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F.U.N. News Issue #8

Organic Learning

by Billy Greer

Unschooling is sometimes referred to as an "organic" approach to learning. Some people wonder about this application of the term and may think it refers to a "natural" approach as in organic gardening where artificial fertilizers and pesticides are not used. Actually, I believe the term refers more to a "holistic" approach in which the entire organism is considered and not just individual components. The same can be said for organic gardening; it just happens that this also tends to be a more natural approach. If you are new to unschooling, or have doubts about how it can really work, I can think of no better way to learn more than to try your hand at organic gardening. I find the similarities to be amazing and the results of both to be very rewarding.

Most people think of organic gardening as similar to regular gardening except that you don't use pesticides and you don't use fertilizers. People that try this approach frequently see their plants consumed by insects or wilting from lack of nourishment. They'll tell you that it sounds nice on paper but just doesn't work in real life. These are people who have seen and tried a few techniques from an organic approach but failed because they did not realize that an overall system is needed. You cannot expect success if you only adopt a few of the techniques.

Any experienced organic gardener will tell you that the key to success is to build a strong foundation, which means to take good care of the soil, not just the plants. Before you worry about growing healthy plants, you need to properly prepare the soil. There is no single way to do this because conditions vary from location to location, so first it is important to understand what you have. Go out and work with your soil. As you dig in it and feel it, you get a sense for whether it is hard and compacted or rich and loamy. By observing the types of plants already growing in the area you can also learn about the pH of the soil and mineral content. You can also buy kits that will help you determine what type of soil you have. Once you've done your homework, you can finally start doing some of the real work.

So, now you dig and loosen the soil and work in the compost, manure, limestone and other amendments that you have determined you need. It's not true that organic gardeners do not use fertilizers. They just don't use chemical fertilizers, so most of what you add will be more similar to what nature would add and will be slower to breakdown and slower to be absorbed by the plants than their chemical counterparts.

Now you've gotten your soil off to a good start, and you're ready to start planting. Your plants should be germinated in a very protected environment. The potting soil should be sterile. You carefully control the conditions to allow the plants to get a good, healthy start. Before you transplant them, you gradually expose them to outside conditions, giving them a chance to adapt. When they are ready, you put them in the soil you have prepared.

These plants have been given a good healthy start, and the soil has been well prepared. You will now find that they need less maintenance. They will grow deeper root systems and need less watering or fertilizing. Their health will make them more resistant to insects or weather. Their vigorous growth will crowd out weeds. Every year, as you nourish the soil, the plants will do better as they grow stronger, the roots spread deeper, and the soil continues to improve.

With a more conventional approach to gardening, you might get better results initially but not in the long run. Your neighbor uses a chemical fertilizer, and a few days later the plants are noticeably greener and growing faster. He waters them daily, and they stay green and lush even during the hottest days of summer. At the first sign of bugs, he breaks out the pesticides and sprays everything. That first year he may actually have bragging rights to the biggest and best looking vegetables. He constantly tends to the garden and seems to get great results. But if he continues gardening the same way for many years, he may start having problems. That rapid growth encouraged by his fertilizers may deplete the soil of necessary nutrients. Some are trace elements and things we don't really know about. Chemical fertilizers only provide the major elements required by the plants and do not replace many other nutrients. If overused, they can even leave behind mineral salts that can poison the soil.

The pesticides he has applied have successfully gotten rid of many pests, but have also killed lots of beneficial insects. Bacteria and other beneficial soil organisms may be killed. That means your neighbor has fewer earthworms working to improve his soil. Perhaps there are fewer bees or butterflies to help pollinate the plants. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff may also pollute nearby waters decreasing fish and frogs that would eat insects and their larvae.

Face it. Your neighbor has developed a system that may have gotten faster results initially, but requires constant attention and the application of expensive products. The plants are dependent on that attention and care, and are not capable of surviving well without it. Just look at what happens if he goes on vacation for a while, or moves away and someone with less time and money moves in to his house. The constant watering that produced such lush growth also produced shallow roots. Miss one watering during a hot spell and you can watch everything wither and die. The fertilizers can cause the problems mentioned earlier, but without them the soil cannot support the plants. Miss a couple of applications and the plants start to become sickly. This gardener has concentrated on raising plants instead of a garden.

On the other hand, you invested much more time and did more work initially with your organic garden. You focused on feeding the soil, not the plants. You made decisions based on the overall effect on the garden, not just the plants. Therefore, you did not indiscriminately apply pesticides to get rid of a few pesky insects. As a result, you had healthy soil bacteria and worms working to make your soil even better. Your garden may have gotten off to a slower start, but it improves every year. Since your plants were not artificially fed and watered constantly, they have developed deep root systems that help them find the nourishment they need. They are much more self sufficient and to not require constant care.

Thinking unschoolers do nothing with their kids is equivalent to thinking organic gardeners just throw a handful of seeds into the yard and expect a garden to grow. In actuality, both invest most of their effort into properly preparing the environment to encourage proper growth. If you worry that homeschooled kids are too protected and need to be exposed to the real world, would you also recommend transplanting tender seedlings to the garden before the last frost? Isn't it ironic that the plants that are the most carefully nurtured and protected initially before being gradually exposed to the outdoors tend to become the strongest, healthiest plants, while those that are thrust outdoors too soon often never recover?

Sometimes I see our home environment as the garden and our children as the plants; other times I see our children as the garden and knowledge as the plants. Each perspective has its merits. In either case, one of our goals is to produce self-sufficient learners with deep, strong roots to acquire their own knowledge and to provide a solid base for continued future growth.

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