Gardening with Gabe (5/24/2017)

Episode 2: Digging In or On Organics

Last week, I defined organic gardening (as we will speak of it) as:

Gardening using practices that aim to promote positive soil health and beneficial biology and combatting pests and diseases without the use of any toxic additives or ~cides (pesticides, herbicides, etc.).

Today, I’ll be delving into what that actually means. To do this I’ll need to explain further what the main other styles of gardening actually are, at least as we see them, so we’ll start there. To that end, my current list of major basic home growing styles is:

  • ‘Soil’ based:
    • Potting soil and just water (Low Effort)
    • Potting soil and synthetic nutrients (Sweet Nutes + Soil)
    • Organic soil and nutrients (Organic)
    • Coco Coir / Coco-hydro (Sweet Nutes + soilless mix)
  • Non-soil based:
    • Coco Coir / Coco-hydro (Sweet Nutes + soilless mix)
    • Hydroponic (Sweet Nute-Water)
    • Aeroponic (Sweet Nute-Mist)
  • Complicated:
    • Aquaponic (Calm down scienceman)

Okay, so upon reading this list you probably have a few questions. I will also list those, so that I don’t forget to address anything.

  • Why is ‘low effort’ a style?
  • Why on earth do you keep saying ‘Nutes’? Please stop.
  • Why is coco coir on there twice? Why is it in both categories?
  • If there isn’t any soil, then what does the plant grow in? Also what does soilless mean?
  • Aren’t hydroponics and aeroponics the best? Haven’t we figured that out or something?
  • Complicated? What’s that supposed to mean?

We’ll be addressing them in order, obviously. So let’s get going.

I’m calling this first ‘style’ of growing Low Effort because it’s the easiest name for what happens when you just go buy the cheapest potting soil, put your seeds in it, and then water it with regular old tap water. For most practitioners of this age old style, no care for the quality of your soil and as little attention to the plants as possible is generally paid. Think about your friend that buys a potted plant every once in awhile, waters it every day for a week, forgets to water it for two weeks, and then is surprised it has died. Your friend is a stunning example of low effort growing. It can totally work, but consistency is absolutely key.

Nutes is simply a dumpy abbreviation of nutrients. As far as I’m aware it comes from stoner culture appropriating common garden lingo. I will not stop saying it. I will take it to my death. It’s so stupid, I love it.

A little bit more on nutrients though. Nutrients (as we’ll be talking about them) come in a few different basic varieties: powdered synthetic, bottled synthetic, and bottled organic. It is important that packaged nutrients (ones you buy in stores) are only one potential source of these nutrients. A good potting soil will include all of these nutrients on its own, so supplementing through use of nutes is a choice, not a requirement.

Coco Coir and Coco Hydro are both essentially soilless mixes with nutrients watered into them. Soilless mixes are a type of growing media that act and look like soil, 1 but have little to no nutrients in them on their own. This means they require watering with nutrients to feed the plant. This has both pros and cons, as it allows you to optimize the mix of nutrients and get them directly to the plant without too much alteration from the nutrients in the soil. Unfortunately, it also furthers the problems already extant in hydroponics. Among other things (keep watch for an article on this subject in the future, probably) potential cons that arise from this are: dependance on bottled nutes, need to manage pH of the water, need to make sure your inputs are good (bad water can mean bad plants). This doesn’t mean it’s all bad, but it isn’t what we’ll be recommending.

Hydroponics and Aeroponics can be very good ways to grow plants, but they require a whole lot of management and care, otherwise things can go bad very quickly. Along with most of the problems mentioned for soilless mixes, they can be very expensive to get started, noisy, and require temperature control of some sort (even if this is just keeping the system in a colder room) to insure that the plants can thrive. This is obviously a giant pain in the butt. Along with that, you’re kinda doing the equivalent of keeping a human being alive on pills, which just doesn’t sit with me. Honestly though, the hassle is really what keeps me from recommending it for anything less than an amazing hobby.

And finally, aquaponics is complicated because an aquaponic system is a hydroponic system that gets its nutrients organically via a tank full of fish. To elaborate, you keep a tank of fish, which you feed either by feeding them directly, or giving them access to forage plants in their tank. These fish eat, live, and poop in the water of their tank. Over time this accumulates in the water, adding nitrogen and other plant available nutrients to the water. This water is then pumped to the plant or (more likely) plants, which have an opportunity to drink up the nutrient rich water before it is fed back into the fish container. Along with being an amazing way to grow plants, this also has the positive effect of keeping the water clean enough for the fish to be happy. The downsides, however, are many. My main ones are that it is way too expensive for most people and that to do it you need a lot of space and stuff (large fish containers, pumps, fish, that sort of thing). This makes aquaponics inconvenient enough for me to not recommend it to most people.

Phew! Now, all I’ve done is explained all of what organic gardening 2  isn’t. Great. This has gotten a bit out of hand though, so I’ll be continuing to delve in on the soil based methods and what organic gardening means in a more practical sense.


  1. What we mean by this is that a ‘soilless growing mix’ that you buy at the store will look, feel, and probably mostly smell like soil, but will not be soil, exactly.
  2. As we’ll be speaking of it, obviously

I didn’t pull anything specific from these articles, but they were referenced in the writing of this one: “The Dirt on Fertilizer – Organic vs. Synthetics

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