There is something so wonderfully idyllic about a home garden. Gardens are full of new life. They remind me of clean eating and wholesome, homegrown food. They definitely don’t conjure up images of scary chemicals. That being said, there are some really common ways that your little backyard organic garden can become contaminated with chemicals.
1. Spraying Chemical Pesticides/Fungicides/Herbicides
Spraying chemicals onto your garden will introduce chemicals. This one shouldn’t be a big surprise. Spraying your garden with chemicals is a sure-fire way to contaminate your produce. Even if you spray herbicides just to clear the ground prior to planting, trace amounts will remain in the soil and contaminate your food. Your organic garden may also be affected by nearby spraying. Chemicals sprayed on nearby trees, lawns, or neighbours’ gardens can negatively affect your garden.
Spraying chemical pesticides to control pest insects which are attacking plants will also obviously introduce chemicals into your food. These chemicals won’t just wash away with the next rain. When they do wash away, they will flow into the groundwater, contaminating the environment and potentially harming wonderful natural ecosystems.
Spraying chemicals in the garden is simply not worth it. They are an unnecessary health hazard to you, your family, your family’s pets, and beneficial insects. Investigate organic alternatives to your garden problems (such as neem oil or diamatacous earth) rather than starting with chemicals
2. Using Chemical Fertilizer
Chemical fertilizers are another unnecessary input in the garden. Chemical fertilizers, such as Miracle-Gro, are made of synthesized forms of common minerals required for healthy growth of plants. These fertilizers are sold at almost every garden centre and big box store, and are generally labelled with a N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) ratio on the package. The big numbers sound great! The bigger the better eh? The bad news is…chemical fertilizers like Miracle-Gro are not ok in organic gardens. A good tip: if it’s made of blue crystals…it’s probably not natural.
Because these products are in the raw industrial form rather than in a naturally-occuring form, they can deliver many more minerals than organic fertilizers or soil conditioners. This seems like a good thing, except for that it can burn the plants. The minerals also wash out of the soil very quickly, contaminating local groundwater and affecting natural ecosystems.
Choosing an organic fertilizer or plant food such as homemade compost or worm castings is a much smarter choice for the environment. Pre-packaged organic plant fertilizer options that are safe for organic gardening are also available at local garden centres and online. You’ll be reducing environmental degradation in your local watershed and potentially supporting local suppliers. Best of all, your plants will love it, both in the short and long term.
Check out this list of fertilizers which lets you know which are acceptable for organic gardening.
3. Sneaky Potting Soil That Contains Chemical Fertilizer
It is possible to use chemical fertilizer without even knowing it! If you’re not careful, it could sneak in with your bag of potting soil. Check out the label on your potting soil to ensure it hasn’t been “enriched” with “additives” to help plants grow. A giveaway is if the label is advertising benefits such as “bigger vegetables” or “bigger blooms on flowers”. Some potting soils don’t have added chemical fertilizers, and are perfectly fine for organic gardening, but some do have added chemicals.
Potting soil should normally contain a bulk medium such as peat or coconut coir, an air-trapping medium such as perlite or vermiculite, and a pH-balancing agent such as lime. It may also contain compost, composted manure, or worm castings. All of these ingredients would generally be considered safe for organic gardening. Anything else with a dodgy, chemically-sounding name is worth looking up on this list of acceptable organic garden amendments. I now only use OMRI-Listed potting soil which has been certified to be safe for organic use by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Look for the OMRI label on any potting soil you use. I use OMRI-Listed Pro-Mix potting soils:
Stick to sterile potting soil made from natural ingredients like peat moss and perlite. Use worm castings in your seed starting mix, and spread a bit of homemade compost over your garden soil. Don’t mess around with potting soil that contains chemical fertilizer!
4. Contaminated Ground
It is possible for your otherwise organic garden soil to be contaminated even without bringing in chemicals. Generally this occurs long before you purchase the house. Perhaps the existing land was a former gas station? Maybe there was a buried oil tank in the area that is now your garden? The history of your home and the surrounding properties may come with some less-than-organic history.
It could also be that the land was nearby an old roadway. The areas beside old roads can be contaminated with lead (from lead paint and leaded gasolines), as well as petroleum products. Dust in the garden can be a major hazard to gardeners, filling your lungs with tiny lead particles.
Get your soil tested for contamination if you are at all concerned. If the tests come back positive for chemicals, build yourself some raised beds and bring in some new clean soil to work with and grow your vegetables in. Raised beds will make a much better organic garden than trying to salvage the existing soil.
5. Using the Wrong Manure
Now that we’ve talked about synthetic man-made chemicals, you may be thinking..I’ll just use manure! While some kinds of well-composted manure are safe for organic gardening, some are not. In general, well-composted manure from herbivore animals such as rabbit pellets or chicken manure can be considered safe for organic gardening. Manure that is not composted, or is from meat-eating animals, is definitely not a safe addition to your organic garden.
Manure from pets like cats and dogs can be particularly problematic. You’ll want to keep these animals out of your garden area. Toxoplasma gondii is a nasty disease that can be transferred to garden soil from cat poop. If you live in an urban area, there is a pretty good chance that cats are or have been roaming in your yard. Although the virus isn’t a chemical fertilizer, it’s still a source of contamination which could have adverse affects if you don’t take the necessary precautions.
It is good practice to wear gloves when gardening (preferably with the rubber coating), as well as closed-toe shoes or rubber boots. Don’t use your gloved hands to wipe your face Pulling your hair back before you head out to the garden can help keep you from brushing loose hair out of your eyes.
Food from the garden should always be washed prior to eating (especially root crops). Set up a nice garden utility station with clean pairs of gloves, garden rubber boots, and a veggie washing sink. Having a nice clean utility spot will make it much easier to wash off a majority of garden soil before bringing your produce inside to be properly cleaned and prepared.
Going Organic in Your Garden
Now that you’ve read this post, go purge your garden shed of any leftover chemical fertilizers or pesticides/herbacides/fungicides. These chemicals should be safely disposed of at your local disposal centre, transfer station, or recycling depot (check with your municipality). Disposing of them safely will prevent further groundwater contamination. You may also want to consider a soil test, and stock up on rubber-coated garden gloves. Then give your organic garden a nice feeding with some homemade compost!
What is your favourite organic plant food? Let me know in the comments what you like to use as an organic fertilizer or soil amendment!