Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. PepĂ© le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.

Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

My Big Fat Greek Squash


Every time I visit my mom, her Greek neighbor pops over the fence to offer me seeds and plants. He visits Greece each summer and comes back with seeds for plants whose names he can’t translate into English. As a result I always have a few mystery Greek vegetables growing in the garden. This spring he gave me a squash seedling he had propagated. It grew into a massive vine and produced two winter squashes whose weight exceeded the capacity of my kitchen scale. I harvested them last month and we’ve been eating a lot of squash!

The skin turned a kind of manila envelope color and the flesh was a deep orange. It kind of looks like a butternut squash on steroids. The flavor resembled pumpkin, but tasted a lot better than most pumpkin I’ve had. We roasted one squash to make squash tortellini among other dishes. The best recipe, however, was for a savory winter squash pie (galette) out of Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (thanks to Bruce of the Green Roof Growers for suggesting this book). Bittman’s spicy winter squash galette recipe is here on MSNBC along with a video of him making it. I’ll note that the online recipe is different from the one in the book which calls for a longer baking time. My galette was in the oven for over an hour, but I did not cook the squash as long in the frying pan as Bittman does in the video. I’m sure either way will work, and this has to be, seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. It would make a great substitute for the always dry Thanksgiving turkey.

And I’ve made a mental note to myself to grow more winter squash next year. I like the taste better than summer squash and you can store it in the pantry for later use (hence the “winter” in the winter squash).

If you’d like to hazard a guess as to what this squash is called (especially if you’re Greek), please leave a comment.

City Farm Chicago

Chicago’s City Farm is a stunning bit of green smack in the middle of the concrete jungle, sandwiched between the remnants of the controversial Cabrini-Green housing project and the Gold Coast. A program of the non-profit Resource Center, City Farm sells produce to chefs, operates a vegetable stand and provides opportunities for economically under-developed neighborhoods.

City Farm is a mobile endeavor. The basic idea is to take advantage of some vacant land and, when the inevitable development comes, pull up everything and move on. Assuming that urban land is contaminated, the City Farm folks simply piled up about three feet of compost, soil and mulch right on top of the broken concrete and asphalt of its current location. All that soil will move when the yuppie condos replace the salad greens and radishes. City Farm is an idea that makes sense in big U.S. cities which, despite astronomical real estate prices, have large amounts of unused space.

The growing season is just starting up at City Farm and I’ll have more photos when I get back to Los Angeles (forgot a camera cable thingy). Many thanks to Nancy Klehm for hosting me here, filmmaker Deborah Stratman for loaning me a bicycle and to Lora Hall for the fantastic guest blogs.