As we spray, so shall we eat.

Interesting article about a flap in New Zealand related to the discovery of contaminated soils in housing developments that were built on former horticultural sites. The article is instructive for anyone who uses chemicals in their gardens.

“Leach contends that problem is far more widespread. Home gardens all over the country are undoubtedly also contaminated. As you spray, so shall you reap.”

The 1955 Yates garden guide was widely in use by New Zealand home gardeners until the 1970’s, and it contains some alarming recommendations, such as the use of DDT in huge quantities, as well as other extremely poisonous substances such as lead and arsenic. These contaminates break down very slowly and the residues put children, pets, and people with chemical sensitivities at considerable risk.

“Home gardeners have traditionally been some of the worst users of pesticides,” says Meriel Watts, co-ordinator of the Pesticide Action Network. “Because they don’t have training and often don’t know what they’re doing, there’s been a tendency to overuse chemicals.”

“There is a long history of chemicals that have been recommended to us as being perfectly okay to use with no after-effects. And then later we are told they are no longer any good or they have unforeseen health consequences.”

In a word — if you still use chemicals in your garden — DON’T.

Continue reading “As we spray, so shall we eat.”

Duchess grows opium and cannabis

The British government has given an aristocrat permission to grow goodies like cannabis, opium, and magic mushrooms in her public garden.

"…the Poison Garden provides an innovative opportunity for us to deliver, in a relaxed atmosphere, simple information on drugs and drugs issues to a section of the general public that can be hard to reach."

Hard to reach? Who knew that garden enthusiasts, grey-haired old ladies, and tourists in raincoats were missing links in the "war on drugs"?

Cool idea, though.

Link: BBC NEWS | England | Duchess grows opium and cannabis.

More about Alnwick Gardens

A serious matter of pebble theft…

In the absence of a garden of my own, or an overgrown and overpopulated grow room and invading raccoons to blog about (I liquidated and left my favourite orchids in the care of my friend Jocelyn of Beaver Valley Orchids when I left Toronto), I am turning more and more to the British media. The British take their gardening very seriously, and google searches uncover a treasure trove of deliciously eccentric horticultural news.

I don’t think they mean to be, um, eccentric. It’s just that they’re so… earnest. Take this news story:

TV garden makeovers blamed for beach ruin.

Amateur gardeners keen to re-create designs seen on television have been taking pebbles, often by the sack-load, from Chesil Bank, which forms part of the Jurassic Coast world heritage site in Dorset.

Could the heroic Ground Force crew be responsible for this outrage? The cuddly and charming Alan Titmarsh? The delectible russet-haired amazon woman Charlie, who wears tight t-shirts and forgets to wear a bra while she swings a shovel? I quote: “Only in England could hefty shoulders, two visible nipples, a Hampshire burr and a penchant for gardening turn a 33-year-old yokel (“earthy country girl” are the words she prefers) into a household sensation.”

For many years, visitors have taken the odd keepsake from the beach, perhaps an unusually-shaped stone to display on a mantelpiece or to decorate. Recently, however, the odd pebble has turned into tons – taken to create garden features.

In the most extreme cases, pilferers have driven on to the beach at night with tractors and trailers to scoop up pebbles and shingle. Others have used wheelbarrows or sacks.

I admit this is a serious matter. It’s weakening the beach and poses a threat when big storms batter the coast. But I had to giggle when I read this:

In most cases when Mr Moxom and his colleagues (nature reserve wardens) have seen people taking pebbles, they have simply spoken to those involved.

However, in a few cases, offenders have driven off and police have been called in to track them down from their vehicle registrations and retrieve the pebbles.

I’ll bet the cops just love those calls. “Police. Open up. Put the shovel down and back away from the pebbles!!!”.

The Toxic Snowblower

I’m in Collingwood, recuperating from a grueling move out of Toronto at the warm and welcoming home of Lynda. I spent much of the morning laying in a lawn chair, wrapped in a sleeping bag against the slight chill of the air, soaking in the scent of lilacs and apple blossoms and the avian sounds of spring. I pointedly ignored Jake, who kept flipping a Frisbee on my lap and nudging my arm, until he finally gave up and curled peacefully under my chair. It takes 13 years for a border collie to resign himself so quickly.

The property is surrounded by trees, well back from the road and quite protected from noise. The faint roar of industrial machinery did not register over the sound of squabbling birds and neighbour’s riding mower until the noise became quite loud and ominously near. I finally lifted my head to get a better angle on the peek-a-boo view of the orchard, playfully imagining that perhaps a bulldozer was on a collision course with my comfortable position. In a way, it was.

What I saw shocked me. A giant machine, not unlike a snow blower, prowled the aisles of the apple orchard across the lane, pouring some kind of toxic white fog out of a giant curved chute over the tops of the trees. I’m sure Mr. Apple Farmer would insist that this chemical soup spread over dozens and dozens of acres just across the driveway was quite harmless, but, my thoughts went instantly to the local herbalist, who lives safely above the spray on top of the escarpment. She once told me that the cancer rate is extremely high in Beaver Valley residents because of the chemicals used on the orchards. In fact, Laird’s mother, who lived many years in this house, was taken from us far too soon by cancer, just a year and a half ago. As the fog drifted through the trees and settled on the ground, it struck me that this was the air she breathed, and the water she drank from a well dug in this earth.

Angry thoughts flashed through my mind. “How is it that someone can do something like this without warning anyone?”, I raged inwardly. “How is that I am legally protected from having to breathe someone’s cigarette smoke in a restaurant, but not from the spew of tons of chemicals into the air right next to my door?”.

I grabbed my dog and escaped into the relative safety of the house, and spent the rest of that lovely afternoon indoors. I couldn’t help but ponder the irony of a city slicker like me escaping to the idyllic peace and clean living of the country, only to have chemicals unceremoniously dumped on my head. In the midst of that fog, the real price we pay for cheap and unblemished produce became painfully clear.

Organic food has always seemed like a good idea to me, but a very expensive one, and the cheaper option usually ends up in my cart. Well, my close encounter with the toxic snow blower has certainly changed my thinking, bulldozing an abstract concept into painful reality with a thump.

Buy organic. The alternative is far too costly.

Urban agriculture out of control

At a time when urban agriculture is being advocated in North American cities as a path to sustainable living, it’s good to be reminded of the dangers of automatically applying our solutions worldwide with a broad brush dipped in Western values. We can not stand in judgement or hope to be of any assistance to others without a deep understanding and respect for the unique challenges other countries and societies face:

Zimbabwe: Urban Farming Threatens Harare Water Sources:

“Takawira Mubvami, a scientific programme co-ordinator with Municipal Development Programme (MDP) said ….urban agriculture (is) being practised ‘willy-nilly’ causing environmental degradation and pollution. ‘It
is difficult to stop because of urban poverty but as an organisation we are advocating for sustainable urban agriculture policies,’ said Mubvami.

A study by the Environmental and Development Studies (ENDA-Zimbabwe) three years ago also noted that urban agriculture posed a serious threat to the urban environment.

‘All sites (visited areas) had unacceptable levels of erosion. In addition, almost 90 percent of Harare’s farmers use chemical fertilisers and nearly a third of ‘off-plot’ cultivation takes place near streams, swamps – leading to water pollution through runoff and leaching,’ said the study.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a strong advocate of *sustainable* urban agriculture. It’s just good to be reminded of the importance of humility in seeking solutions to a better world.

More on urban agriculture:

RUAF: Resource Centre on Urban Agriculture and Forestry

City Farmer: Canada’s Office of Urban Agriculture

Cities Feeding People Program

It’s all about the dirt…

It’s odd that the following article appeared in today’s Globe & Mail :

Researchers have “analyzed the distribution of soil in the United States and came up with some astounding statistics about the perilous status of the seemingly ubiquitous earths of North America.”

Ok, aside from the obvious question as to how scientists can do research in one country and extrapolate the results to include an entire continent, the timing was interesting. In the past week I’ve been thinking a lot (for no particular reason) about soil, and my belief that 80% of our efforts as gardeners should be focused on improving and preserving the dirt, not the flowers. I’m serious! Most of us put all of our energy into the esthetics and productivity of the things we plant, as though they exist in isolation from the ground they stand on. It’s easy to pour fertilizer on our gardens, to drench them with fungicides and pesticides, to plant modern hybrids and genetically-modified monsters that are resistant to this blight or that bug. But I can’t escape the sinking feeling that the soil itself is a living thing, and we’re killing it. All the chemicals we pour into the ground destroys the micro-organisms and mycorrhizae that are part of the ecology of soil. Without them, the symbiotic relationships that enable plants to recycle and take up nutrients so that they can build up resistance to disease and predators are lost. What’s more, all of our work to keep gardens and lawns tidy starves the soil and its creatures of the very things that feed and sustain them. It’s a vicious circle.

Recently a relative built a new home, and he showed me around the property, looking for advice on landscaping. The top layer of friable soil had been scraped bare by bulldozers, and only the lower layers of infertile clay and sub-soil lay exposed. He had already started plunking trees and plants in the ground here and there, commenting on how costly they were. I hesitated to tell him that he might as well have buried his money in the ground, for all the good it would do. What he really needed was an investment in several truckloads of topsoil. I did suggest that he mix lots and lots of compost in the hole when he planted, and strongly recommended that he and his wife start composting as much as they possibly can. He looked at me like I had two heads — first, it costs money to buy bags of compost (bags?!). Second, compost bins attract skunks. Didn’t I have any better advice than that?

I considered trying to explain myself to a unreceptive audience, and decided it was futile. These were people who thought of gardening as punishment, not pleasure, and they would not take kindly to any suggestion that there was far more to it than they already thought was unmanageable.

Yeah, go ahead and plant another tree (sigh). If in their reluctance to yardwork they stay out of nature’s way, the soil around the house might regenerate on its own in oh, 10 or 20 years.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

John Muir