Saturday, February 23, 2013

Toxic Compost, Manure, and Horse Feed

The magazine, Mother Earth News, more than decorates our well-burdened coffee table, it is a publication read cover to cover by both of us. In it we find things we’d like to do here in our homesteading efforts, updates on solar and other green technologies, tips on plants we could grow, and so on. Recently however, through several consecutive issues have been warnings about toxic effects of compost or manure. This piques our mutual interest because we bring these things here although always with due consideration for our organic principles.

The manure or compost in question is said to destroy the plants it is placed near or on. Gardeners and farmers talk about their plants mysteriously succumbing after applying it. A farmer loses an entire crop, or a home owner finds that their vegetable garden wilts and then dies.

As it turns out, this deadly compost is laced with a herbicide that farmers are using to kill broadleaf plants in their pastures. Clopyralid is one of the names the chemical goes by. Click here to find out how it works its damage. An enormous problem with this particular herbicide is that it persists. After being applied to pasture, it is eaten by cattle or horses. After going through their digestive systems, it is active in the manure. It remains active even after the manure is composted. The stuff doesn’t quit.

In an online article (click here), I learned that "Most herbicides are microbiologically broken down or degraded within a few days or weeks ... in the soil and leave no lasting herbicidal impacts." This is reassuring because of the widespread use of them, but this particular type of herbicide is not the same. According to the same source and others, these substances remain active even after composting.

And now, in addition to being found in manure or compost, yet a new source has emerged. The recent issue of Mother Earth News tells of incidences of plant failures occurring in Vermont, followed by rigorous testing to find the source of the problem. It was traced to Purina horse feed. The horses eat the feed, and their manure, even after composting, still contains the active pesticide.

This is some nasty stuff. I’m sure you can imagine the consequences if it keeps showing up in unexpected places. Even though the manufacturer, Dow Agrosciences (click here for their warnings), specifies to not remove the manure from pasture, this means that eventually no manure can be trusted for use on gardens. And manure has been our most potent and organic source of nutrients for vegetable plants. This herbicide effectively stops the natural cycle of plant to food to compost; a system essential for a healthy garden. Nasty. Very, very nasty. Until this stuff finally gets outlawed, spread the word. -jmm

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gardening is Unnatural

This time of year I can't wait for spring; to get my hands into the dirt, plant some seeds and wait for them to grow. I love this connection with the outdoors, hearing the birds just returned from afar and my face getting nipped by the gentle chill of a spring breeze and feeling like i'm doing something productive. Isn’t this pretty much as close to nature as things can get?

But, really. Is it?

Growing food seems like it would be an act of nature. But would the plants survive and be productive on their own? For some of them, definitely not. Tomatoes, peppers, and beans perish in a frost. Others whose seeds may survive our winter, like squash and peas will not have the good sense to space themselves apart in neat, even rows for the fruits to be predictably harvested. The pole beans will not supply themselves with sticks so they can grow upward toward the sun. None of them can pick up a shovel to toss on some compost for needed nutrients throughout the season. And without compost or nutrients they will be stunted and unlikely to produce, shirking from a genetic disposition to be fruitful.

Growing vegetables first required clearing the land of what was here before. Here, was forest. Trees of all sizes sending their roots for long distances, traveling under or deep into sand and occasional pockets of clay. This sand and clay heavily encumbered with stones, rocks, boulders and even ledge. Trees had to be felled, stumps yanked, followed by years of degrees of tillage- because the ground is reluctant to make this change- and adding yards of organic matter. Not to mention frequent monitoring of soil ph and nutrients because these, too, are not the same as for the forest.

And if we turn our backs on this garden, on all of this work, forest will soon re-install itself. From acorns to seedlings to saplings the trees will grow and the ground will return to its original ph and its resistance to tillage. And the trees will then sustain themselves on their own, without us.

We process nature to make of it something it would not be. What other creature in the animal kingdom does this stuff?  What creature removes its original habitat and digs and weeds and cultivates beds of soil? I think we are alone in this.

Growing things in neat, even rows is not natural. Nor is isolating a plant to a row all to itself. In nature, plants mingle, seeming to thrive on diversity. A prairie is an example. There are grasses, wildflowers, clovers, and other plants all mixed together, roots entwined and stems supporting each other. We cannot eat prairie. And there’s little in the forest we can eat (pine nuts, for one thing are lovely for making pesto if we can find any left behind by the squirrels).

The garden must be tended. Planting, weeding, soil testing and adding nutrients, mulching, harvesting, cleaning up in fall, the work goes on. Is this nature? Isn't nature something that is self sustaining? Gardening is an invention of humans and an artifice. It’s unnatural.

I'll do it anyway. Because I love being outdoors, and feeling the good energy of hard work, and hearing the birds. I love the feel of the soil that's built up humus over the years and seeing new seedlings popping up through it. Spring is coming and I’m looking forward to gardening. We have our forest for its trees, and our tilled soil for our food supply. Unnatural as it seems, it’s the work we do to raise our food. -jmm