How Gardeners are Fighting Back Against the Dirty Dozen

Posted on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Some years ago, I became aware of the harmful effects of toxic pesticides and fertilizers that are applied to food crops, product crops and also in our landscapes. Once aware, I began researching ways that I could “beat the conventional system” and provide healthy meals, products and outdoor environments for my family, friends, clients and community. There are going to be things that are probably unavoidable, in some circumstances and certainly can be budget-busters if allowed to be, but as a home gardener and professional, I have found ways to manage the least of the worst.

What are the Dirty Dozen you ask, and how does it relate to a gardening magazine article. Simply, this list covers the twelve fruits and vegetables conventionally grown that have been tested and proved to come to market with the most pesticide residues. This is a hot debate between conventional farming advocates, including the USDA, and organic farmers and supporters like the Environmental Working Group. Some research calculators show that there is little probability of pesticide toxicity to humans through normal consumption of pesticide laden produce. However, there is also evidence and research showing direct correlation to health and behavior disorders, particularly in children, from pesticide consumption. Be this as it may, consumers have the choice to research and to make their
own decision and ascertain a threshold that they feel is suitable for themselves and their families. Certainly, it’s best for anyone’s health to include a wide variety of assorted fruits and vegetables in their diet; this is not debatable. However, there are options to produce your own fruits and vegetables organically with abundant success thereby limiting your exposure to harmful pesticides.

The 2011 Dirty Dozen list in order of most toxic to least is as follows:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Imported Grapes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Domestic Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale

If you are already a home produce gardener or have dabbled with the idea, let me congratulate you! You’ve already begun the arduous process of learning what does, and maybe doesn’t, work for your home garden space. If you’re new to this concept, you may decide to start slowly with only a few plants or to go “all-in” and till up the backyard!

I recommend starting with simple plants that you generally purchase a lot of from the grocery like basic fruits. Fruit trees and vines can be purchased online or locally at garden centers on a seasonal basis. You may choose to plant a container plant that is two-three years mature which will yield fruit much more quickly than a whip, or bare root plant. Do some research. Depending on the planting zone where you will garden, some varieties of fruits will grow and produce more successfully than others. When choosing fruits like apples, peaches and grapes, you’ll need to investigate the average of how many “chill hours” your region experiences on an average year. In order to bear buds, flowers and fruit, certain selections require much longer periods of cool weather than others, so this is fairly important in your selection process. You’ll also do well to find out which varieties have been grown and
chosen for disease resistance and drought hardiness, as these factors weigh heavily on how easily you organically maintain your plants.

The next suggestion depends largely on the amount of space you want to commit to planting and tending through the growing season. Some fruits and vegetables require more space to spread out and vine, so understanding the habit of the plants is important, as well. This understood, decide which plants you will purchase large quantities of from the grocery or market. In our house, for instance, we eat salad nearly with every meal during the spring
and summer and lettuces and greens are fairly easy to grow. Spinach has proven to be a little bit trickier, though, I think the timing of setting the seeds in the garden along with the right mix of sun and part-shade makes the difference here. During winter, substitute a crop of kale and even collard and turnip greens for delightful hot and cold dishes.

One of my most favorite vegetables to grow is potatoes. With proper deep root soil preparation, sunlight and adequate moisture throughout the summer, the long, heart-shaped runners produce pounds of delectable potatoes underground. New gardeners especially will be thrilled with their first dig to find the bounty which has been produced underground!

You may have heard some old-fashioned gardening tips which suggest using garlic and hot pepper sprays, dish soap, oil and water mixes and crushed up egg shells as methods of pest control in the garden. Let these ideas not be forgotten. Many home remedies are effective and safe at treating a wide variety of pests and diseases. Sure, it takes a little more effort to mix up your concoction than to use a once-and-done knock down spray, but think
how much healthier your produce will be at harvest without the chemicals. Unsure of how well these would work and whether they’re worth the effort? Not to worry, there are many varieties of OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed pesticides which are safe for food crop use and are highly effective for their intended purposes which you can purchase at local garden centers and home improvement stores that carry gardening products.

Of course, successful organic growing happens when the ecosystem is in balance. This includes a healthy soil teeming with microlife, birds and bees for pollination and insect control, flowering plants to attract the pollinators and beneficial insects, as well as a water source from which everything feeds. Likely, you’ll find that as you learn more about organic gardening and how to get it going for yourself, you’ll adopt the concept of the healthy outdoor living space as a whole. What may have once been a conventionally treated lawn and landscape will transition to thriving off of homemade compost, supplemented organic manure, organic fish emulsion and other naturally-derived products. It doesn’t take a long time or extensive effort to make this work, but does take a mindset that you’re willing to commit to follow. Once in place, sustainable and organic gardens largely manage themselves and require less control by the gardener. Also, when plants are placed in locations with proper sunlight, water and moisture, the balance is much more easily achieved.

There are entire books about how to plan, begin and execute new gardens and spaces. This article is intended to enlighten you and encourage gardeners with some direction and motivation. In the end, if you love the idea but simply cannot commit to the efforts of personal food production, look for these twelve foods in your grocery or market labeled Organically grown. Conventional foods have a four-digit code and Organic foods will always begin with a 9- and will have five digits. Remember, organic foods are not only good for you and your family, but they are also good for the environment and for the farmers, too. And, of course, whenever possible, support your local growers!