When it comes to growing vegetables, organic gardeners like Ivy Hontz are of the opinion that “pesticide” is a dirty word.
The Aurora resident is meticulous when it comes to growing her zucchini, soybeans, squash, bok choy and cabbage in her plot of land at Beeler Street Community Garden. She’s been gardening for almost a decade and has never once used chemicals or synthetic fertilizers. “I don’t know any other way,” she said. “It’s just second nature.”
She says there are myriad benefits to this method of gardening, which bans products like Miracle-Gro, a slow-release fertilizer made of synthetic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium — the three essential nutrients for growth.
“It’s healthier, and the vegetables are much more robust,” Hontz said.
For almost two years, Hontz has relied on her garden to provide vegetables she couldn’t otherwise afford. In August 2010, she lost her job at a nonprofit and has just found a steady job that she’ll start at the end of the month. For her and many other organic gardeners who try to save money by growing their own vegetables, it’s important that the harvest is high quality and healthy, thereby decreasing the chances of getting sick and having to pay doctors’ bills. In fact, Hontz is so adamant about not using chemicals on her vegetables that she refrained from getting mushroom-based compost recently because it smelled too much like pesticides.
“I ended up buying something that didn’t have a smell to it,” she said.
Of Aurora’s 13 community gardens, seven are organic and run by Denver Urban Gardens, an organization that designs and builds plots and provides gardeners with resources and technical expertise. DUG launched in 1985 when there were only three community gardens in the northwest Highlands. Until 2008, DUG was building about four gardens per year. In 2009 and 2010, they built between 10 and 12 gardens per year.
All gardens run by the organization prohibit chemical fertilizer, genetically modified seeds and pesticides.
“Organic gardening is really a way of working first of all with the soil, knowing that when you have a healthy growing environment you have the best chance of having healthy plants, and healthy plants are what we want for healthy bodies,” said Judy Elliott, education and community empowerment coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens. The gardeners often use compost from the discarded remains of other gardeners’ plots, which has many advantages including decreasing the gardeners’ carbon footprint, said Elliott.
“Because compost has the ability to hold its weight in water we’re also decreasing the actual amount of water we’re applying to our crops,” she said. Organic gardeners are free to use what are called “organic amendments” to boost the nutrients in their soil, like fish emulsion fertilizer and kelp or liquid seaweed. Organic gardening forces gardeners to come up with alternative ways of warding off bugs and other living annoyances.
Gardeners can use the technique of “companion planting” which consists of growing certain flowers and herbs to attract beneficial insects and ward off pests, Elliott said.
Draping gauzy Reemay cloth over the vegetables and using diatomaceous earth also prevent worms and parasites from eating the vegetables. Organic gardening has gained renewed popularity over the past five years because of the nation’s push to healthier, organic foods, Elliott said.
“I think we’re seeing a thirst for a regrowth in organic gardening knowledge,” she said. “It’s almost like it was in the 60s and the 70s.” It yields abundant benefits, but growing chemical-free vegetables is definitely more time consuming, she said. For example, if a plant isn’t growing well, the gardener has to check the environmental conditions, watering techniques, stress from heat, and insects that might be overabundant following a mild winter.
“It’s kind of like becoming a detective when you’re an organic gardener,” Elliott said.
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]