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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What's to Know About Garden Soil?

In my early 20s I worked in a garden center. We sold Scott’s Miracle-Grow fertilizers, potting soils and pesticides. Back in those days, shortly after Rachael Carson’s ground-breaking book, Silent Spring was published, most of us still didn’t question what we put on our gardens or lawns.

We’ve all learned a lot in the years since 1962 when Silent Spring was published, about the relationship of the chemicals we use and the quality of our streams, lakes and water supplies, and of our health. Often when I speak to groups about growing herbs and vegetables, I am asked for my recommendations for fertilizing the garden.

First I explain herbs don’t need fertilizer. Unless you live on a big, flat rock, there’s plenty of fertility in your soil for growing any kind of herbs. Fertilize them and you’ll have less flavor. Then I explain I recommend not using Miracle-Grow or similar water-soluble fertilizers on garden crops. Why? Aside from requiring gas and coal to manufacture them, they contain salts and soaps (which help the chemicals dissolve). Those wind up running into streams and lakes where they stagnate the water and ruin areas for fish and other aqua-wildlife. Worse, many of those fertilizers also contain pesticides. You’d be right if you said they’re not listed on the label, and Scott’s in particular was fined several million dollars for not labeling their bird seed products correctly and killing thousands of songbirds recently.

Do you really want pesticides in your tomatoes and lettuce? If you use a water-soluble fertilizer and spray your garden plants, or if you simply pour it on with a sprinkler can, the plants will take up the fertilizer along with the pesticide. (Ever wonder why Miracle-Grow plants look so blue-green and have fewer insects than plants without it?) Once your plants take up the fertilizer-pesticide, it’s in the tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and other plants you eat. Over time, how much damage does eating pesticides do to your body? Is it worth the risk? I don’t think it is. That's just my opinion.

The same companies that make those fertilizers also make potting soils. Cheap potting soils that the big box stores sell. Those soils include the same ingredients - fertilizer with pesticides, along with soap (a wetting agent to keep the soil moist). One such “organic” fertilizer, Hyponex, is made from a combination of construction wastes such as ground-up lumber, sand and debris, and has such a bad reputation that Colorado State University released a warning about using it. (The Garden Forum website also lists discussions about this).

My advice for fertilizers and soil? Use what nature provides. Use compost and organic materials and keep pesticides and herbicides out of our streams and out of our food. Happy gardening!

Copyright©2013 Jim Long

2 comments: said...

Very informatve, Jim. A really enlightening post. Thank you for telling it like it is.
Last spring, I used mushroom compost bought at one of the big stores. They told me it was really rich, and very good for the soil. I used it,and things started dying. After reading up on it, I discovered salt is used to sterilize soil prior to putting mushroom spawn into it. So I had unwittingly salted my garden soil, and it is still recovering.....

Nikki G said...

Excellent advice! There is just no telling what lengths some will go for that almighty dollar! Bear Creek nursery near Eureka makes an excellent potting mix!