Suppose you are a farmer and you want to grow organic food to sell. The U.S. government regulates to the nth degree what you can and can’t do in your fields to ensure that the crops are truly organic. There’s a lot of paperwork, but the two most important points are these: You cannot use most conventional pesticides, but only products found in nature. And you cannot use fertilizers made with synthetic materials or sewer sludge.

For many farmers, the certification helps them market their produce, so it’s worth the trouble. For home gardeners, though, only a handful in Maine bother. Still, many (like me) follow many organic practices, and some are fully organic, without the formal label. Actually, organic gardeners and conventional gardeners have more in common than not. They often share the same goals: producing healthy and tasty food and attractive ornamentals while breaking neither their banks nor their backs.

“It is a spectrum,” said Mary Yurlina, director of certification services for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which is authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform the service. “People in general are looking to do things less expensively and with better ways to manage the land.”

CATERPILLAR GUTS

From my perspective, managing the land means making sure the vegetables, flowering perennials, trees, shrubs, lawn and container plants look good and pose no threat to people, pets – or wildlife. True, you’ll want to discourage the deer and woodchucks that like to munch on your ornamentals and edibles, but at the same time you’ll want to encourage the many desirable creatures – songbirds, honeybees and native bees, butterflies and moths, and other beneficial insects.

The soil itself also contains lots of living things. One cup of healthy garden soil will have 200 billion bacteria, 60 miles of fungi hyphae, 20 million protozoa, 100,000 nematodes and 50,000 arthropods, according to a professor I heard lecture several years ago on the benefits of using compost and mulch. Those tiny creatures create the food that nourishes your plants. Using pesticides indiscriminately can kill them, even if the pesticides are organic. (Yes, some pesticides are allowed in organic gardens, as long as such pesticides can be found in nature.)

What backyard gardeners must decide is if the land they cultivate – whether a condominium unit with just a few container plants or a large well-manicured lawn with perennial borders – should be managed conventionally or organically. Conventional gardening is usually cheaper, because the fertilizer costs less per pound of nitrogen. Also, it’s easier, as it’s easier to spray a chemical like Sevin that kills indiscriminately than to hand pick beetles or use an organic pesticide like Bt (the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis bacteri, which occurs naturally in the guts of some caterpillars, among other places.) Homeowners make the call in three areas: their lawn, ornamental gardens and vegetable garden.

WHAT ABOUT LAWNS?

Managing lawns organically goes better if you plan before you plant, using rich soil with a lot of compost. If you are willing to accept a few weeds, you can convert a conventional lawn to organic. My wife Nancy and I have done it, with advice from the Maine Yardscaping Partnership, which says lawns that have survived 10 years need little or no fertilizer, and then only nitrogen. We fight weeds by applying cornmeal gluten when the forsythias bloom – the timing is critical. The gluten prevents crabgrass and other annual weeds from sprouting, at the same time adding a dose of nitrogen. We hand dig any perennial weeds that bother us, and we let the violets go wild. You will still have a few weeds and occasional bare and brown spots, but only perfect-lawn addicts will notice.

If you are one of that group, if you want a weed-free, super-lush lawn, the kind that looks like a golf course, you will have to use weed killers – but at least avoid the four-step fertilization pushed by lawn-care companies. Apply the fertilizer only in spring and fall, when grass grows actively. And use a weed killer – not a weed-and-feed fertilizer – only when you see the weeds sprouting.

For perennial beds, it is easy to go mostly organic. Once upon a time, roses took a lot of fungicides and pesticides, but these days, you can replace them with newer easy-care roses. Most newer ornamentals are disease-resistant while beer attracts and kills slugs, so you can skip the commercial slug killers. Put a lot of mulch on the garden, which will both control weeds and eventually break down to enrich the soil. Organic fertilizers and compost provide extra food, if needed. Some pests will arrive, but you can handle them with planning. Another idea? Grow your flowers or vegetables in containers; then you can hand-pick insects or cut off leaves that show disease.

Our vegetable garden has been mostly organic for more than two decades – ever since I freaked out and sprayed with Sevin the first year Japanese beetles attacked our raspberries. I managed to save those raspberries, but I didn’t enjoy them. Although the label said it was safe to pick the berries 10 days after spraying, I worried, because raspberries are soft and hard to wash. I just was not comfortable eating them. Now, if we have a bad year with Japanese beetles, I go through the bed and systematically knock them into a can of soapy water to kill them. In the years since my Sevin episode, I have used organic fungicides occasionally and organic insecticides a couple of times, but not often. And in our gardens, we use mostly compost and a bit of organic fertilizer from Fedco in Waterville to feed the plants.

We don’t spend the extra money to buy organic seeds, so the vegetable garden is not fully organic, but we avoid genetically modified seeds. As Yurlina said, it’s a spectrum.

For us, it’s simple. I’m not going to put poisons on anything our grandchildren will eat.