Lead in Backyard Eggs: Don’t Freak Out But Don’t Ignore the Issue

Image: UC Cooperative Extension.

Back in 2018 UC Davis began a study of heavy metal contamination of eggs from backyard chicken flocks. The study analyzed eggs from 344 California residences using Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry to look for arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and and nickel.

The overall results for the study show that the main metal to worry about is lead, though some of the samples showed elevated levels of mercury and cadmium that could be a concern. The maximum lead level found was 27.97 ug/egg which is well over the maximum recommended exposure level of 3 ug for children and 12.5 ug for adults. That said, the average was 1.39 ug of lead.

I was eager to participate in this study since we found elevated lead levels in our soil when we did a series of soil tests back in 2011. Thankfully our egg results came in at 1.02 ug, just under the average level in the study. You’d have to eat a lot of eggs as an adult to go beyond the Federal Drug Administration’s maximum recommended lead intake level, though you could bump up against it if a child ate more than three eggs a day.

I’d suggest that if you live in an older urban location, next to a gas station or other industrial site or a recently burned area you may want to get your eggs tested. Odds are that your backyard eggs are safe to eat but, as the study showed, some of the lead results were well over safe levels.

Here’s what UC Cooperative Extension suggests if you have a lead issue,

Once potentially contaminated areas are identified, it is your job to prevent your chickens from coming in contact with those areas! You may choose to completely remove access to these areas or add clean cover material (soil, mulch, etc.) to reduce contact with or ingestion of contaminated soil. If you choose to use cover material, remember to inspect the cover regularly and add/maintain material as needed.

To further prevent ingestion of contaminated soil, provide chickens’ regular feed in feeders, and avoid scattering feed, including scratch grains and food scraps, on bare ground. Also, avoid feeding chickens unwashed garden scraps from these areas.

Consider providing a calcium supplement, which may help to reduce the amount of lead that gets into chickens’ eggs.

While we got a free test out of the study (thank you UC Davis!), you can have your eggs tested for a fee by contacting the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) laboratory (phone: 530-752-8700).

Garden Update Part II: The Good the Bad and a Lot of Ugly

My last garden update post might have left the mistaken impression that one can just step out the back door of our humble bungalow into some kind of hipster Versailles. To correct this impression, I took a few more photos over the weekend to show the work that still needs to be done.

The good news is that we had a generous amount of rain as you can see from the photo above. It’s a reminder that Los Angeles has a Mediterranean climate and is not a desert, at least not yet. No need for those sparse cactus and gravel landscapes that the house flippers seem to love.

The bad side of the photo above is that, believe it or not, there’s a path somewhere under all that vegetation. A close look will also reveal a whole lot of baby fennel that, unless something called “weeding” is done, will take over the yard by summer. A greater threat is the asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus) on the right, a vile and invasive plant that is proof of the fallen nature of this vale of tears. The plant in the center is from Annie’s annuals and I can’t remember the name of it. Kelly knows what it’s called but she’s visiting family this week. You get bragging rights if you call it out in the comments.

Part of the reason for the lushness of the yard is that we divert the rainwater from the roof to a pipe that runs 20 feet away from the house and into the center of the yard. We get a lot of rain concentrated in February and March and it’s a whole lot easier to store it in the earth than to try to capture it in a tiny barrel.

Said pipe awkwardly crosses a path, however, something our landscape professional Laramee Haynes will address.

The pipe terminates in a slightly sunken area that was the quarry for our adobe oven. This is where the rain garden will go. Right now it’s a nasturtium farm. Nasturtium is what happens in our yard if you don’t do something else. We also have a generous amount of nettles this year, never a bad thing. And the artichoke in the background loves the rain too.

This shot shows the main problem with the yard. Marie Kondo would not be happy with the garden clutter. Does this pile of junk “spark joy?” Nope.

Some Marie Kondoing needs to happen in this area, on top of some weed wacking and the deployment of my electric leaf blower. There I said it, I have a leaf blower. Yes, a leaf blower is the gardening equivalent of vaping but it does make cleaning up faster. Don’t worry, I leave the leaves in place to enrich the soil. The leaf blower just helps me clear the hardscaping. There’s actually a nice brick patio under the weeds and clutter here.

Ugh, more junk.

Here’s the nice new patio the Haynes landscaping folks built. The adobe oven is under a blue tarp. Blue tarps are the architectural equivalent of a comb over. The oven needs a little roof which, to extend the metaphor would be the architectural equivalent of a decent wig, if such a thing exists. And, man, do we need some outdoor furniture. Thankfully I came up with an idea for some outdoor furniture that I’ll discuss down the road once I run it past the boss.

The chicken coop ain’t looking so good. One of the reasons I’m not going to replace our current flock is so that I’ll have a pretext for tearing down this eyesore. No more ugly. I may re-purpose the funny sign that I “borrowed” from a auto junkyard in Houston. It’s a joke, by the way. Some visitors to our yard seem to think that I actually electrified the coop with 7,000 volts.

Thankfully, most of the work that needs to be done in our backyard is a matter of tidying up and defining some paths. I suspect our landscapers will be able to do most of it in a day or two and I’ll be able to post some after photos. But then they’ll need to tackle the disastrous front yard which will be the subject of another exposé.

February 2019 Garden Update

I had a personal request from über-gardener and plant authority Nance Klehm requesting an update on what’s going on in our garden. So here you go Nance.

A lot like the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous we admitted that we are powerless over doing garden design work ourselves and sought out the help of a design professional, Haynes Landscaping, to come up with a plan and do the hardscaping that we never seemed to be able to get to. Last year, while I focused my attention on the inside of the house, a team of very capable workers removed an ugly patio and put in a new one. In the process of that work we discovered a rotted sill plate that needed replacement and some other structural problems that delayed the project but the patio was finally finished late last year. The Haynes folks will return to install a rain garden fed by the back gutters of our house, replace a failed retaining wall in the front yard, fix the drip irrigation and install some lighting. We will also take out one of two junky pecan trees growing along the fence line.

If I could step into a time machine and advise my former self, back in 1998, about what to do with our yard I would say this:

  • Be bold. Remove any trees that are in the wrong place, too big or just plain ugly. Then plant trees that either feed native wildlife (such as oak) or provide fruit. Think carefully about their placement.
  • Do all hardscaping first and build it out of durable materials. Those retaining walls that failed in the front yard are wood and only lasted 15 years.
  • If you don’t know what your doing hire a professional. It think this would have actually saved money over the years due to hasty and poorly thought out amateur landscaping attempts.

If our house was not on a hill I would also seriously consider adding a granny flat to the backyard to provide rental housing and/or space for aging relatives.

I’ll post more pictures when the work is done and/or in progress. The photo above is somewhat deceptive and doesn’t show all the junk and weeds in the rest of the yard. That said, we are thankful for the rain that has made everything lush even if there’s a lot more work to do.

I did manage to make a new gate, based on a design by the English architect C.F.A. Voysey.

Leave Your Leaves Alone

Photo: David Newsom

Our friends at the Wild Yards Project (episode 126 of the podcast) have posted an interview with plant guru Barbara Eisenstein, “Leave Your Leaves Alone, and Let The Wild Things In!

Eisenstein has a nuanced view of native gardening noting in the interview that we need to consider a mix of native and hardy non-natives in our urban spaces,

Our urban landscape bears little resemblance to pre-development conditions. Consequently, formally local natives may be unable to succeed in these altered environments. What plants are then most appropriate? Rather than looking to a past that is no more, it may be best to use our understanding of the ecological services plants provide. A review of research by Linda Chalker-Scott (2015, Arboriculture & Urban Forestry, 41.4, 173-186) suggests that both native and non-native woody species can enhance biodiversity of urban landscapes by providing these essential services.

At this risk of wonkiness, do we have a Hegelian plant dialectic here, perhaps? Are we on the cusp of a synthesis in the native/non-native plant debate? This is a complicated question, but I think that Eisenstein makes some good points in this provocative interview. Props to David Newsom at the Wild Yards Project to allowing this conversation go where it went.

Eisenstein goes on to talk about what she considers most important for attracting birds and insects to our gardens. Spoiler: it’s more about the leaf litter than the plant selection. Make sure to read the rest of interview on the Wild Yards Project website. And consider signing up for the newsletter and adding to the Wild Yards tip jar.

Support the Master Gardener Program

Back in April Jeff Bezos said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.”

Jeff, I’ve go an idea for a better place to spend that money: let’s plant gardens. That’s what the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program does here in Los Angeles County and they can use our help. The Master Gardener Program trains people to teach gardening using research-based information. They have a scholarship program that supports individuals who can’t afford the training program. Here is what a recent graduate of that program had to say,

I received the partial scholarship in 2018 to take the master gardener program. I would have not been able to attend, even if accepted, as I am a full time student and work to support myself the rest of the time. Basically, I live paycheck to paycheck. Now, I’m starting a community garden at my school, work for a non-profit educating students on gardening and am connected with an incredibly supportive community of volunteers and knowledgeable individuals.

You can make a contribution to the UCCE Master Gardener Program here.

The video above shows the amazing work of the UCCE Master Gardener Program.