Shameless Self Promotion, With Kitten

We’ve heard from several people that Making It is an excellent sleep aid.

Just a reminder that our two books, Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World and The Urban Homestead make great holiday gifts. There’s also a Kindle edition of both Making It and
The Urban Homestead if you’re e-inclined.

Even if you just click through our Amazon bookstore (on the right column) and don’t buy any of our books, we get a cut of any subsequent Amazon purchases you do make. Really! Strange but true. All proceeds go towards kibble and cat litter.

Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.”  The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!

Solanum nigrum

To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.

Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!

The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of  intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids.  Jennifer M. Edmonds and  James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,

. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums. 

The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.

A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.

The Secret to Barefoot Running

Born to Run author Christopher McDougall had a provocative piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “The Once and Future Way to Run” about a simple 19th century technique for teaching good running form. The “100-up” drill McDougall describes forces a runner to land on the ball of the foot rather than the heel. Even though I’ve switched to barefoot running I still heel strike occasionally, a habit caused by a lifetime of wearing cushy shoes. I’m gong to make this drill a regular part of my fitness program. 

The article also takes a jab at Rodale’s Runner’s World magazine which, apparently, hasn’t ever seen a shoe it didn’t like. Multi-million dollar advertising contracts with shoe companies just might be the reason why. This is a common ethical lapse in fitness journalism. A local free running rag I picked up had a cover story on barefoot running which was all about . . . minimalist shoes! In two years of running with no shoes at all (i.e. barefoot) I have yet to get even a scratch.

Click on the article link above to see a helpful video showing the 100-up drill.

Too Much Phosphate

Symptoms of chlorosis. Image from the Washington State University

Our possible backyard lead situation is a good reason to get a soil test, but if that didn’t convince you the Garden Professors at Washington State University just blogged about another important motivation: the bad effects of too much phosphate.

An overabundance of phosphate can interfere with a plant’s ability to uptake iron resulting in interveinal chlorosis, a yellowing of the leaves between the veins. So adding fertilizer that contains phosphate to soil that doesn’t need it is a waste of money, damages the environment and can kill your plants. Of all the soils I’ve tested in Los Angeles, all are already high in phosphate, meaning that most fertilizers, both organic and chemical are both unnecessary and potentially toxic to plants.

As the Garden Professors also note in another post, it can be very difficult to diagnose problems just with visual cues. Chlorosis, for instance, can also be caused by other factors.  As Garden Professor Linda Chalker-Scott puts it, “You can’t fly by the seat of your pants on this one, folks.” While I’m probably a bigger proponent of intuition and “woo-woo” than Chalker-Scott, I think it’s a good idea to balance our left and right brains. No reason you can’t get a soil test and talk to those plant Devas.

Weekend Movie Recommendation: Buck

Even if you’re not owned by a horse, there’s a lot to learn from an extraordinary movie called Buck. The subject of this documentary, “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman, crisscrosses the country teaching a method of horse training (or is it people training?) that can be applied to any animal. The results are amazing–a dance between man and horse.

Brannaman’s techniques embody a stoic calm and sensitivity born out of a miserable childhood. As a survivor of abuse, he’s very in tune with the nature and effects of fear. He teaches that the relationship we have with our animals is much more about our own baggage than what’s going on with the animal. As he puts it, “Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will.”

This is a beautifully shot and edited documentary, thought provoking and very much worth watching. Good news: if you have Netflix, it’s a available for instant viewing.

What We’re Going To Do About That Lead

White sage, yarrow, rosemary and aloe vera–the kind of plants we’ll be planting more of.

Let’s assume that we have a lead problem in our backyard. That’s a big assumption at this point because we now have two very conflicting test results. But, for the sake of an argument, let’s say the first alarming test is true, what are we going to do about it?

These are the options:
  • Radical remediation: Remove all the soil in the yard and replace with new soil.
  • Cover the contaminated soil so that it doesn’t give off dust, and so people can’t come in direct contact with it, e.g. lay sod, cover the yard with concrete or decking, or lay down a thick layer of mulch.
  • Grow ornamental plants only
  • Grow all food in raised beds
  • Attempt phytoremediation (grow plants that uptake lead, pull them and send them to the dump)
  • Move

It turns out we were already doing some of these things, so we’re just going to keep on going as we were with a few changes. Our yard has always been covered in a thick layer of mulch and we do most of our growing in raised beds. We will stop growing edibles directly in the ground. We’d already planned to redesign the yard to include lots more native and Mediterranean flowering plants. These we can’t eat, but will secure the soil and provide food and shelter for lots of beneficial insects who will aid our food crops. We’re really happy that we’ve always mulched, because it has helped keep the (potentially) contaminated soil in place and has increased bio-activity as the mulch decomposes.

This raised be would have to be raised higher.

Most plants don’t take up much lead, it turns out. Our soil phosphate levels are high and the pH is moderate, two factors that further decrease the ability of plants to access lead. The main health concern comes from directly ingesting dirt, and that can be avoided by washing and peeling vegetables and fruits. The recommended wash for lead is a splash of vinegar in water (1 tsp per 1 1/2 qts water).
I’d be more concerned if we had kids and they played in the backyard. Little kids, of course, are most at risk because they tend to ingest dirt during play. If it turns out there is a lead problem at our house, I plan on knocking on the doors of my neighbors with kids, warning them about what I’ve found and offer to help them do a lead test. In our public speaking and teaching we emphasize the importance of getting a soil test and we’ll keep doing this.
Phytoremediation, the process of growing plants that concentrate lead, pulling them up every year and disposing of them holds a lot of promise. Unfortunately I don’t see how it would be practical in a residential situation. If the contamination is widespread I’d have to remove every plant and tree and grow nothing but, let’s say, sunflowers, for perhaps several decades. (Sunflowers pull up lots of lead.) In short, phytoremdiation is an intense, long term process.
I think the most important thing we can do is spread the message that soil is a sacred resource–something that we should not foul up in the first place. More and more we’re coming to realize that soil is everything–our future and our well being is inextricably tied to its health. We know how to treat it right. We’re just not doing it. We know what toxins are, and we’ve know it for a long time. For instance, lead has been known to be a problem for thousand of years. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter dated July 31, 1786, comments on lead poisonings caused by contaminated rum, and the lack of concern about this problem: “You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on.”  
You said it, Ben.

Get a Soil Test!

Regular readers have probably already got this message, but right now we can’t repeat it enough. If there’s a lesson with our backyard lead scare , it’s to practice due diligence when beginning a garden –or better yet, when you buy property–and that means getting a soil test from a soil lab. They’re not that expensive, especially when you consider the high cost of remediation, and the well being of your self and your family.

Test soil for both nutrients and heavy metals when:

  • Buying a house or land
  • Starting to grow food in your yard  
  • Are growing food and have never tested
  • Starting a plot in a community garden or a school garden
  • Buying soil in bulk

Property does not have to be on the former site of gas station to be suspect. Lead contamination comes not only from lead paint on older houses, but was also deposited all over urban centers and near busy roads via a constant rain of fine particulates from auto emissions.

    It really is a shame that lead testing is not a standard part of the inspection phase of home-buying, especially as this is a pervasive problem in urban areas.

    Do companies that sell bulk soil test that soil for lead? A few phone calls Darren Butler made to local companies indicate that they don’t. So let the buyer beware here too. Wondering about bagged soils? Susan Carpenter, at the LA Times, tested a bunch and found no problems.  She did find a possible lead link to fish fertilizer, however.

    We’ve used all three of these services. UMass is the cheapest by far, but gives the least analysis. However, if you just want your lead level numbers, that’s not a problem.

    Wallace Laboratories
    UMass Soil Testing Service
    Timberleaf Soil Testing

    In our next lead post we’ll let you know what our plan is. And we know there’s interest in all this, so over the week we’ll talk about remediation, raised beds, what’s dangerous, what’s edible, and more. Fun for all, guaranteed!

    Lead Update

    This week I thought I’d do a series of posts about soil and heavy metals beginning with a few more details about the possible lead contamination situation in our backyard.

    Two weeks ago Darren Butler, who is teaching a vegetable gardening series at our house, led a class project where we took four samples from different locations in the backyard, mixed them together and sent them off to Wallace Laboratories, a local soil testing lab with an international reputation. The results came back showing plant available lead levels at 112 parts per million. Note that “plant available” is different than the total amount of lead in the soil. The total amount would be about ten times higher or 1,120 ppm. According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service,

    Generally, it has been considered safe to use garden produce grown in soils with total lead levels less than 300 ppm. The risk of lead poisoning through the food chain increases as the soil lead level rises above this concentration. Even at soil levels above 300 ppm, most of the risk is from lead contaminated soil or dust deposits on the plants rather than from uptake of lead by the plant.

    If the Wallace Labs report is correct, we’ve got a serious problem. It is possible that, in sampling and averaging multiple locations, we hit a “hot” spot where someone may have dumped paint or paint chips. Clearly, we’ll have to set up a grid of tests to see if the problem is isolated.

    I re-did the first test, trying as best I could to take samples from the same locations and sent this second test off to the less expensive UMass soil testing service. The results came back with substantially lower lead levels: 220 ppm, in the “low” range according to most experts, but still higher than I would like. Except for the soil pH, all the other numbers were completely different.

    The next step will be to test the testing services. I’m going to take one sample and split it into three parts, sending one to Wallace, another to UMass and the third to Timberleaf Soil Testing. I hope that two of the testing services agree on something!

    In subsequent posts I’m going to discuss what we’re going to do, phytoremediation (spoiler alert: I don’t think it’s practical in residential situations), and my issues with the real estate industry.

    This week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is promoting their National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Especially if you have kids, get your soil and the interior of your house tested.

    One Craptacular Week

    It’s been one hell of a week. First we find out, via a soil test, that our backyard may have high levels of lead and zinc. We’ll write a lot more about this once I confirm the results–I’ve sent in another sample to a different lab. And my doctor has agreed to give me a blood test. Whatever the results, I want to help get out the word about this serious issue–ironically, next week is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

    Then yesterday we found out that one of our kittens, Phoebe, has a some sort of serious heart defect. The blogging muses can sometimes leave us at times like this so don’t be surprised if it takes us a few days to get ourselves back together.

    So please hold our dear little kitten in your thoughts and prayers as well as the worldwide need for healing our soils. After all, we all need to eat, and all food whether it be plant or animal based, has its origins in living soil systems.