Difference Between Organic and Non-Organic Herbs
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Erick
Posted on: April 14, 2004

What is the difference between organic and non-organic when it comes to the quality and the fragrance of the herb?

Avoiding chemicals that are harmful to humans, animals and the environment is probably the most popular reason for preferring organic over non-organic or conventionally-grown foods, including herbs.

Many people also find that the quality of organic produce is better. Organic produce may not necessarily be better looking or as big and lush as non-organic, but believers in organics will swear that taste and nutrition are superior. For many, those are the qualities that are more important than size and visual appeal.

With aromatic herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme, it is a well known fact that excessive fertilizers can cause them to grow bigger and greener but also less fragrant with less flavour. It seems counter-intuitive, but these herbs actually are stronger flavoured when they have little or no added fertilizer in the garden. Some herbs can grow in the most surprising circumstances such as on gravel or sand and still produce intensely fragrant foliage.

It is not so much whether the fertilizer is organic or non-organic: it is more of an issue of how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium the herbs are getting, whatever the source. Too much organic fertilizer will cause herbs to grow big and lush and less fragrant just as likely as too much chemical fertilizer will. However proponents of organic methods take a more holistic view of soil health and plant nutrition so that there is less emphasis, and even less chance of, the kind of heavy feeding that plants are exposed to when chemical fertilizers are used.

Studies have shown that aromatic herbs grown on poorer soils in full sun kept a bit on the dry side will have more oil glands by weight than herbs fed a steady diet of high nitrogen fertilizers and water. They won’t produce as much bulk herb, either fresh or dried, as those on the richer diet, but experienced herb lovers know that the increased quality more than makes up for the decreased yield. More oil glands means more aroma and more flavour.

Our own experiences confirm all of the above, especially when herbs are grown outside in the garden. We do not feed our herbs growing in the garden or fields and we always get great herbs. But in containers such as pots or window boxes we find that the story is different. The roots are not able to penetrate as large a volume of soil as they do in the garden. This means that container herbs often do not get enough of the major nutrients needed to withstand regular cutting and so they need regular supplementary feeding. An organic liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion applied every two weeks during the spring, summer and fall months when plants are actively growing works well for most aromatic herbs.

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