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This week’s Book of the Week feature is Made From Scratch by Louise Placek.

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From Chapter One: Start Up: Organic Certification

You might wonder what it means to be a certified organic grower. Simply put it implies that you do not use anything that is manufactured in a chemistry lab on your plants or soil. Most organic pesticides are botanical in origin, which means that, although they may be extremely toxic to the insect, they don’t linger around on the plant surface; i.e., they break down quick­ly, often within 24 hours.

Some organic pest controls are actu­ally beneficial bacteria, fungi or nematodes that are harmless to animals (humans included), but deadly to target pests. Plant nutrients in an organic program are obtained from earth-based products such as fish, seaweed, compost, composted manure, igneous rock, mined minerals, etc. Seed must come from organically grown plants, or at least be untreated with fungi­cides. Cuttings or other plant material purchased to use in your production must come from organically grown stock and not be fed with chemical fertilizers.

The rules have varied somewhat from state to state because of inconsistencies in guidelines by certifying agencies, but the general idea is that everything you use and grow must have natural, chemically untainted origins.

I have been asked by many people, mostly conventional growers, why I have chosen to go through the “trouble” of growing plants this way. When I started out, even the garden centers told me that it didn’t make any difference to them whether something was organic or not. In our area, no one had consistently sold plants that were grown without chemicals, so buyers and consumers could not attach any value to the con­cept. I began the journey into organic container plant growing to give consumers an alternative to chemical-laden commer­cially grown herbs. To me, this was especially important with herbs since people—and their children—would be putting the plants directly into their bodies.

As my experience evolved and I began growing vegetable bedding plants and then non-edible garden plants, I noticed that they were incredibly healthy and had a vitality that was apparent to anyone comparing my plants to others. They also had an outstanding track record in people’s gardens.

People who bought my plants would call me (our phone number is on the pot tag) just to tell me how exceptionally well my plants did in their gardens. I have gotten so much unsolicited positive feedback from buyers and consumers that I realized that grow­ing organically was not just about giving people plants that are grown without petroleum-based pesticides and laboratory-formulated fertilizers; it was, in addition, giving people a high-quality plant that is virtually guaranteed to do well in their gardens or containers. If those aren’t reasons enough, I don’t know what else there is.

Eventually, the garden centers and grocery stores that con­sistently bought my plants began to see an expanding market for plants that are not only grown organically, but that were certified organic. In time there was more demand than I was able to fill. My mission now is to encourage more growers to join the crusade to offer quality alternatives to consumers, and to become certified in their state in order to show how com­mitted they are to a horticultural future that does not poison our bodies and our planet.

I began the journey into organic container plant growing to give consumers an alternative to chemical-laden commer­cially grown herbs.

At the time of printing, the National Organic Standards are newly enacted. I know there are many people who don’t cotton to the government telling them they cannot use the term “organic” on their product unless they join the “organic stan­dards” club. The problem that a lot of consumers of organic products do not comprehend is that growers, producers, and manufacturers in this country have many different interpreta­tions of what the word organic means.

In Texas, the organic standards set and maintained by the Texas Department of Agriculture are pretty strict. The program is voluntary and it gives the consumer “reasonable assurance” that growers, producers and manufacturers who go through the trouble of adhering to the certification process are follow­ing guidelines that uphold basic, organic standards.

Because the vast majority of folks who are growing in this manner are concerned about the earth and are generally good people, “cheating” is ludicrous. I know there are always people who try to get away with as little work as possible and may be tempted to bend the rules for a quick fix to problems. But chances are, in this business they aren’t going to last long anyway. In order for organic growing to work, you have to put sweat into the process.

With that said, here is the simple version of how it’s done in Texas: Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. The biggest prob­lem with the system is that in trying to get all the information they need to measure compliance, intentions and plans, you have to fill out a lot of forms, draw a lot of diagrams, and do a lot of explaining—no big deal to an old nurse like me, but it can be downright intimidating to people who aren’t used to push­ing a lot of tree pulp around.

Plus, if you are going to be grow­ing primarily in containers, most of the forms are not even appropriate to your operation because the organic standards were created for agriculture (crops and animals), not horticul­ture. Just be creative. Give them the exact information they need in your own words on your own paper in an easy-to-read format. You could even make up your own form that gives you something to work from, based on the information they are asking for. Most importantly, don’t leave anything out—be bru­tally honest.

Aside from the paper, for initial certification they will need the exact location (on a map) of your business, drawings of where and what you are growing, buffer zones (25-50 feet) around the growing area (including greenhouses), soil samples from areas where plants will be grown in-ground (sent off to an independent lab), water samples if you are not using commu­nity or city water, and plant samples from the growing area(s) that go into a blender and are analyzed for various naughty chemicals. All these things are done along with an inspection from an agriculture department field representative. We have had two different inspectors and they have been very support­ive.

If you have a brand new greenhouse, you will likely be certified right away. But if you are growing in a greenhouse that has used restricted chemicals, there might be a delay in outright certification. In Texas there is a transition period for growers that are changing from chemical to organic methods. Traditionally it is three years, but may be more or less depend­ing on the evaluation of the environment and how “clean” the plant material is when tested by the inspectors.

When you are approved, you pay a fee and receive your certification. This certificate shows your registration number and states what growing area on your premises has been approved for organic certification. Then, every year, your busi­ness is inspected, you fill out some more paperwork, and you pay a fee to stay certified. Almost all my inspections, whether nursery/floral or organic certification, have been unan­nounced.

It’s worth noting that every year there are changes in the system and you will likely have something new to deal with at least every year or so. I wrote a letter to the agriculture com­missioner one time regarding how I felt about a particularly senseless change. I received a phone call about a week later from an “assistant” to the commissioner and we had some rather heated words for about 30 minutes. I don’t think to this day, she really understood how absurd the new system was. And my opinion obviously had no weight despite the fact that I am a grower and the new ruling had a direct impact on my business.

States that don’t involve themselves in organic standards sometimes have independent certifying agencies. These regu­latory agencies are better than no supervision but, again, there have been some significant differences in the interpretation of what constitutes an organically grown plant or animal. This is why the National Organic Standards were written. It gives everyone a level playing field.

The bottom line is that organic standards have varied from place to place and the best idea is to learn about organic grow­ing and regulations in your particular area. Again, it is always an excellent idea to meet like-minded growers in your region. Often there are organic organizations—both community-based and government-sponsored—as well as meetings that will be helpful to anyone interested in organic growing.

Learn more about Made From Scratch here.

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About the author:

Louise Placek undertook the transition from a 20-year traditional career in nursing to the unknown world of owning and operating a small container plant business. With her husband Chris, she bought a hilly, 22-acre site with sandy loam soil, lots of prairie grasses, an oak and cedar woodland with wonderful wildflowers and a 50-mile view. Misty Hill Farm and the container business grew into a successful commercial venture all without the use of the standard industry chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Louise had a mission to grow outstanding plants commercially using only natural, earth-made products. A challenge at times – because there wasn’t a manual or mentor to turn to – it has become a very worthy cause.

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