What is ‘Safe’ Compost?

A few weeks back I did a short presentation in Pine City, Minn., on how to build good, healthy soil, and a woman in the audience asked: “How do I know if the compost I’m using is safe?”

I’ve been wondering that same thing, I told her, explaining that I’ve been researching the topic so I have some answers, but many more questions, too. This prompted more people to weigh in on the subject, asking: Was it important to use organic compost, especially when growing edibles? How do you know that even organic compost is safe?

Courtesy of Kabsik Park, Creative Commons

Does composted manure from conventional farmers contain pesticide and herbicide residue that could cause problems in their gardens? Should you have compost tested to find out what’s in it before you use it on food crops and, if so, where? And what about GMOs? Is it safe to use composted manure produced on conventional farms on which cows eat things like Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa?

Complex questions like these are difficult to answer definitively for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, there aren’t many studies, if any, on a particular topic. Or maybe there are numerous seemingly reputable studies, but many of them conflict with one another. For example, as a journalist who interviews people for a living, I can tell you that for every scientist I’ve talked to who dismisses the French study that came out last year linking a genetically-modified strain of maize to huge tumors in rats, I’ve got another scientist saying the study should be given serious consideration.

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Peat-Free Potting Soil Options

Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.

This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.

I grow all of my veggies and ornamentals without using peat moss.


In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.

Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.

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Grow the Good Life

I read a lot of gardening books, and though most have something to offer, many just cover the same old ground in one way or another. So I was happy to find a copy of Michele Owens’ book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Wealthy, and Wise, at the library recently. It was a rainy, cold weekend and I’d heard good things about the book, so I planned on curling up on the couch with it, and a couple of others I picked out. As it turned out, those other books just lay there unopened on the coffee table because I couldn’t put Owens’ book down until I finished it.

If you’re not familiar with Michele Owens’ garden writing for Organic Gardening and other magazines, you can get a good understanding of who she is and what she believes in by checking out her blog posts on Garden Rant, which she founded a few years back with a handful of similarly smart, funny and straight-talking garden writers. As a former political speech writer and author of several best-selling business books, Owens is keenly aware of the need to do her research before writing and throughout the book she cites the work of many horticulturists, ecologists, microbiologists and others. But all these facts do not a snoozy tome make because she is adept at interweaving studies, facts and figures with her own passionate commentary as an experienced gardener who loves plants, nature and growing vegetables.

Salad greens growing in our backyard last summer.

Because she’s married to a journalist who covers climate change, Owens gets a dinnertime update on just how much stress our warming world is putting on agriculture all over the world. This understanding, coupled with a love of good, healthy food, drives her to motivate people, everyone, not just gardeners, to grow at least some food in their own backyards. Sure, that will help relieve some pressure on the world’s food supply, she writes. But growing things to eat is also just a joyful, uplifting thing to do; just ask anyone who has ever grown even one tomato plant in a pot on a balcony or back patio. There really is nothing like being able to walk outside and pick something you’ve grown yourself and pop it in your mouth, or serve it up for dinner.

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Safer Lawn Care Options Are On the Way

We ripped out our lawn over the last few years, and we don’t miss it one bit. Sparse and full of creeping Charlie and other weeds, it was ugly even before our dog Lily peed all over it and killed off spots one by one. I do realize, though, that a lot of people like turf grass and, even if they don’t, they’re not keen on ripping all of it up to put in gardens that they have to care for.

But what to do about all of those weeds? The truth is, if grass gets enough sun and is kept well-watered (about an inch each week); mowed to a slightly higher height of about 3 inches, which helps shade out weeds; and fertilized even once each year, it will grow fairly well and suffer few weed and disease problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the difference these simple things can make, so they hire lawn care services to come and keep their yards looking good.

Having observed these services in action all over my neighborhood, I have to say, the results aren’t so hot. Trucks show up, guys jump out, and they promptly mow the grass right down to the nub. Then, they douse the scalped grass with all kinds of chemicals, including herbicides that usually contain 2,4-D. Popular because it’s cheap and easy to use, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II. It was one of the components of Agent Orange. And it is effective when it comes to killing things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie, but it has remained controversial since it was released for public use in 1946.

Though the EPA says there is not enough data to conclude that the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.)

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Use Your Fall Leaves To Help Build Healthy Soil

We have two big, old oak trees in our yard and every fall, up until a few years ago, we would  spend our October and early November weekends raking and bagging and raking and bagging until our hands blistered. Then, we would drag all those bags, bursting with leaves, to the curb to be hauled away. Every now and then, I noticed that someone would pull over, load our bags of leaves into their car and drive off. Why in the world would they want our leaves? I wondered. I soon found out.

For gardeners, or anyone with a lawn, really, fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, soil-building treasure—and they’re free! According to Mark Keaton, staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, fallen leaves contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients trees extract from the soil during a growing season. They’re a particularly good source of nitrogen, offering anywhere from 1 to about 2 ½ percent nitrogen as they decompose.

What in the heck does that mean? Okay, figure that if a tree’s leaves offered 2 percent nitrogen it would take 100 pounds of dried leaves per 1,000 square feet to provide 2 pounds of nitrogen.That’s all the nitrogen 1,000 square feet of turf grass should need for a year, and it’s also about the right amount for a garden bed of that size, too.

But that’s not all. Research conducted by Alexander Kowalewski at Michigan State University has shown that using maple and oak leaves as mulch can help control dandelions in Kentucky bluegrass. Seriously! Go here to read that study. Unlike past studies in which leaves may have contained some pesticide residues, researchers at Michigan State used only pesticide-free leaves in their tests. And that reminds me to point out that it’s a good idea to avoid using anything but pesticide-free leaf mulch on gardens where edibles are grown.


The only hitch in this free fertilizer, and possibly weed killer, bonanza is that you need to mulch (which pretty much means shred) the leaves before you spread them on your lawn or garden. Whole leaves tend to mat down and hold moisture, causing mold and rot issues. Maple leaves are among the worst offenders because they’re so flat. Oak leaves are wavier, so they don’t mat down as thickly, which is good. But it’s still better to mulch all of the leaves you want to spread on your lawn or garden. Leaves break down faster when they’re mulched into small pieces, and they need to break down in order to make the nitrogen they offer available in the soil.

You don’t need any sort of fancy machine to mulch leaves. A regular old, cheap lawnmower will do just fine. You can watch this video we made at our house to demonstrate how to mulch leaves with a mower. Or you can just read the instructions I’ve written in the post below.

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A Clarification on My Scotts Miracle-Gro Post

I’ve been out of town on vacation, so I’m behind on posting. I’m working on something that should be up later today or early tomorrow. But, first, I need to apologize for making an error in my recent post about Scotts. In that post, which you can read here if you missed it, I talked about how the company pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges that they had used insecticides known to be toxic to birds, fish and other wildlife on two brands of bird seed they were selling. They did this to help protect the seed from pests during storage. The products have been recalled, but not before more than 70 million units were sold over two years.

Credit: Free Nature Pictures

In my post I explained what happened and how Scotts ended up pleading guilty and being fined. But I got one part wrong, which someone from Scotts pointed out to me, so I am correcting my mistake, which I should. I wrote that Scotts tried to cover up the fact that they had coated the seeds with toxic insecticides by falsifying EPA documents. This is not correct. The company’s falsification of government documents was actually part of a separate legal issue going on at the same time involving Scotts illegal sale of pesticides that were not registered with the EPA.

I confused the two issues when researching my column and thought the fabricated paperwork had to to with the bird seed. I do apologize for that mistake. I know how important it is to get your facts straight on these things. I also know it’s easy to glaze over and tune out when talking about legal stuff. But these issues with Scotts are serious and the company’s products are everywhere. As gardeners, we need to stay informed so we can make safe, healthy choices about the products we buy and use in our homes and gardens.

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Worm Bin Update: Time to Harvest Some Castings

It’s been awhile since I posted anything about my ongoing experience with having a worm bin in the house, so I thought I’d offer an update for those who are interested in such things. If you’d rather do just about anything than read about worms, how about checking out Paige Johnson’s wonderful Garden History Girl blog. Paige has a master’s degree in garden history and her blog is well- researched and packed with great historical photos and illustrations. I’m looking forward to interviewing her soon for a future post.

Next time, I’ll harvest worm poo outside.

Okay, for those who are still with me, let’s talk worms. I started a worm bin back in late February. I went the less expensive route with one of those large plastic storage totes from Target. But after a few months, I opted to move all those little red wigglers into a new condo-style bin with trays. I was warned by more than one experienced vermicomposter that the tray systems can be a hassle, and they advised me to hang on to my big, cumbersome tote. I stowed it away in the garage, but I’m not going to go back to it.

I like my stackable Worm Factory 360 because I can see the worms much more easily when they’re eating the food scraps that I add to the top tray every other day. For instance, I now know that they really like banana peels, coffee grounds and orange pepper bits. But they aren’t as keen on kale, tomato chunks or onion skins. I wouldn’t know these things if I were still using the tote, which was so deep, it was hard to see the worms much at all. For me, being able to actually watch the worms in action as they eat, mate, lay eggs and just crawl around makes having a worm bin in my dining room worth it. (The basement’s too far away and there’s no room in the kitchen. I swear we have no issues with fruit flies or smells!)

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Scotts, the Maker of Miracle-Gro, Behaves Shittily—Again

**NOTE**A correction to this piece was made in my October 2, 2012 post.

You might recall that earlier this year Scotts Miracle-Gro pled guilty to charges that they had illegally used insecticides known to be toxic to birds and wildlife in two brands of bird seed: “Country Pride” and “Morning Song.” According to prosecutors, the Ohio-based company knowingly coated the seed with these insecticides because they wanted to protect it from insects pests during storage.

Prothonotary Warbler
Credit: Juan Pons

Millions of bags of toxic seed were manufactured and sold over two years. And even warnings about the toxicity of the pesticides from two of the company’s own employees did not stop them from selling it. The products were recalled in spring of 2008 and, eventually, Scotts was fined $4.5 million.

This incident certainly isn’t the first time Scotts has behaved in a manner that has surely earned its executives a nice, toasty seat in hell. But it’s a good one to call out when talking about the company’s history of asshattery, including making it nearly impossible to buy a freakin’ bag of soil that doesn’t include its products. What are they up to now? you ask.

Check out this post by Amy Stewart on Garden Rant: “Dear Scotts: Just Try, One Time, Not to be So Shitty.” It’s about how Scotts’ lawyers nabbed and quickly trademarked a phrase that garden writer C.L. Folinari came up with as part of a goodhearted campaign to get people excited about gardening and growing different types of plants.

Oh, and Scotts also went public in June about their $200,000 donation to Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supports Mitt Romney. The donation made Scotts one of the first public companies with a well-known brand to contribute directly to an election campaign following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on campaign funding.

Scotts has made its corporate character very clear. It’s up to gardeners like us to do the same.


The Lasagna Method: Get Rid of Weeds and Sod the Easy Way

If I could somehow go back in time and give my new-gardener self just one piece of advice, it would be this: Use the lasagna method when starting a new garden bed. Of all the tough gardening chores, removing old weed-infested sod (or any sod, really) rates right up at the top of the This-Really-Bites list. Oh, how I wish I had known that I could just smother stuff rather than wrestle it out of the ground—the sheer force propelling me off to the chiropractor to fix my aching back once again.

There is no such thing as maintenance-free gardening. But gardening doesn’t have to be on a mission to kill you either. This is the beauty of the lasagna method. The goal is to keep light and, to some extent, air and water, from reaching the weeds and turf. There are no exact rules for this process, so I’ll explain what I do and you can modify the strategy as you see fit.

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Is Aquaponics the Way We’ll Farm In the Future?

Aquaponics has been on my “Must Learn More About This” list for a long while. So when I found out Garden Fresh Farms in nearby Maplewood was giving free tours of their aquaponics facility, I signed right up to go. The tour was scheduled for the middle of a week day and Maplewood is a pretty long drive out of the Twin Cities, so I didn’t expect much of a crowd. Whew! I was so wrong.

All of the tour dates booked up fast and when we arrived, the back room of the building where the tour started was already bustling with people eating cookies and waiting to head inside. If you don’t know much about aquaponics, no worry. I’ll do my best to explain, albeit simply because goodness known I am no expert on this.

Essentially, plants are grown in water rather than soil. Lights do the work of the sun, and fertilizer is provided by fish in the water (tilapia and trout in this case) who generously contribute their nutrient-rich poo. In turn, the plants’ roots help filter the water for the fish.

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