Organic or Conventional Gardening: What's Better?

While we understand that the organic and conventional foods you buy at the store are grown differently, you might not realize that these same principles can apply to your own fruit, vegetable and flower gardening at home. There are a few key differences between organic and conventional gardening, mostly in their approaches to pest control, weed control, and fertilization. Outside those areas, the principal methods of growing food and flowers are identical.

A backyard gardener should not feel pressure to take an “all or nothing” approach to gardening techniques. Many people use a mix of organic and conventional methods to suit their time constraints, budget and priorities. Let’s cover some of the pros and cons of organic and conventional gardening techniques so that you can choose the methods that are right for you.

Organic Gardening
Organic gardening means growing and cultivating plants without any synthetic or chemical means of pest control, weeding, or fertilization; instead, organic gardeners use only natural methods (and old-fashioned manual labor) to care for their gardens.

Pros of Organic Gardening
  • Eco-Friendly: By definition, organic methods are all-natural so they shouldn't cause any harm to the earth, soil or waterways. Organic fertilizer in particular can actually improve the quality of your soil whereas conventional fertilizers just give an artificial and temporary burst of nutrients to your plants.
  • Better Nutrition: Although you'll see both sides argued, a growing number of studies are showing that organically grown foods are richer in nutrients than conventionally grown foods. A 2001 article published in the Journal of Complimentary Medicine found that, compared with conventional crops, organic crops had significantly higher levels of all 21 nutrients analyzed, including vitamin C (27% more), magnesium (29% more), iron (21% more) and phosphorous (14% more).
  • Monetary Savings: Organic gardeners don't use expensive store-bought fertilizers, pest controls or weed killers. Plus, growing your own organic food is a fraction of the cost of buying it at the store! To fertilize plants, organic gardeners use compost, which is free because it's made from things you already have in your yard (grass clippings and leaves) and kitchen (food scraps from fruits and vegetables). All-natural insecticidal soaps (less than $15 at a nursery) and traditional homemade brews of strong herbs can help ward off infestations. Another low-cost method of pest control is to plant specific flowers (for the cost of a pack of seeds) that encourage predators to "watch over" your garden by consuming bugs that might destroy it. For weed control, manual weeding combined with mulch, which can range from grass clippings (free) to stones (moderate cost) works well.
  • No Chemicals: When you spray conventional weed killers, those chemicals go into the very soil that your plants turn to for nourishment. When you spray pesticides, they can linger on the surface your fruits and vegetables and sometimes deeper. The easiest way to avoid pesticide exposure is to use organic gardening techniques and consume an organic diet. Several major health agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree that an organic foods are safest for you, your children, your pets and the earth.
Cons of Organic Gardening
  • Time and Labor Intensive: Organic gardening methods are more time-consuming and labor intensive. A successful garden requires forethought and planning; maintaining that garden involves crop rotation, companion planting, diligent removal of diseased or weakened plants, composting (which takes weeks or months to break down), hauling manure, working organic matter into the soil, and manual weeding. For the time-crunched, these methods might not be possible, but for nature lovers, it becomes another opportunity to spend time outdoors.
  • Lower Yields: The theory of organic fertilizing is to naturally enrich the soil in which plants grow. Compost is a slow-release method of nutrition delivery, so organically grown plants usually have smaller yields than conventional ones. With less potent ways to control pesticides, some of your bounty will be eaten for dinner by the bugs, slugs and other critters around your home.
Conventional Gardening
Conventional gardening uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to enhance and control the growing environment.

Pros of Conventional Gardening
  • Less Time and Labor: Conventional gardening usually involves less time and labor, thanks to store-bought pesticides that instantly terminate invading pests and weeds, as well as fertilizers that boost the size and yield of your plants. If your crop is looking scrawny, a synthetic fertilizer can provide you with almost immediate results.
  • Monetary Cost: Conventional fertilizers and pesticides are more expensive than the free (and labor intensive) methods of organic gardening, but not terribly so. Fertilizers range from about $10-$15 a bag and pesticide sprays are usually around $10.
  • Higher Yields: You definitely get more bang for your buck when you grow plants with conventional methods. Conventional fertilizers are a powerhouse of food for your plants.
Cons of Conventional Gardening
  • Environmental Burden: When synthetic fertilizers are used, some of the chemicals are washed away by the rain and eventually that fertilizer makes its way into our lakes and rivers, causing extreme algae blooms that cut off oxygen to the organisms living in the water, thereby disrupting the natural ecosystem. Both pesticides and fertilizers can contaminate ground water; eventually, this water comes out of your tap and into your glass. Some experts say that conventional fertilizers can actually weaken plants over time, making them “lazy” as if they're trained to expect the powerful synthetic nutrients. The trickledown effect from pesticides can be direct (animals dying from high exposure to the chemicals) and indirect (animals consuming other animals that have died from exposure or consuming plants sprayed with the chemicals).
  • Health Risks: According to the EPA, pesticide exposure can lead to nerve damage, cancer, and birth defects. A 2003 study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that women with breast cancer were five to nine times more likely to have pesticide residues in their blood than those without the disease. Don't forget about your pets that can roam the yard and encounter plants (and grass) that may be contaminated with these chemicals. Exposure or consumption of plants sprayed with pesticides or fertilizer can result in vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drooling, disorientation, seizures, or even death, says the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC).
  • Fewer Nutrients: Some studies (see above) support the notion that conventional foods aren't as nutritious as organically grown foods are. Children, cautions the EPA, are especially affected by pesticide exposure, which can result in reduced nutrient absorption.
You don't have to go 100% organic or 100% conventional in your own garden—use the methods that work best for you and your priorities. You might compost but spray for pests, or perhaps you will deter pests naturally but fertilize your plants with a store-bought mixture. There is no right or wrong way to garden. Whichever methods you choose, gardening is a wonderful pursuit that allows you to enjoy the great outdoors, connect with nature, and grow some of the freshest, best tasting fruits and vegetables you'll ever try.

Selected Sources

Organic foods in relation to nutrition and health key facts from

Pesticides and Food: Health Problems Pesticides May Pose from

Pesticides and Food: Why Children May be Especially Sensitive to Pesticides from

Charlier G et al. 2003. Breast cancer and serum organochlorine residues. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 60 (5): 348 – 351.

Pets and Pesticide Use from the National Pesticide Information Center, an organization sponsored cooperatively by Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Virginia Worthington. 2001. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. April 2001, 7(2): 161-173.