro setup.


Biofilters solve most problems in hydro setups

            The simplest solution to slimes, algae, wild PH swings and a host of other all too common problems in hydro is to put a bio filter in the reservoir. I first suggested this on OG in the mid-2000's, and I've seen it catch on quickly since then. One of the main problems with hydro is that there's no solid medium for the all important soil organisms to 'hang out' on. And, it is that vast catalog of organisms that do things like make molasses available as food to plants, eat slimes and algae and balance PH.

            Biofilters are common knowledge in fish culture, and now that aquaponics is catching on, the two fields are merging their techniques. A very simple one can be built with some PVC pipe, a 3-5g bucket, an air pump and some air hose. Notice I didn't say airstone. That's because I've found that large bubbles work better in general for moving water around. Bare hose with holes also works MUCH better than an air stone in DWC, by the way. The smaller bubbles don't penetrate up into the thick areas of roots. The idea that smaller bubbles put more O2 into the water is simply false and I'll explain why.

             The total amount of surface area of bubbles in the water, at any given moment, is vastly smaller than the surface area of the top of the tank, even in a tall deep tank. O2 is being absorbed mostly through the surface area of the tank. The bubbles are doing nothing but providing a continuous flow of low O2 water to the surface. The more exchange of surface, the more O2 in the tank.

            People that put a bio filter in their reservoir suddenly have many fewer problems. One friend told me that he threw away his PH pen because he never needed it anymore. What the bio filter actually does is bring a considerable amount of chaos into the system. It was my realization that the idea of sealing off a grow-room from outside was not just wrong, it was exactly backward, that led me to try a biofilter in a hydro setup.

            "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em". It's my opinion that you can't keep the outside world out of your grow room, it just can't be done. So, why not invite the outside in? Once I had that thought, others of its kind followed.

The tomato (canary) in the coal mine.