a Master Gardener and chemist, I will define these terms and
their implications for gardeners:
The term "Synthetic"
implies that a substance used in a garden is "man-made" and not
found naturally. For clarity, the term "synthetic" is better
replaced with the term "inorganic" -- that is, an inorganic
fertilizer does not contain the element carbon.
A synthetic fertilizer may contain
ingredients such as ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3), potassium
chloride (KCl), sodium phosphate (Na3PO4), calcium sulfate
(CaSO4), as part of its composition. However, because none of
these ingredients contains the element carbon, this type of
fertilizer is considered to be an inorganic fertilizer.
When we hear the term "natural," it implies that we are dealing
with something that occurs in nature. A common misconception is
if it's nature-made it can't be harmful to us or the
environment. Well, this not totally true. As an example,
consider the castor bean (Ricinus communis) plant, which can be
grown as an annual in our area. One of the products obtained
from this plant is castor oil, which is used commercially and
for human consumption. However, another component of this plant
is ricin, one of the most deadly naturally occurring poisons
known. A 500-microgram dose (about the size of the head of a
pin) can kill an adult by injection.
Even though nature provides many wonderful things for the
gardener, she does have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Mess with
her "Hyde" side, and you could be in big trouble!
Many gardeners proudly describe their practice as organic,
implying superiority to gardeners who embrace chemicals. Many of
the products that gardeners use -- fertilizers, herbicides,
insecticides, fungicides -- have an organic composition. But
what does that mean? By definition any product that is truly
organic (from a chemistry standpoint) must contain the element
carbon. These products may also contain hydrogen, nitrogen,
oxygen, potassium, sulfur, calcium, etc., but carbon is the key
element that makes the product organic.
Bonemeal is an organic product used for bulbs
Many years ago, a "wonderful" pesticide was used with great
effect to combat malaria, typhus and other insect-borne human
diseases and for insect control in institutions, homes and
gardens. The interesting thing about this pesticide is that it
is considered organic because it contains carbon. Most gardeners
know this pesticide by its initials -- DDT. This reality may be
a revelation to some organic garden zealots.
The term "chemical" is probably the most misunderstood and
misused of the four terms. It brings fear and panic to the
hearts and minds of many gardeners. To ease gardeners' angst, it
must be noted that every garden on this planet is filled with
chemicals. Some are added by the gardener, but most are added by
nature. Yes, nature is the main culprit in our gardens when it
comes to chemicals. Trees, shrubs, perennials, weeds, lawns,
leaves, mulches, soils, etc. are comprised of thousands of
chemicals. Without nature's chemicals, our gardens wouldn't
exist, our planet wouldn't exist, our universe wouldn't exist,
and, this is really the bad part: We wouldn't exist! The next
time you hear the term chemical, don't run and hide, but calmly
ask for specifics. Research the product to determine if it is
beneficial to our health and the health of the garden.
Water (H2O) and oxygen (O2) are crucial to life on Earth. They
are also chemicals.
The gardener does not need to be a chemist. But
as an informed gardener, don't toss the generic terms synthetic,
natural, organic and chemical around. Better to speak in
specifics about products or techniques that you are employing in
your garden. And the next time a fellow gardener declares that
they refuse to use chemicals in their garden, suppress the urge
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