I recently heard a respected colleague state that organic food is the foundation for a clean diet. This got me thinking about my own views on organic food and my experience as an allotment gardener.
I grew up in a family of gardeners. My grandfather always had a splendid vegetable patch and his green house was overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers. Every summer we ate home-grown runner beans, sweet corn and potatoes but it never once crossed my mind that I would be a vegetable grower myself one day, let alone an organic one.
When my daughter was a tiny baby I received a letter telling me that I’d been allocated an allotment in Hackney Wick. I knew nothing about gardening and nor did my husband, but I was very excited to have a vegetable garden and I decided it needed to be organic right from the start.
It was a steep learning curve.
Baby organic steps
I learned that everything starts with the seed. I choose organic seed over commercial seed. This means that the plants I grow aren’t genetically modified or treated with fungicides. I feed my soil with natural fertilisers instead of chemical fertilisers. This means taking time and care to build a decent compost heap. I also use seaweed (I LOVE seaweed) to improve minerals and overall yield plus comfrey to increase potassium in the soil.
So far, so good. Gardening organically sounds idyllic but the reality is actually quite hard work. I don’t know how much you know about vegetable gardening but even after you buy organic seed and sort out organic fertiliser, there are two main obstacles to getting a good crop. Pests and weeds.
Organic pest control
Pests LOVE seedlings. They are tender, sweet and juicy. You know, like the baby vegetables you can buy in large supermarkets. So as soon as you have a few rows of seedlings the pests arrive! They come in different guises. Caterpillars love cabbages. White fly love broccoli and kale. Black fly love broad beans. Green fly love lettuce. Slugs and snails love e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g!
As with homeopathy, there are no ‘quick fixes’ but persistent sustained action makes a big difference. I plant marigolds and nasturtiums as companion plants to lure the flies away from my crops, then I use fine mesh to cover everything in the cabbage family. I check regularly for caterpillars and remove them, then I spray a dilution of Ecover washing up liquid on any remaining pests. Washing up liquid solution is approved for use by the Soil Association, so I know it is good to use on my vegetables. Snails and slugs are a nuisance but they are very hard to eradicate completely. I’m afraid to say that I collect them up and ‘dispose of them’ regularly. I don’t want to say any more, but if I didn’t do it we wouldn’t get anything to eat.
Organic weed control
As for weeds – they are everywhere! Even when I hoe regularly or pull them up, as soon as I turn around, they’re back! If they go to seed I’m really in trouble. There is a saying, ‘One year’s seeds is seven year’s weeds’. Grass is the worst. A tiny grass seedling is so small, it almost doesn’t seem worth pulling up. Two weeks later, that blade of grass has turned into a clump and it’s even harder to pull up. Two months later, it’s a small carpet!
The only solution is removal. Regular hoeing or hand-weeding is essential. There is no short-cut.
Zero chemical tolerance
As you can see, I’ve learned over the years that growing organic fruit and vegetables is totally possible. I have never used commercial pesticides or weed-killers. Nobody wants to eat food that’s been sprayed with chemicals anyway, right?
So what are these chemicals and how do they work?
Pesticides are neuro-toxic endocrine disruptors; chemicals that penetrate the nervous and endocrine systems of the different insects, and stop them moving around and reproducing themselves. Weed-killers work in different ways, but many contain metals and other substances that are toxic to humans as well as wild-life. Conventionally grown produce is sprayed many, many times before harvest.
Why organic matters
Have you ever washed an organic whole lettuce? I bet you found all kinds of creatures! Lots of different little flies, maybe tiny spiders or even a baby slug. Gross? Maybe.
Have you ever washed a non-organic whole lettuce? The only thing that floats to the surface is dirt! The chemicals don’t float to the surface, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
This might sound obvious, but if pesticide chemicals can penetrate insects, they can also penetrate the cell wall of plants and humans. Are our cells so different to the cells inside insects or vegetables? No, they’re not. And if those chemicals can disrupt the nervous and endocrine systems of insects, they can definitely affect our body systems (especially as they build up over time).
I don’t enjoy thinking about the residues in non-organic foods, but I want to avoid eating toxic chemicals if I can. I also want to protect the environment. Our human eco-system is dependent on bio-diversity. As an organic gardener I can see the difference in the vegetables and fruits I grow. When I bring organic produce home, it’s dirty and I have to wash really thoroughly to remove all the pests. Little wiggly things come out of my raspberries. There are flies and baby slugs inside my lettuces. I know that non-organic lettuce is sprayed repeatedly to ensure it is bug-free. No bugs or no chemicals? I know which I choose.
Organic farming is more labour intensive than conventional farming and that cost is reflected in the price of buying organic. I like a bargain like anyone else but something else I think about is this: the cost of buying simple ingredients to cook from scratch is often cheaper than buying something ready-made. This makes buying organic more affordable.
On Friday nights we always have pizza. My little boy loves it, and it is something for him to look forward to at the end of the week. We always make our own for a couple of reasons. It’s cheaper and nicer!
We all love pizza and if we buy supermarket ones they are smaller and we need one each. If we make our own we can make huge ones and share! Also, we can make larger quantities if there’s a tribe of teenagers on the sofa looking hungry!
This is my Sainsbury’s shopping list to make pizza from scratch:
Dove’s Farm organic strong flour £2
Dove’s Farm yeast £1.25
700g Sainsbury’s organic passata £1.25
3 bulbs of Sainsbury’s organic garlic £0.90
Bag of Sainsbury’s organic onions £1.00
Pack Sainsbury’s organic Mozzarella £1.20
Total = £7.60
This is my Sainsbury’s shopping list to buy ready-made pizza for 4:
4 x Pizza Express Pizza
Total = £20
4 x Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Pizza
Total = £16
If I cook from scratch, the ingredients are plenty for 3-4 large organic pizzas with onions, garlic, yeast and flour left over for next time. (We might add a handful of ham or olives to perk them up.)
I know this sounds great but it doesn’t apply to every meal I want to cook. I won’t pretend that all of our food is organic. Even when we harvest our own fruit and veg, it’s not always practical or possible for every meal to be wholly organic. But I do believe that it’s important to think about what we are putting inside our bodies.
The power of plants!
Homeopathy is deep acting, but I always want my clients to look and feel as well as they possibly can. The right herbs and other plant-based products can make a big difference.
As for clean eating: we really are what we eat. And as with most things in life – you can have fast, cheap or good, but not all three. Clean eating is a life-style change and not a ‘quick fix’. It is always helpful, but it rarely eradicates symptoms entirely.
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