Category Archives: Food Security

Why I don’t use compost from the city in my vegetable garden.

Here's what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants.

Here’s what hidden pesticides in city compost can do to your tomato plants. Why risk it?

I was recently copied on an email to a community garden regarding the safety of city compost. The email pretty much said “Don’t worry, the city says that the compost is OMRI (the Organic Review Materials Institute) approved, therefore it’s safe.”

But it turns out that OMRI doesn’t require testing for herbicides or pesticides! So you could have city compost with nasty stuff in it, even though it has passed all OMRI requirements.

And this isn’t hypothetical problem: a quick search of the internet turns up a number of incidents where nasty persistent chemicals, both pesticides and herbicides, have been found in city compost and have caused big problems for backyard gardeners. Persistent chemicals are ones that survive the composting process and remain in the soil for years.

I found a very relevant article on the topic that shares important information and perspective:
http://ecologycenter.org/terrainmagazine/spring-2010/compost-confidential/

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that city compost contains these products. Practically every garden store has a full assortment of herbicides and pesticides, and people buy them and use them. Even if vegetable gardeners are less likely to use them, you’ve got the lawn industry, which is probably 100 to 1000 times larger than the vegetable gardening industry.

All of this yard waste, and the chemical residue on them, go into the collection bin, which goes into the shared city compost. Many of these chemicals are not broken down by the composting process, and they can go on to cause terrible problems for the vegetable gardener.

It’s critical to understand, as well, that OMRI doesn’t require testing for pesticides:

The nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute, which reviews organic inputs, requires approved composts to be tested for heavy metals and pathogens every five years. The US Composting Council operates a voluntary accreditation program in which the largest participants must submit to similar metals and pathogen tests once a month. Neither program requires testing for pesticide residues.

So unless we see 3rd party tests on Recology compost for persistent herbicides and pesticides, that show at what ppb (parts per billion) they were detected, then we have to assume they’re present and that they could cause a problem. I imagine that there is a standard ppb threshold at which the presence of a pesticide becomes a concern.

This is NOT a hypothetical concern! From Mother Jones:

Composting Council executive director Stuart Buckner believes that the EPA still hasn’t learned its lesson from the early aughts, when the herbicide Clopyralid was banned for lawn use after turning up in damaging levels in compost.

Here’s a study of what Clopyralid does to plants:
http://ohioline.osu.edu/aex-fact/0714.html

pesticide clopyralid 3 pics

To me it’s just common sense: given where the raw materials comes from, I assume that city compost contains harmful pesticides and herbicides, unless proven otherwise. Why take the very real risk on city compost, when you can make your own compost from known good materials?

Calorie Crops Matter: Why I Grow Potatoes and Grains

Sorghum, not quite ready yet

Sorghum, not quite ready yet

One of driving themes behind my growing activities is exploring what it takes to actually grow a diet. In other words, if I wanted to grow enough calories to keep my family feeling good, what would it take? Although this may seem like a somewhat trivial distinction, it’s not. The crops that are most commonly grown by backyard gardeners around here are also crops that don’t deliver many calories. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce are satisfying crops to grow, but they won’t keep meat on your bones. The water content is too high. Sorry.

What I’m finding as I do the math on calories, look at crop storage and calorie density, and grow a variety of diet crops, is that I am starting to understand why ancient cultures grew what they did. I am seeing potatoes, wheat, quinoa, sorghum as amazing crops, and understanding why they have historically mattered so much to society in the old days. Or for that matter now, depending on where you live and what your situation is.

potatoes 2014 late fall 20141106_131001I see a big gap in our local backyard crop selections whereby the critical “backbone” crops of any real diet just aren’t getting grown. I think it’s fantastic that there are some people growing *something*, even if it’s just tomatoes, because there are a lot of transferable skills. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow potatoes.

But coming from a food security frame of mind, it’s important that we have hands-on experience in growing the calorie crops, too. And as well it’s important that you develop our own local varieties of calorie crops that will thrive right here in our backyards. So along those lines I put an emphasis on potatoes and grains, because they are very strategic to local food security.

Grains are easier than you think

A nice thing about growing grains is that it’s very easy to save the seed. Basically at harvest time you just set some aside. (Granted, you still have to be careful about varieties crossing while growing.) Another benefit is that grains generate a tremendous amount of seed. My 300 square feet could produce enough quinoa seed to plant out several acres, possibly even dozens of acres. And then grains can be stored for a very long time if done properly. I hear that ancient stashes of wheat have been found hidden in cliffs in the Grand Canyon, and that it was still in good condition! Plus grains are very dense calorically, in terms of calories per pound, and so they have great value in tough times.

Potato Seeds, not Seed Potatoes

First TPS (true potato seed) berry! Blue victor. Lots of tiny seeds in here. Yes, potatoes can be grown from seeds.

A potato fruit containing potato seeds.

Have you heard of TPS, or true potato seed? Basically some potatoes will produce a small fruit that contains seeds. And if you plant those seeds, some of them will germinate and grow into potato plants. It’s not as easy as growing from seed potatoes, which are just old potatoes, but it can be done. I grew three varieties last year, and had one of them give me fruit. Of course I also got a number of tubers.

For people who are into having a seed collection that they can readily put in a backpack and walk away with, TPS opens up a world of new possibilities. Nobody wants to lug around a sack of potatoes, and yet everyone appreciates the caloric potential. Growing potato from seed gives you portability. In addition, there are opportunities to breed new vibrant varieties of potatoes adapted to a specific growing location.

A good man named Curzio in Wisconsin is a big champion of TPS, and I was able to buy some seeds from him through the seed saver exchange. His website has a lot of good resources, and a link to a closed Facebook group you can join if you are actively growing TPS.

To close I have to say that freshly dug potatoes really do taste great–better than anything I can buy at the supermarket. Potatoes are an easy and surprisingly fast crop to grow, and are worth it.