Origins of Organic Gardening

Organic gardening used to be known simply as “gardening”, but the roots of the now-common movement stretch as far back as 1920.

  • Organic gardening today focuses on naturally sustaining soil and promoting growth rather than by adding synthetic and potentially harmful products or practices.
    Illustration by Dave Hopkins
  • “The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations” by Abigail Willis taps into the history of gardening through the eyes of the botanists and explorers who cultivated it.
    Cover courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

The Compendium of Gardening Innovations (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) by Abigail Willis explores the history of gardening and the ingenious discoveries that shaped it into the productive past-time, passion, and livelihood that it is today. Willis is a qualified gardener through the Royal Horticulture Society in the UK. She writes for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and has authored another book called The London Garden Book A-Z. The illustrations are by Dave Hopkins whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Economist and Mojo. The following excerpt explores the components of organic gardening and how they came to be.

Before they became weaponized with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, most gardeners were ‘organic’ by necessity. Organic gardening as a lifestyle choice grew out of its agricultural counterpart, which emerged in response to the rise of agri-chemicals after World War I.

In northern Europe, Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about the ‘spiritual foundation’ of agriculture, expounded in 1924, developed into biodynamic agriculture, an approach to farming that avoided chemicals (but whose more esoteric practices were derided, even in organic circles, as ‘muck and magic’).

Among the organic movement’s champions in the UK was Lady Eve Balfour, author of The Living Soil, whose decades-long experiments at her farm in Haughley, Suffolk, tested the merits of organic farming, and resulted in the establishment of the Soil Association in 1946. Following Lady Balfour’s lead in the US, farmer and publisher J. I. Rodale set up his eponymous Institute in 1947 to research and promote organic practices, further spreading the word to gardeners via his magazine Organic Farming and Gardening (later Organic Gardening; now Rodale’s Organic Life).

Soil health lies at the heart of organic growing, and much research was carried out into natural ways of maintaining soil vitality. Sir Albert Howard, whose study of traditional Indian farming in the 1920s evolved into the ‘Indore method’ of composting agricultural waste materials, was a notable pioneer. In Britain, Lawrence Hills experimented with Russian comfrey as a crop and fertilizer, and in 1954 he founded the Henry Doubleday Research Association to promote organic gardening. The HDRA (named after the nineteenth-century nurseryman who introduced Russian comfrey into the UK) is now the charity Garden Organic, which in addition to maintaining demonstration gardens at Ryton near Coventry runs a ‘Master Composter’ programme, educating householders in the art of composting.

A preoccupation with compost runs like a rich, dark seam of humus through the story of organic gardening. Dr W. E. Shewell-Cooper, the founder of another British organic gardening charity, the Good Gardeners

Association, was another influential compost enthusiast, publishing his guide to Compost Gardening in 1972, as well as being a proselytizer of the no-dig method of organic cultivation (which views digging as detrimental to soil health).

Without chemical aids, the organic gardener relies not just on compost, but also on low-tech ‘good practice’. Using techniques such as companion planting and crop rotation, and by maintaining good garden hygiene, selecting disease- and pest-resistant varieties, and encouraging beneficial predators into their plots – preferably those that eat slugs, snails and aphids – organic gardeners work with nature rather than against it.

Once considered eccentric and even contrarian, organic gardening has become mainstream, endorsed by high-profile gardeners (from royalty to award-winning chefs and TV pundits). Continuing concerns, too, over the safety of chemicals (those that have not been banned) keep organic gardening on the agenda.

More from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations:

Reprinted with permission from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations by Abigail Willis and published by Laurence King Publishing, 2018.

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