Book Review: The Truth About Organic Gardening, by Jeff Gillman

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5 stars

A fair and open-minded look at the various methods for controlling weeds and pests in the garden.

I found this to be a very clear-eyed look at what we’re putting on our soil and plants. From the title, you might think this book is some sort of expose on organic gardening practices. That is not the case. Gillman is a big proponent of organic methods. However, not all organic practices a) actually work, or b) are harmless to the environment. While many of the synthetic products work very well, there are generally big drawbacks when it comes to how they effect the ecosystems in which we live.

Gillman is (or was—it’s 11 years old) an associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. All of that to say that he has had experience either using or studying all of the products and methods he covers in this book. In the book, he goes through several types of weed and pest control methods, and as the subtitle suggests, comes up with benefits, drawbacks, and a bottom line for each. He discusses what each is made of, how effective they are at what they claim to do, and the effect they might have on beneficial plants, bugs, and the health of the soil. He backs up what he says with research. He even includes several methods that would fall into the realm of “old wives tales.”

I would call myself MOSTLY an organic gardener. As a general rule, I reach first for my weeding fork and gloves when confronted with problems in my flowerbeds. I am a fan of compost and mulch. I don’t want to worry about my kiddos getting poisoned from playing on the lawn or eating unwashed vegetables out of our garden.

However, there are some situations where I am ready to admit defeat! My back corner flowerbed is so full of bindweed that it’s about to choke out everything else. I weeded that bed so many times last summer! (Bindweed laughs at weeding. It THRIVES on weeding!) Every time I planted something back there, I sifted through the dirt to get out every tiny scrap of bindweed root I could find. It helped—in that one spot—for about 3 weeks. Then the bindweed was back, bigger and bushier than ever.

In other situations, I have removed everything I wanted to save from a flowerbed, dug out all the weeds, and then put all my good stuff back in. That’s not going to work with bindweed. It’s roots can go down 10 feet. ANY piece of root that gets left in the ground can grow a new vine. If you let it flower and go to seed, good luck to you. I admit, I’m feeling rather desperate. Letting the bindweed win is not an option! I don’t have the time in the summer to weed that flowerbed on a bi-weekly basis to stay on top of it.

So what’s a mostly organic gardener to do? If I go over to the Dark Side and pick up that RoundUp bottle, how bad is it going to be? This is such a hot-button issue these days, that it’s difficult to get advice from other people without stirring up a big argument. It can be hard to sift through passionate opinions to get to facts.

This is the point where I got out this book. Gillman spells it out. You have to be very careful in its application (I knew that), because it kills ANY plant it touches. However, used sparingly and in accordance with the directions, it’s a lesser evil in the world of weed killers. It is very effective. Residues stay in the soil for about 3 weeks.

Really, I think I can live with that. I plan to either put it on a sponge (wearing gloves, of course), and give each weed the swipe of death, or pull the bindweed up into a cut-off milk jug to spray it, in hopes of limiting the overspray.

While I had the book out, I also looked up neem oil (helpful for aphids on fruit trees) and the entire section on keeping out deer. Reading those chapters helped me remember to add “dormant oil” to my business shopping list, so there you go. Winner.

This is one I’m glad I have on my shelf at home as a reference.