Tuesday, May 16, 2000

If you subscribe to a magazine that gives lots of good information, you might save back issues in growing piles and then can’t find the articles you saved them for when you need them. If so, you’re not alone.

Enough Organic Gardening magazine readers did that and told the magazine’s editors, that the publisher, Rodale Inc., decided to compile the information into one easy-to-use reference book.

That was more than 40 years ago, and the resulting 1,000-page tome was called the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. The book became the manifesto of the fledgling organic movement. It covers the whole field of horticulture from an organic viewpoint.

By 1999, however, the book had been out of print for 15 years, and the decision was made to publish it again. The new edition, which came out this year, remains unchanged.

The amazing thing is that the ideas the book espoused 40 years ago were highly controversial. The same ideas now are common practice. The difference is that science and chemical use in agriculture were relatively new then, and considered progress. Now we see the environmental value in organic methods of gardening.

The Rodale encyclopedia defines organic gardening under the letter “O” saying, “Organic gardening or farming is a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying nature’s own law of replenishing it that is, the addition and preservation of humus, the use of organic matter instead of chemical fertilizers, and, of course, the making of compost and mulching.”

It is even easier today than it was then, because garden centers now carry virtually all the equipment and materials you need to garden organically. (Of course, they also carry chemicals, and you might have a legitimate reason to use them, but that isn’t what organic gardening is about.)

Anyway, home gardeners of ornamental plantings and vegetables buy literally tons of compost and mulch today. Organic fertilizers and organic pesticides such as insecticidal soap are widely available and widely recommended by university cooperative extension services.

Still, the Rodale encyclopedia is valuable for its general information about horticulture and how to grow plants.

The encyclopedia lists about 1,500 topics in alphabetical order, with neat paragraphs of practical advice and bits of information about everything from abelias to zelcova trees.

It waxes eloquent, however, under the letter “C,” where 11 pages are devoted to composting.

A sample:

“In the soft, warm bosom of a decaying compost heap, a transformation from life to death and back again is taking place. Life is leaving the living plants of yesterday, but in their death these leaves and stalks pass on their vitality to the coming generations of future seasons. Here in a dank and mouldy pile the wheel of life is turning …

“The compost heap is to the organic gardener what the typewriter is to the writer, what the shovel is to the laborer and what the truck is to the truck driver. It is the basic tool to do the job that is to be done.”

Of course, a writer now uses a computer instead of a typewriter and many gardeners buy rather than make their compost. Then what to do with the grass clippings? The autumn leaves? Why, put them out for the recycling truck.

Although it might be a little old-fashioned in its references, and certainly not up-to-the-minute on the latest perennial cultivars, the Rodale encyclopedia is packed with useful and once-revolutionary information for the gardener.

Marie Rodale, who is now editor of Organic Gardening magazine, which is published six times a year, is the granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, the original editor and the leader of the organic gardening movement that began 60 years ago in this country.

“He was laughed at, ridiculed, and (eventually) even sued by the FDA,” Miss Rodale said of her grandfather, for his audacity to suggest that chemicals could compromise healthy soil.

For more information about the Rodale company and its organic gardening publications, visit its Web site at www.rodale.com or phone 800/848-4735. The organic gardening encyclopedia sells for $25.

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