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Organics vs Chemicals

Organic is one of today’s horticultural buzzwords, while chemical has been relegated to the status of a four-letter word. In horticulture, the word organic is open to wide interpretations, leading to confusion among well meaning people who just want to do what is right for the environment.

First, let me define organic. More accurately, let the dictionary define organic. It is “belonging to a family of compounds characterized by chains or rings of carbon atoms that are linked to atoms of hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.” While carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are basic elements, they become chemicals when combined.

Chemistry and organic chemistry are freshman year core courses at my alma mater – SUNY College of Forestry and Environmental Science in Syracuse. Many organic compounds are much more complex than synthetic compounds. In some cases, organic pesticides, even natural organic compounds, are more toxic than their synthetic counterparts. Other organics have much shorter residual lives than comparable synthetics.

As the president of an environmentally responsible tree and landscape company, I am committed to using organic products whenever possible and practical. However, I am not wed to the concept that anything that comes out of chemical plants is bad. In fact, even organics come out of chemical plants.

In some instances, we have to weigh the various outcomes when deciding on a course of action. This is not unlike human health decisions. Chemotherapy treatments for cancer, for example, are very potent, synthetic chemicals. But, consider the consequences of not accepting them.

Some people don’t think that way when it comes to their landscapes. During a networking session at a conference, the couple with whom I was speaking was dead set against using any type of synthetic chemical for any purpose in their landscape. Playing the devil’s advocate, I posed this hypothetical question: “Suppose you had a majestic American elm that had, so far, escaped Dutch elm disease and its death sentence. Your arborist advises you that there is a preventive fungicide that is injected directly into the tree. Would you put that multi-hundred year old tree in jeopardy just because you are against the use of chemicals?” Their answer: “We would have to think about that.”

A balanced fertilizer’s macro elements are the same whether they are considered organic or synthetic. All have nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The only difference is the source from which these elements were derived. Amonia, the source of nitrogen in fertilizer, is NOH whether the nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen atoms were combined in a chemical plant or extracted from animal urine. The trick comes when plants need the micronutrients that are not present in animal products.

When a case is made for banning landscape chemicals, DDT is always brought up. Do you know what the common insecticide was before DDT? Nicotine sulfate (as in the harmful stuff in tobacco), which is still sold, albeit with a DANGER warning, for organic gardeners. Apply a product like glyphosate (Roundup) on weeds and it takes several days for the weeds to die. Apply vinegar to weeds and you can practically watch them die.

The purpose of this tirade? To emphasize responsibility in caring for your landscape. Use organics when possible or practical, but don’t put your valuable plants at risk while agonizing over the origins of the product that can improve their health.

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