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What does organic really mean?

Web definition


I looked up the definitions of organic material and organic gardening and found the following:


Organic Gardening:

  • The method of gardening utilizing only materials derived from living things. (i.e. composts and manures)
  • Plants grown without the use of chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Any fertilizers used consist of animal or vegetable matter.
  • A method of gardening that does not utilize chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
  • A form of gardening where only naturally occurring materials are used. Example: Manure



  • Being composed of, or containing matter related to living organisms.


That seemed to be sort of what I expected. OK herbicides aren’t actually mentioned but surely they will come under the same banner as pesticides.


More sources of information

Garden Organics


So who are they? Garden Organic describe themselves as follows:


"Garden Organic, the UK's leading organic growing charity, has been at the forefront of the organic horticulture movement for 50 years and is dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, farming and food.


Garden Organic is a dynamic, influential and committed organisation. We passionately believe in an organic approach to a sustainable future for people and our planet".


Garden Organic formally HDRA included the following information on a web page that is now missing



Manures and waste plants materials


  • Straw, hay and farmyard and horse manures from non-Organic sources - after being aerobically composted for three months or stockpiled for six months (The extra time is to allow some breakdown of any chemical residues that might be present.)


But six months is not an adequate length of time for aminopyralid to break down we are told that when stored in a pile it can take several years!


Qualified Acceptance

  •  Plant wastes and by-products from non-Organic food processing industries, after being properly composted.
  • Mushroom composts made from non-Organic animal manures, except those from ‘Unacceptable’ intensive systems
  • Worm composts made from non-Organic animal manures, except those from ‘Unacceptable’ intensive systems
  • Commercial gardening products such as bagged manures and garden composts from non-Organic sources except those from ‘unacceptable’ production systems and those containing peat


It appears that as long as the manure/compost doesn't originate from intensive farming or contain peat then this is acceptable.

This would indicate that plant material affected or treated with aminopyralid could be composted and then used couldn’t it? But we are told that composting doesn’t break down the aminopyralid – it needs to be in contact with soil organisms to affect a break down.


On the same web site in the FAQs was this:

Non-organic horse manure

Question ...

I’d like to use some horse manure that is available locally, but I am worried that it might be contaminated by veterinary treatments used on the horses. Is there any information about how long it is necessary to wait before I can use it?

Answer ...

Farmyard and horse manures from non-organic sources can be used in organic gardens after being aerobically composted for three months, or stockpiled under cover for six months.


This contradicts the advice given with respect to aminopyralid


Seeking Guarantees


According to the Horse and Hounds web site "A commercial composter, which processes horse manure, has written to the yard owners who supply manure asking them to sign a declaration confirming they won't buy hay that has been sprayed with the weedkiller called Forefront."


This is a positive step but is it possible that a stable owner may think their supply is free of residue but that the herbicide has been used higher up the chain for instance by a contract sprayer and this information has not been passed down. Also what about all the affected material that is likely to be already in the system?


Then I found a blog called Up at the Big House.


The author of the blog quoted a response from the Soil Association in reply to an email that he had sent to them.

Partial quote:

"Thank you for your email. Organic is a term defined by EU law. This means that anyone who is using the term on a food product needs to hold a licence with an approved certification body. This law does not apply to gardening products, much to our frustration".


"The Compost Association quote refers to the fact that you can put the word 'organic' on a gardening product without certification. This is why they say 'we need a protocol for organics'. It would have been better had they said 'we need a protocol for gardening products that claim to be organic', as that would have clarified the difference between the law that covers food products labelled organic and the lack of regulation over gardening products".


The response stated that the term organic was defined by EU law but that the law does not apply to gardening products. The Soil Association went on to say their remit was to deal with farmers. Further it says that the Association for Organics Recycling formally known as Composting Association has said that the term organic can be put on packaging without any certificate being necessary.


So again there seems to be a different set of rules for those supplying gardeners to those supplying organic products to others. Another 'grey area!


This seems to echo the comments that I have had from various organisations that the supply to gardens and allotments is a grey area - no-one seems to be responsible for protecting us!



Products not containing manure can not be contaminated?


There is also the opinion that if a product does not contain manure then it can’t be contaminated, however, the source of the contamination is not the manure itself but the plant material used as feed or bedding. The plant material does not need to have passed through an animal or been anywhere near an animal to be contaminated. Most compost will contain some form of plant material - as I understand it often grass or hay  – so surely contamination could come directly through this route.


Again as I understand it, some companies use composted green waste obtained from council ‘green bin’ schemes. Even though aminopyralid shouldn’t be available for public use it is not inconceivable that some could get into the supply through this route, for instance by vegetable gardeners placing vegetables ruined through use of contaminated compost or manure into their green bins.


Clopyralid is a herbicide that has a very similar effect to aminopyralid. Worryingly this chemical is an active ingredient in 43 products available in the UK. More worryingly it is an active ingredient in some products available for domestic use. Two such products are  Verdone Extra and Vitax. The label warning states that:


'All grass clippings may be left in place on the lawn. The first mowing after application must not be used as a mulch, either fresh or after composting, since it may damage desired plants. Dispose of via normal household waste. Do not dispose of via council composting schemes. The next three mowings should be used as a mulch only after composting well, for at least 9 months.'


It really didn't do a lot of good having a warning on products containing aminopyralid which is only available to professional users who I am told have to have a licence to use the products. To obtain their licences apparently they have to demonstrate that they are proficient in the use of chemicals etc. If a product is available to domestic users - in other words anyone can use it - then isn't it even more likely that instructions may not be followed? Furthermore many refuse collectors will look in bins to ensure waste is being disposed of correctly and will refuse to empty bins if they feel that the 'wrong' items are contained. If a bin contains items that the refuse collectors do not think should be there, they may refuse to empty it. I wonder what their reaction would be to grass clippings being in the household waste bin and not the green waste bin. Apparently New Zealand has withdrawn products containing clopyralid from the retail market.


More information on problems associated with clopyralid is available in further reading at the bottom of another web page click here to access.


The following quote is advice to what The Association for Organics Recycling it calls biowaste processors:


Each biowaste processor should, as far as practicable, check with each supplier of plant, manure or stable waste whether any product that contains clopyralid or aminopyralid has been applied to the material.  ...


Clearly this recommendation is not feasible for biowastes collected from households but local authorities can help to minimise risks by reminding householders to read herbicide product labels carefully before deciding whether to purchase a product, using it and deciding what to do with any garden plant wastes treated with the herbicide. This applies to home composting too.


So is this advice enough? Isn't it just another - Make sure that you read the label safeguard like the one that is used for aminopyralid products?


Since I wrote this there had been an increase in suspected cases of commercial compost being contaminated even to present day 2017 gardeners are becoming increasingly wary of buying composts which use green waste as a constituent part.



Other websites


On the Living More Than website (no longer available) it quoted from a Soil Association statement to them on the use of non-organic manure. Part of this seems to say that it allows limited use of non-organic manure because there isn’t enough organic manure to meet needs. This website also quoted the Soil Association as admitting that "Thus far it knows of three of its licencees to be affected by bad manure'.  The web site goes on to say that the Soil Association couldn't comment on whether these growers would be allowed to sell their produce as organic.


As far as I am aware no supplier has publicly admitted to having had their supplies affected, on the contrary any who have been approached have denied having a problem so have suspected contaminated products been withdrawn from the shelf.


From the Observer allotment blog (No longer available) I found the following quote in the comments section (second comment):

"Many garden centres sell 'organic manure' but none of it that I can find is certified. I called the Soil Association for advice, they told me they were not aware of any certified manure commercially available and advised we negotiate with an organic farm.

I called Garden Organic, formerly the HDRA and the biggest supplier of organic gardening products in the country, they could not help, nor could other of the organic suppliers I spoke to".






So to quote the sentiments in a posting on the Observer magazine - Organic Allotment - Allotment blog

Is it possible to be sure that you are gardening organically and just what is organic gardening anyway?




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Our Plot at Green Lane Allotments Blog  | A Gardener's Weather Diary  | School Vegetable Patch Website


© Our Plot on Green Lane Allotments - Please email me if you wish to use any of this site's content