As the gardening and growing seasons get underway across North America, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. Rolling racks the height of NBA players dominate nurseries and garden centers, offering limitless options to the bewildered beginning gardener. If you’re looking to grow a non-GMO garden this season, here are some tips from the Non-GMO Project's resident green thumb to set you up for success.
Which crops could be GMOs?
While GMOs are unfortunately commonplace in North America, the good news is that there are only a few commercially-available GMO crops. The high-risk GMO crops are Alfalfa, Canola, Corn, Cotton, Papaya, Soy, Sugar beet, Yellow summer squash / zucchini, and Potato. You may notice that these are largely commodity crops; most home gardeners do not grow canola or sugar beets.
When farmers choose to grow GMO crops, they have to sign technology use contracts with companies like Bayer or Dow. These contracts include restrictive rules for how farmers may use those seeds. This is bad news for farmers and researchers who want access to these seeds, but it also means that it would be very hard for an unwitting consumer to accidentally purchase GMO seeds or GMO garden starts.
Growing a Non-GMO Garden
While genetically modified seeds aren’t typically commercially available to the home grower, you can still vote with your dollars on the biotech industry’s other cash cow: pesticides. The corporations monopolizing the agribusiness market have a fiendishly clever business plan.
- Step one: Develop genetically modified seeds such as Round-Up Ready crops that encourage the use of pesticides
- Step two: Manufacture and sell the pesticides, too
- Step three: Profit
Most GMOs are essentially a way for chemical companies to sell more chemicals. It’s a sweet deal for biotech, but the environmental impacts are lousy for the rest of us. Since GMOs came onto the scene in the 1990s, pesticide use has skyrocketed across American farmland. So, what’s a simple home grower to do? Vote with your dollars! Don’t buy pesticides, soil, or soil amendments from companies that support genetic engineering.
It’s not just seeds that carry a GMO risk; products of biotechnology can show up in potting soil, fertilizers, and other garden products as well. Some garden products contain soy or alfalfa meal, both of which are likely to come from GMOs. Animal-derived ingredients such as bone or feather meal are another potential GMO risk because these ingredients often come from animals who ate a GMO diet. Choosing non-GMO soil supports the entire non-GMO system. If you’re looking for Non-GMO Project Verified potting soils, fertilizers, or compost, check out our product listings.
More Than Just “Dirt”
How often do we think about the 5-10 inches of matter beneath our feet that make up the Earth’s topsoil? For most of us, the answer is “not much.” But healthy topsoil teems with microbial activity. Rich in decayed organic material that accumulated over millions of years, a single gram of topsoil is home to a billion or so organisms! That’s some popular real estate. Our entire food system depends on these teeny-tinies. Without them, the soil wouldn’t support plant life, and plant life wouldn’t support us.
You can add to this priceless inheritance by composting yard waste and food scraps. Many municipalities have curbside pick-up services, or build your own compost bin and watch waste turn into “black gold”. You can also put a small army of worms to work with vermicomposting: it takes a bit more work than a traditional compost pile but watching the population grow and the food scraps disappear can be a great year-round project for kids.
Rethinking the Lawn
It can be tempting to cultivate a lawn with the polished and perfect appearance of a putting green, but consider the side effects. Lawns are one of the most heavily irrigated and sprayed crops in the US, and they offer little benefit in terms of food or habitat. To provide your family with a chemical-free place to romp, transition that turfgrass to a mixture of clovers, locally adapted grasses and small legumes. This sort of green space also supports insect biodiversity, captures carbon from the atmosphere, and is much easier to maintain.
Right Plant, Right Place
In all things garden-related, it’s best to work with nature rather than against it. Taking a moment to consider the likes and dislikes of your future plant go a long way to making it happy. The two most important criteria are soil type and sunlight. Nursery staff are wonderful resources and can help you locate the plant that will do best in your garden. Also, remember to choose plants with their fully mature size in mind—the five-gallon container shrub of today can grow into the 30-foot behemoth of tomorrow.
The Edible Garden
The benefits of growing even a portion of your own food are massive: it cuts down on waste, reduces the carbon footprint of transporting crops hither and thither, and you get the exercise and stress reduction of time spent outside. Plus, it’s delicious and often very pretty. There’s a perfect crop for everyone: Partial shade in the yard? Try some early season greens. Are you an apartment-dweller? Keep herbs on the windowsill year round. Live in a cave? Grow mushrooms.
Give Pollinators Something to Dance About
Humans owe a debt of gratitude to the birds, bees, and butterflies that pollinate more than two-thirds of our food crops. Facing habitat loss and steep population decline in recent years, these amazing creatures need a helping hand. Sprinkle seeds generously for a beautiful, low-maintenance flower garden and pollinator buffet. Many seed companies sell pollinator-specific seed mixes. Or share a herb garden with them: woody perennials such as thyme and rosemary produce blossoms that feed the pollinators and leaves that can be used in the kitchen.
Fun fact: Honeybees tell one another about the best feeding spots with an impressive “waggle dance,” accurately communicating the direction and distance of the food source. For every pollinator patch planted, somewhere there is a bee dancing about it.
Growing your own non-GMO produce using non-GMO garden products is an excellent way to keep GMOs out of your kitchen and support the entire non-GMO supply chain. Regardless of your goals, experience level, or space, there’s something out there for everyone to grow and enjoy. With just a little bit of curiosity, we can all tend our green spaces to support healthy families, communities, and ecosystems.
What are you growing this year?