Skip Richter, based in Houston, is a popular speaker for garden clubs, Master Gardener programs, and other gardening events across Texas. He has...Full Bio


Randy’s ramble about ‘manic organics’

I have children and several animals romping around my property, so I try to do as much organic gardening as possible.  But that doesn’t make me a “manic organic” – one of those die-hards who essentially goes apoplectic if they hear any garden advice that isn’t 100 percent organic.   

I could write a book … or at least a chapter in a book … on this, but since this is just one of my weekly articles, I’ve cobbled together some thoughts that have been running around the old noodle recently, spurred by some vile emails from people who claim I’m ruining the environment with my advice. In other words, attacks from manic organics.  

I can’t remember a year in the past 20 when I haven’t been criticized for something like this.  My first experience came when I first started doing GardenLine. I remember reading some advertising scripts from the wonderful Medina company  that included the phrase “environmentally friendly products since 1962!”  However, their Medina HastaGro liquid plant food contained a tiny bit of synthetic urea. So, by definition, it wasn’t 100 percent organic, and that prompted a manic organic listener to send me dreadful letters. (This was before email was so common.) The writer blasted me, asking how dare I say that Medina was organic.  True organic experts who I respected and trusted used Medina HastaGro constantly then, and still do! Since then I have admitted that HastaGro is actually not totally organic, but that sane organic gardeners still use it religiously.

Also years ago, I was criticized in other media for being “a shill for the pesticide industry.” And recently, I was accused by someone of “getting kickbacks” from companies like Bonide. I had to go look up the word “shill.”  Noun 1.  An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others. Okay, looking back, I think I did encourage people quite a bit. But, really … a “shill?”  I think that word lost its popularity after the great depression. 

So, since this is my article, and I have the bully pulpit to state my case, please read everything below with an open mind … like the one I have always had about incorporating organics into all our gardening practices. 

My advice is just that - “my advice!” Whether you take it or not is always up to you. I’m a firm believer in “dancin’ with the one whut brung you,” but when it comes to commercial products for lawn fertilization and insect control, my advice has never been dictated or shaped by kick-backs or advertising dollars. And as your personal gardening information specialist, I promise that if I ever discover something is bad for the environment, I’ll be the first to tell you about it.  I will not, however, spread misinformation or twist the truth to bolster one side or the other. 

Let me give you an example.  Some organic fertilizer manufacturers, desperate to get a foothold in certain markets, keep using 40-year-old information purporting that synthetic fertilizers “destroy” the life of the soil.  Now, I have endorsed both synthetic and organic fertilizers for years, and I still do.  I understand the benefits of both.  I’m also pretty confident that none of the organic fertilizer companies I endorse use slanted advice. Organic fertilizer manufacturers claiming that synthetic fertilizers “kill” the soil and destroy all organic matter just to produce green grass were sort of right – 40 years ago, when the fertilizer industry was big into anhydrous ammonia-based fertilizers. But no one has put that stuff in lawn fertilizers for decades!

I’ve also written in the past about the Dursban phase-out and the horrific mixed message about it from the government.  Dursban (chlorpyrifos-based) insecticides were banned from use by homeowners and pest control operators in 2000, but they are still allowed in agricultural sectors.  The ban resulted from tests showing that overuse at 500 times the recommended dosage caused developmental abnormalities in baby rats. So, the manic organic translation became “Dursban causes brain damage in babies.”  That’s an example of why I promise to cut through the twisted and purposeful misinformation when it comes synthetic and organic data.

Maybe you’ve seen recent headlines like “Popular Weed Killer Found in Breakfast Cereals!”  What’s underplayed is that the microscopic percentage found is not harmful to humans in any way, unless someone were to eat 40 bowls every day for a year. 

As I have said many times in the past, just because something is “synthetic,” it’s not necessarily a bad thing. And just because something is labeled “organic,” it’s not automatically a good thing. In fact, if a manufacturer is ripping you off by taking advantage of your environmental fears, that’s not a good thing, either. In recent years, the public has become more concerned with health issues and the protection of the environment. But let’s give out advice based on true research and studies.  Let’s not just jump on an organic bandwagon and bash other products because of shaky information. For me, you have to PROVE IT!

Years ago, there was a gardening radio show in Houston with a host who was obviously getting financial benefits for recommending a single fertilizer for just about everything, and only one natural product for every insect situation.  Both products still exist, and even I recommend them for certain situations. But to recommend a cedar oil-based insect repellent for every insect problem that exists isn’t logical. It’s an amazing repellent, but it doesn’t address all insect issues.  And as for the poultry poo-based fertilizer, yes, it’s good for lawns and veggie gardens, but I wouldn’t use it for roses, or plumerias, or hibiscus, etc. There really isn’t one all-purpose fertilizer out there.  I recommend specific foods for specific plants whenever possible. 

Let me give you one more example of what I believe to be twisted information to boost sales for a product that frankly does not work well in this region.  Corn gluten meal - a true organic pre-emergent herbicide - may be great for areas with different soils and different grasses, but it fails in Texas because of our soil and our dominant St. Augustine grass. I believe the claims for it are probably true, in a state where soils are naturally better and they use more rye and bluegrass.  But if it were the beat-all, end-all organic per-emergent herbicide for the Gulf Coast, researchers from Texas A&M to LSU to Mississippi State and Florida would have studies to prove it. And they don’t! Though the drawbacks of the product are occasionally mentioned in its advertising - specifically its cost and lack of control over existing weeds - they are overshadowed by promises of it being an all-natural magic bullet.

People like me have looked a bit closer and found that the principal researcher and patent holder of corn gluten meal as a herbicide, Dr. Nick Christians, is actually cautious in his recommendation of it as a weed control. He and his students and staff have published a number of papers, being careful to point out that CGM does not affect existing weeds, and that the nitrogen in CGM will benefit existing weeds as well as desirable plants. Therefore, one could conclude that inadequate weed removal prior to treatment could actually result in an increased weed problem.  Say what?!

For more information on the pros and cons of CGM, see Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s website.  She’s an extension urban horticulturist at Washington State University.  

If you want to challenge me on anything organic or synthetic, please reach out to the GardenLine show this weekend. 

PHOTO: Getty Images

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content