organic gardening without chemicals

Organic gardening without chemicals – practical and ethical issues

Organic gardening without chemicals. sounds pretty logical, but in our desire to be pure in this pursuit, many fuzzy lines exist. Let me demonstrate this fuzziness with two examples of common inputs for organic gardeners, chicken manure and newspapers.

When I say without chemicals, I do mean without harmful and mostly synthetic chemicals, as I appreciate that all substances are made from a variety of chemicals. You are best to stick with inputs when bought from stores that are marked certified organic. 

Chicken manure

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen and also contains a good amount of potassium and phosphorus, all very important for plant growth. The high nitrogen in the chicken manure is not suitable for plants if the manure has not been properly composted.

In your quest for organic gardening without chemicals, you could get that manure from your own chickens. If you fed your chickens with grain that is not certified organic and fed them with scraps from chemical farming food, then the manure will be laced with the nasties of chemical farming.

keeping backyard chickensIf you let this manure go through a complete hot composting process, the impact of those chemicals will be reduced. The living process of composting helps to change the chemical concentrations and improves the balance of the chemical and minerals. Depending on your composting process, this could take up to 12 months, quite a long time.

If you believe that simply mixing your chicken manure with the chicken house bedding is proper composting, think again, or indeed letting your chickens poo on your veg beds and hope it composts. Neither process is controlled or long enough. Remember the point above, if the compost process is not effective and you have been using feed for the chickens from chemical farming, those substances will be in the manure that goes on your garden and blowing your goal of organic gardening without chemicals.

If you don’t have your own chickens, you could buy a popular product in Australia called Dynamic Lifter. This product is made from chicken manure, blood and bone and seaweed. Its possible that the some of the chicken manure has come from battery hen system chicken farms which may use chemicals in their feed and antibiotics in chicken management.

Dynamic Lifter has organic certification because the chicken manure has gone through a hot composting process that satisfies Australian Standards in removing the impacts of chemicals from the manure. Periodic scientific tests are done on their product to ensure it meets this standard.

By accepting the veracity of this independent process, the question could then become, are you happy with supporting the processing of waste from battery hen systems. Then it becomes more of an ethical question around animal welfare, rather avoiding chemicals, Does the hot composting process reduce the impact of antibiotics in the manure. I am not sure on this question. This a comprehensive article on the subject.

Personally, I add our chicken manure (fed with organic inputs only) to a hot composting process which also has grass fed cow manure from local farmers. I am not certain the cow manure is fully organic, but I am happy with our hot composting process. I will not take cow manure from feed-lots due to high use of antibiotics and ethical considerations in treatment of animals. My wife’s family once had a large feed-lot after always doing grass fed cattle. Feed lots are cruel and inhumane places from my observation.


Newspaper can provide carbon for compost, matting for weed reduction and containers for seed raising. There is no doubt that recycling newspaper is responsible in terms of saving trees, but should it be recycled into the soil that produces your food? Does it fit with the concept of organic gardening without chemicals?

Let us firstly examine the newspaper making process in Australia:

  • Paper pulp producers for newspapers are required to use a water based process for creating paper pulp from wood. In the past it was a chemical process and it may still be a chemical process in other parts of the world. When it is a chemical process, chlorine is used to help create the paper pulp.
  • Inks used for newspapers are now predominantly made from vegetable inks such as soy and this changed quite some time ago from petro-chemical based inks. Just as it is with the pulp process, you can’t be certain that paper inks from imported sources use vegetable based inks.
  • Lastly, the ink pigments are still petro-chemical based.

What are the consequences of chemicals in newspapers?

  • Chlorine toxic impact:
    • Toxic breakdown – When chlorine dissipates after use, two of its by-products are dioxin and organo-chlorides and these substances bio-accumulate in very small quantities in the garden and the atmosphere around the garden. Dioxin is known as the most toxic chemical on earth.
    • Stops micro-organisms – Chlorine is incredibly effective at killing micro-organisms. In a compost heap or in your garden beds, one of your main tasks is to encourage the proliferation of life via micro-organisms, so anything you put into the garden to slow this down makes it more difficult to have healthy soil.
  • Ink toxic impact:
    • Heavy metals from petro-chemical ink – Its quite possible the newspapers you use for your garden have a mixture of petro-chemical and soy based ink. When released into the atmosphere, petro-chemicals can contaminate soil and groundwater.
    • Support of GM products in soy ink – It is likely the vegetable based inks being used are from GM sources. If you prefer to be more cautious with the avoiding the potential impacts of GM products residues in your soil, then avoid newspaper produced with GM soy ink
  • Pigment toxic impact:
    • Heavy metals in pigments – Common inorganic harmful substances used for pigments are: Cadmium for yellow, Phthalocyanine for blue and with black ink; the carbon used for such inks is often produced used petro-chemical oils.

In summary

Its interesting how things in life become generally accepted as being OK, but when they are looked at more deeply, there are often gremlins lurking, as you can hopefully see from my examples above on chicken manure and newspapers.

Successful organic gardening without chemicals is a blend of many factors, some out of your control, but others totally in your control. Just as you have control over what you put in your mouth, you have control over the substances you put in your garden soil and it’s the soil that is the most important resource in your organic garden.

Come along to one of organic and biodynamic gardening workshops this year or contact us about our urban agriculture consulting. Love to help along your food gardening journey.

Happy gardening

Peter Kearney

Posted in Food gardening with children.


  1. Peter, great article, but something you mentioned above triggered a related concern. It is very dry here, so we are using grey water to dampen our compost heaps. (We only use very critically selected organic soap and washing products, so that’s not my concern.) However, the source of that grey water is municipal water, which contains chloride. As per regulation, the grey water gets flushed every 24hrs – so it doesn’t have long to stand in the holding tank. So how much of that chlorine can kill the organisms in the compost heap?

    • Hi Martin, I am not sure how much chloride will harm the micro-organisms . If that water is your only source to keep the compost moist, then I do feel that focusing on how you can quite easily reduce the chloride in it would be more helpful. One way is to decant the liquid and let it sit in sunlight for 24 hours. I always recommend this for people using chlorinated town water. The other thing to do is consider your compost method. I make biodynamic compost heaps and rarely water them once they are built. Lots of water goes into the making process. i do not turn the heaps until 4 months out and may turn them once, add some water and let them finish off, a process that takes 5 months in total during the cool season and 4 months in our wet warm season.

  2. Thank you Peter. I’ll think about a sunlight process on the way to the heaps. I tried the no-turn for two years, but it just dries out and I end up with dry twigs and leaves. Now with regular grey water and regular turning, I’m getting temperatures in the 50s and 60s, and I get damp warm black gold 🙂

  3. Hey Peter, Thanks for an informative read. I have become increasingly concerned of late about the wide spread use and undisclosed effects of flame retardants after having a lot of difficulty lighting the fire with certain plain cardboards that won’t catch fire. In particular using newspaper and cardboards treated with same either as sheet mulch or added as fire ash. So finding your pages has offered some great alternatives to consider. The toxicity embodied in every day products is frightening.

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