Persistent Herbicides in Commercial Compost = Stunted Vegetable Garden

The last time I had a large, in ground vegetable and flower garden would be back when I lived in Pataskala, Ohio, about seven years ago. When we amended the soil, since we didn’t know many farmers in the area–we had just moved there–we bought commercially composted manure, compost and top soil. And we put it on our soil, tilled it in and miracle of miracles, our plants were huge, happy and gorgeous. Our flower borders looked like an over-crowded English cottage garden, which suited the look of our home, which had a sort of fairytale “Good Witch of the Forest” feel to it. The vegetables we grew–tomatoes, tomatillos, chilies, sweet peppers and basil–were all crazy-huge and prolific. It was beautiful.

Here in Chez Zak and Barbara in Athens, most of our yard is too shady for vegetables, so until this year we’ve only grown vegetables and herbs in containers on our deck–which is the only place that gets enough light for growing such things. I’ve chronicled our success with this approach here on this blog, but this year, I wanted to do something bigger. I yearned to grow more of a variety of vegetables, and I wanted to grow strawberries like I had in Pataskala.

So, I joined the Westside Community Gardens here in Athens, and as noted here, started building raised bed boxes because raised beds are supposed to make your plants healthier, stronger and you can grow more food in smaller spaces than with conventional in ground row gardening.

Without a second thought, Zak, Morganna and I filled those raised bed boxes with commercially made compost, manure and topsoil, and started planting seeds.

My dear friend, Judi Winner warned me that she had read an article in Grit Magazine about persistent herbicide residues in commercially available compost and manure, but since we’d already filled the boxes and seeded them, there wasn’t anything to do but wait and see what happened.

What happened was strange, and it does point to some level of herbicide contamination, possibly from Clopyralid or the newest DuPont darling of the “I must have a green lawn with no clover, violets or dandelions in it set”, Imprelis. The contamination most likely came from the compost mixed with cow manure that came from a compost company based in West Virginia which I bought at either White’s Mill or Lowes here in town.

Before I talk about what happened and is happening in my garden, let’s look a bit at the two possible culprits for my abnormally growing vegetables.

Both of these herbicides are meant to control “broad-leafed lawn pests” such as clover, plantain, dandelion and wild violets. (I will try not to get sidetracked on a rant about the idiocy of considering a legume which fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil where other plants can use it such as clover a pest plant, not to mention how can you hate violets?) Neither of these chemicals pose a threat to human or animal life, which is in large part why they are (or in the case of clopyralid, were) used to create perfectly green, grass only turf in lawns, golf courses and pastures and why they are considered to be “safe.”

However, legumes, such as clover, peas, and beans, plants in the Solonaceae family, such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, and plants in the Compositae family such as sunflowers, are all particularly sensitive to the effects of these herbicides. And since these herbicides can not only persist in grass clippings, hay or straw where they have been used and NOT break down under normal composting conditions, they can also be eaten by an animal and be excreted, unchanged, into their manure and urine, the contamination can come from multiple sources and thus, multiple concentrations in each bag of compost.

In my garden, I noted that very few of my brassicas sprouted and if they did, they did not grow, or they grew slowly. The only ones I’ve been successful with at all are lacinato kale and mizuna. Bok choy will not grow, nor will gai lan, turnips, or kohlrabi. The radishes grow slowly and strangely, often not forming proper root bulbs.

Right now, my bush haricot vert, which should by now be 18-25 inches tall and well, bushy, are single shoots, four to five inches tall and are now SETTING BLOOM. Also, these beans, which normally fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into their root systems with the help of a symbiotic bacterium, have all shown signs of nitrogen deficiency, which I had to correct with the application of blood meal.

My peas are strangely almost normal–they are stunted in growth in that they are about five inches shorter than they should be, and the petit pois are not as bushy with side shoots as they should be, but they are setting pods now and are also still loaded with blooms. They are not, however, as prolific as I think they should be.

My lettuces, which did sprout happily and did grow beautifully, still grew very slowly. To test and see if this is a normal, just slower rate of growth than I am used to, I seeded two containers filled with non-compost containing potting soil last week with lettuces in one, and spinach, bok choy, which absolutely would not grow in the garden, kale, which grew slowly, spinach which grew barely at all and chard which would not sprout, to see if it was the seeds.

It wasn’t. All of them have sprouted and are growing like gangbusters.

Strangely, my tomatoes are doing perfectly well as are my potatoes–both are blooming and healthy, with no signs of leaf deformation or other mutations in growth. None are stunted, BUT, my pepper plants are all stunted and are setting both blossom and fruit in smaller quantities on plants barely four inches tall.

My bare root strawberry plants are growing very slowly and have not put out runners yet, as they should have by now.

It has got to be contaminants in the commercial compost and soil. In the garden right next door where Morganna tilled the earth as it was and seeded directly in the native soil, beans, squash, pumpkins, corn, potatoes, sunflowers and cucumbers, everything is growing at a prodigiously normal rate, which is to say–fast. The plants she put in as starts: tomatoes, peppers, onions, and eggplant, are all healthy and unstunted.

What am I going to do?

This fall, I’ve decided to dig out the dirt and compost we bought and lug it home in lawn and leaf bags. There, I will put it in an unused corner of our land to sit and think about itself. I may add dead leaves to it to see if I can get it to compost itself out and improve itself over a series of years before using it anywhere where I want anything to grow. Or, I could use it where grass is to grow since grass is specifically unaffected by these chemicals.

Then, I will take apart our raised bed boxes, and store them in the garage to be used another time.

I already have pre-composted manure promised to me by a young friend who has a barn to clean out once the quarter is over. That will go on top of the extant soil in my garden plot. That, the wood mulch, and the compost I am making here at the house, along with fallen leaves, and grass clippings from non treated grass which includes our entire hillside “yard,” will all be tilled into the rich soil that exists under my current raised bed boxes. A cover crop will be planted–likely buckwheat and clover–to grow over the winter.

I’ll have to transplant the strawberries before covering them with straw for the winter, and I do still plan to build a coldframe over part of the garden plot, but otherwise, I want to let the soil rest over the winter.

Then, in the spring, more manure from another friend who has rabbits, and another with goats, and the cover crop gets tilled under first thing in the spring, before planting season begins. And then, I will plant without the raised beds.

Let’s hope that much soil amendment works to undermine any last traces of herbicide that might have leached from my beds into the perfectly good floodplain loess that is native to that plot!

And next year, we will have a much more prolific, happy garden.

Of course, I’m disappointed that this year’s garden, even with my best intentions, is not growing as it should, and it seems that if I’d just left well enough alone and used a tiller and planted straight up in the dirt, I’d have done better. BUT, on the other hand, I’d have probably wanted to add soil amendments and having had no trouble with commercial compost and manure in the past, would have used them anyway. At least with this stuff contained a bit in the boxes, with cardboard laid between the native soil and the added, I have a chance to remove most of the contaminated dirt, and what is left can be easily diluted.

I’m disappointed, but it is all a learning experience. No doubt I will be an even better gardener after this experience, and by making this innocent mistake and blogging about it, I can get the word out to many more people to be very careful when it comes to compost and manure from commercial sources.

Here’s to next year’s garden!


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  1. Ugh, so so frustrating. Do you happen to have a link to the article you mentioned?

    Like you, I’ve been growing in containers, so everything (top soil, compost, peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, organic fertilizer) is bought and hauled up to my apartment balcony. The first year I bought the cheapest stuff at Home Depot. It was crap. No idea if it had residual herbicides, but the soil and compost itself was full of clay, stones, and mulch. A rep from the company said they use the same machine to sort it all (duh, talk about quality control). The last few years I’ve been getting top soil & compost from All-American, which is sold thru Hy-Vee, one of our grocery store chains. It seems to be much better.

    Other than using the stuff and observing the results, are there soil tests you can do to determine the actual problems?

    Comment by Jennifer — June 8, 2011 #

  2. No, the Grit article hasn’t been put online yet. Grr. BUT, there is a link to an OSU Extension Agency report on persistent herbicide residues and their effects on food crops in my post.

    I’m going to be seeing our county extension agent next Saturday so I’m going to ask him about soil testing for herbicide residue. I figure it would be beastly expensive, if there is anyone in town who can do it all. But even so, if anyone would know about it, Rory would. He’s a good guy.

    Find out who your county extension agent is and ask him/her for help about issues of potting soil and such. They are fonts of gardening knowledge.

    Comment by Barbara — June 8, 2011 #

  3. My family had that problem one year – we bought topsoil or compost or something (can’t remember exactly) from a local company, and it had been contaminated. Plants either didn’t sprout or grew small and miserable. The potatoes, however, went completely crazy, despite having received the lion’s share of the contaminated compost. It was one of our best years for potatoes.

    Whatever it was that was in the soil, it had dispersed by the following year, and we never had any more trouble with it.

    Don’t even get me started on the subject of lawns, though… I live in California, where lawns just don’t make ANY SENSE, and yet everyone insists on landscaping with them. Argh.

    Comment by annoyedwabbit — June 8, 2011 #

  4. My dad just poisoned his lawn with a broadleaf-herbicide/grass-fertilizer combo. He describes himself as “not the sort of person to do that,” since he thinks poison is not environmentally friendly and fertilizer “just means he’ll have to mow more often,” but he “HAD TO” do it this year because the broad-leaf plants die in the winter and then his yard is “SO UGLY!”

    Comment by jackiechloe — June 20, 2011 #

  5. You know, I’m starting to think that this raised bed thing is just a bunch of hype. My soil is heavy clay full of rocks, which is supposed to suck, but when I ran our of room in the raised bed I planted some bush beans in, I planted the rest of the packet in the native soil.

    Guess which beans did MUCH better? Same variety, same planting date. The bean plants in the clay were like twice as big.

    Clay, it turns out, is wonderful to grow plants in. It holds on to moisture longer, which is good in a hot, dry climate like mine. Raised beds dry out faster and I have to water them much more often.

    Comment by Amanda — June 24, 2011 #

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