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Going Organic in the Yard

annie spiegelman

More and more home gardeners are growing their own food this year. Plant nurseries and seed companies showed sales of vegetable seedlings and fruit trees on the rise this spring. For the most part, more garden geeks is fantastic news.

But here’s my dilemma: Are these new home gardeners going to be hoodwinked into contaminating their entire ZIP code by overfeeding their crops with synthetic fertilizers and foolishly spraying chemical pesticides each time they see a fly go by? Or will they smarten up and go organic?

If these newbie gardeners are not going to grow food organically, frankly I’d rather they choose a different hobby. Maybe knitting.  Or Hacky Sack.

As a master gardener, garden author, dirt diva, mom and a relentlessly annoyed ex-New Yorker, I’m saying it straight up: If you’re not going organic in your backyard, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Here’s a little ecological update to get you up to speed. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’re a bunch of iPhone-toting treehuggers, every single creek is contaminated with high levels of pesticides including diazinon, a chemical that was banned nearly 10 years ago because of its toxicity to mammals.

We all blame the farmers and industry for polluting our soil, air and water — and they all do contribute to our pollution mess — but you may be shocked to learn that home gardeners are using three to six times more pesticide per acre than the average farmer. There are more than 20,000 pesticide products now marketed in the United States.

Other than shoes, who needs 20,000 of anything?

Agricultural chemicals in the water

An article in Science Daily in March reported on a new study. Research conducted by biologists at the University of California, Berkeley found that atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, emasculates three-quarters of adult male frogs and turns one in 10 into female frogs. “More and more research is showing that atrazine interferes with endocrine hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone in fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, laboratory rodents and even human cell lines at levels of part per billion,” according to the March 1 article in Science Daily summarizing their findings. Atrazine is banned in Switzerland, ironically, the country where the product is made and sold by Syngenta, the largest agrichemical corporation in the world. According to the U.S. Geographical Survey, roughly 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of groundwater samples contain atrazine.

Chemicals like atrazine aren’t just making their way into our water supply; they’re in our bodies. A study conducted by Environmental Working Group in 2006 studied the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies in the womb and found each had close to 300 chemicals already in them before they were born. In other words, we’re birthing pre-polluted babies. “If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine.

The thing is, it really, truly doesn’t have to be this way.

In her timely and enlightening new book, “Organic Manifesto,” author, farmer and CEO of Rodale Inc., Maria Rodale, writes of the “Farming System Trial” that her father, Robert Rodale began in 1990. It’s now the longest running scientific study comparing synthetic-chemical to organic agriculture. The trial clearly shows that organic farming is not only more productive than chemical farming, especially during times of flood or drought, but that soil farmed organically is a key component to solving our climate crisis. When we add layers of compost to our soil it feeds the millions of microorganisms who party like rock stars in healthy soil. Some of these organisms, such as  Mycorrhizal fungi grow at the roots of plants and store carbon. A lot of carbon. These miraculous fungi build our soil and sequester excess carbon underground. Many such beneficial microbes no longer exist in conventional farmed soil because chemical fertilizers and herbicides eradicate them.

The organic mantra: compost, compost, compost

New garden geeks, your mantra should be, “Compost! Compost! COMPOST!

Just what is compost? Black gold made from recycling food scraps and yard waste. Compost will slowly feed your plants while helping your soil retain water (a must for gardeners in the drought-prone western U.S.). Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to your yard once in spring and again in  fall will keep the happy microbes and earthworms busy underground, breaking down its organic material into nutrients that will nourish your plants for months.

Gardeners can make their own compost (and earn a gold star from me) or buy it from a local garden center. In some forward-thinking towns, the local recycling or refuse center will sell compost inexpensively as a way to keep yard clippings out of the landfill. Win-win! Less landfill in your community, free fertilizer for your yard and healthier plants that won’t attract so many pests. Bring it on!

I was raised and hardened in New York City and thought that flowers came from the florist and that produce just appeared in the supermarket when you were hungry. If I now can grow plants, fruits and vegetables in a sustainable and safe way, anyone, and I mean anyone can. Mother Earth urgently needs more compost queens and dirt divas speaking out for the earthworms and the soil; so put on that hideous garden hat, grab that old shovel and go get dirty.


Annie Spiegelman is a master gardener, columnist, green blogger for the Huffington Post and author of the book, “Talking Dirt,”Growing Seasons” and “Annie’s Garden Journal.”

Photo credit: Bill Buzbuzian