Two years ago, I had a run-in with Dow AgroSciences. Not a direct run-in, of course. I wasn’t hit by a chemical truck or anything… but it looked like my garden was.
It started innocently enough. I live near a family dairy that grazes cows on their own fields. Two years ago in the fall, I wanted some manure for a row of blackberries I put in, along with some for my garden. This dairy sells a big tractor scoop of aged manure for $30. My uncle brought his dump trailer down to the dairy, I bought two scoops, and we dumped it in my yard.
Over the next month or so, I spread it everywhere. I put it on my new row of blackberries, I dug it into the ground around my fruit trees, I added it to my wife’s new square foot garden beds and I put it around the papaya trees by the back wall of my house. This was the good organic thing to do, right? No toxic chemical fertilizers for me! Just good old cow manure.
Or so I thought.
After a few weeks, I noticed some of the blackberries had leaves that were starting to curl up a bit. I figured it was no big deal and that perhaps the manure was still a bit hot… besides, the plants were going to sleep. They’d be fine in the spring.
But in the spring… things got worse. In fact, everything went to hell. The blackberries put on new growth… and it was stunted. Our cabbages failed to thrive. The tomatoes that we put in the ground started to grow – then they twisted into weird fractal shapes. An eggplant I transplanted into one of the beds went weird within a week or two. Tobacco plants curled up… beans shot up, then refused to grow out secondary leaves… and even the papaya leaves started to thicken and twist. My fruit trees out front quit growing – and a chestnut tree actually died.
What the heck was going on?
I couldn’t figure it out. When I saw the first few plants, I wondered if all of them had gotten too much nitrogen; yet they weren’t looking too green or rank. They were just… screwed up. Then I wondered: was it a virus? No – that couldn’t be. Too many species were showing the same symptoms.
Since it had been months since I put on the manure, that wasn’t the first thing to pop into my mind. It didn’t even strike me that it might be sickening my plants… until I thought realized it was the only constant. Then I made…
A Gruesome Discovery
I googled “poisonous manure,” “toxic manure,” “twisting leaves” and other likely search terms until I came across the story of a community garden in the UK that had dealt with the same problem: a persistent herbicide that could pass through an animal’s gut and into its manure without being deactivated. That garden had been basically wiped out – and the chances for my own plot were looking pretty grim.
Suddenly I remembered something: I had given my friend Josephine some of my pile of cow manure. If any of her plants were showing the same symptoms…
I called her – and yes, her tomato plants had been withering and twisting up.
Now I was a total plant murderer, albeit unintentionally. After doing more research online, and calling a local organic farming organization, I nailed down the most likely culprit: Aminopyralid, an herbicide created to wipe out pigweed, blackberries and other broadleaf “weeds” that infest pasture grasses.
It was time to call the farmer. Had he sprayed his fields with anything? The answer… to no great surprise… was yes. For the first time, in the summer of the year I’d bought the manure, he’d sprayed his field with “Grazon,” an Aminopyralid-containing herbicide from Dow AgroSciences. He was rather incredulous when I told him that the manure I’d bought had wiped out my garden.
“No one else has complained,” he said, though he refunded me my $60.00.
Why had no one else complained? Probably because they had no idea they’d run headlong into modern agriculture and its toxic practices. Yet, after I wrote an article on aminopyralids for Natural Awakenings magazine, people started to contact me. A gardener in Minnesota had seen the same thing happen to his plot one spring. Another woman in my area had seen her whole crop wiped out another year after applying manure. A relative told me they’d spread manure one spring and nothing grew in the spot for over a year.
They thought it was their fault somehow – and maybe you’ve thought the same thing.
The bottom line: many “organic” amendments are no longer safe. Aminopyralids don’t break down in any kind of reasonable timeframe, either. It takes years. There are ways to deal with them… but it’s not easy. Let’s take a look at a few ways you can keep your plants safe from these nasty poisons.
The First Line of Defense
Don’t bring manure, compost, straw or grass clippings onto your property. Trust no one except people that don’t feed their animals ANY bought-in feed and who you are sure DO NOT spray their fields with anything. This is the only way to be completely sure your garden won’t get whacked. Look – I’m not hyper cautious, but this is deadly stuff and it sticks around in the ground. It’s been almost two years since I got hit and many of my perennials have not recovered. The supply chains are really long. It’s really hard to find out where hay and straw originally came from. Chances are, a lot of it is being sprayed. Aminopyralids don’t hurt grasses, so they’re often used on wheat, corn, grains and pastures. In fact, the University of Florida recommends this crap to farmers – as do many other agricultural extensions. In the name of convenience and saving time, they’re poisoning the supply chain for organic farmers. Once you know about the existence of these long-term pesticides and the range of their use, you’ll look sideways at a lot of amendments that used to be perfect for your garden. The game has changed – don’t get nailed.
The Second Line of Defense
So… you think you need manure? Ten years ago, you could spread it around without worry. And sure, it’s one of the very best things you can put on your plants – unless it’s FILLED WITH DEATH.
If you’ve got access to a pile and want to know if it’s contaminated, you can get it tested if you’re willing to part with a few hundred bucks. If not, you can take some manure, mix it with some dirt and transplant a tomato seedling into it. Plant a few beans at the same time. Those two plants are good “canaries,” since they become obviously affected quicker than other veggies.
A couple of weeks after germination, if the beans are developing a second and third set of leaves without any obvious distortion – and if the tomato plant is growing normally, you’re probably good. Unless some other part of the pile contained manure that was excreted after the animal ate a little hay from a sprayed field… then you might still be screwed.
Really… is it worth it? You decide. For me, the answer is no. I’ve been down that road once and have $1000.00 of dead plants and lost crops to prove it.
But there’s the test, should you choose to take the risk. If there’s any kind of weirdness in the bean of tomato plants’ development, run away. Fast.
The Third Line of Defense
This is where I found myself. I had to pick up the pieces after the Manurepocalypse. In a conversation with Josephine (who was a fellow Master Gardener), she told me that the tomato plants she’d spread ashes around were doing better than the ones without ashes.
Ah-ha! Could carbon be the answer? I knew that activated charcoal was a great way to soak up toxins, so I burned piles of sticks into ashes and charcoal, then dug those into all my affected beds. I also read that soil organisms can break Aminopyralids down over time, so I added a lot of dirt from my chicken run, knowing that it was highly “alive” stuff.
It helped, but it was too late for the spring crops. They all kicked off. The next plants did better, but not perfect. A year later, I’m still seeing pockets of weirdness here and there in my beds. No telling what it’s doing to me when I eat them.
I wondered if perhaps composting could knock out this stuff, since it’s great at removing a lot of other issues. The answer… is no. Basically, your best bet is to mix charcoal (Not briquettes, moron! No, Lobo! NO!!!) and some dirt into your beds… and hope that after a few years all the effects are gone… or just start over with new dirt or new beds.
It’s that nasty.
The Final Scoop
I’m going to say this again with an exclamation point:
Don’t bring manure, compost, straw or grass clippings onto your property. Trust no one except people that don’t feed their animals ANY bought-in feed and who you are sure DO NOT spray their fields with anything. This is the only way to be completely sure your garden won’t get whacked!
And one more time, with three exclamation points:
Don’t bring manure, compost, straw or grass clippings onto your property. Trust no one except people that don’t feed their animals ANY bought-in feed and who you are sure DO NOT spray their fields with anything. This is the only way to be completely sure your garden won’t get whacked!!!
If you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you. For preppers, organic gardeners and farmers, one bad run-in with manure can wipe you out. Please don’t take the risk. If you really want to use manures, get it from your own animals – provided you don’t feed them any outside hay. You can also compost your own manure, Joseph Jenkins-style. Otherwise, you’re treading on dangerous, poisoned ground.
Of course, another thing you can do is lobby against this stuff. Good luck with that.