Lead poisoning will make you stupid. Lead poisoning will make you violent. Lead poisoning will make you sick. Lead poisoning will ruin children and communities and just might be the main cause and perpetuity of systemic urban poverty in this fair city and our great nation. I mean, it’s not, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possibly more than a tiny part of the problem.
Lead is everywhere in New Orleans. We have a storied history of shitty contractors coming around and half-assedly repairing and remodeling homes, especially post Katrina. In terms of lead and dirt this is significant because painters and such frequently scrape paint off of our old houses and leave the chips and debris on the ground to commingle with our topsoil or children’s faces or whatever. That old paint is often lead paint. At least that old paint was often lead paint until a few years ago. Most of it’s in the dirt now, left to commingle with our plants or our children’s faces or whatever.
Keep your children’s faces out of the dirt. They will grow up violent and stupid if you allow them New Orleanian mud pies. Or they’ll die. Keep their faces out of the dirt if you live in any urban space. That lead is everywhere. However, if you don’t live in an urban space, get your kids faces all up in that dirt. It’s probably really good for them. Beneficial microbes and micronutrients and all that.
So I spoke at a farm to table symposium a few months ago as part of a panel on lead poisoning in the city and growing food in the soil here. I butchered it. In a bad way. I stuttered and disregarded my notes completely and gave halted explanations and three word answers to questions, even though I knew exactly what I was talking about and really didn’t feel particularly nervous or any other such public speaking destructive sensation. I don’t know what happened, but it was bad. This here is my attempt at salvation, one I meant to dish up to the universe way back in August when I failed the world with my words. I hope I can offer recompense unto you as well now with these words.
The poison leaded soil that surrounds us is actually safe for you to grow your food in.
Plants that are grown in leaden soil actually take up only a tiny percentage of the lead found in said soil, less than one percent in most cases. There are certain plants, known to some savvy garden types and/or scientists as heavy bio-accumulators and/or phyto-remediators, which actually take up larger portions of heavy metals and other undesirable elements in your dirt. Food that should be avoided in toxic lead soil because of their magnificent nutrient uptake abilities include mustard greens, vetiver, and lemongrass. That’s about it. Sunflowers are known bio-accumulators as well, but we only eat their seed and as such are safe from death and stupidity.
What’s this about seeds? That tiny percentage of lead that plants take into them from the soil, heavy bio-accumulator or no, it goes into any given plant’s stalks and leaves where it is stored, and never finds its way into the plant’s fruits or seed. This means any vegetable or fruit that you eat that is not a leaf is completely all the way safe. Tomatoes, peppers, avocados, persimmons (they’re gross though), ground cherries, whatever. It’s all safe all the way.
All that said, what one must truly fear when gardening in toxic soil is the loose dirt. The lead is in the dirt and it stays in the dirt. Wash your greens and fruits very well, extremely well, when you are ready to eat. Otherwise you will develop ulcers and murderous tendencies.
Also avoid root vegetables if you are growing in toxic soil. There will be soil particles on your root vegetables no matter what. Nobody has the power to clean all of those little nooks and crannies. Nobody. Just leave them alone.
If you’re still scared of the lead, you can bring the pH of your soil up past 6.5 and the lead becomes pretty much unavailable to plants. Unfortunately this is not ideal for most food plants so you might as well give up and as such I’m not going to tell you how to do it. While a pH higher than 6.5 makes lead unavailable, it also makes it hard for most of your veggies to dredge up other much more exciting and healthy, necessary even, nutrients.
If your still scared of the lead after that, put some cardboard down over your compacted, gross, weed seed infested soil and bring in some fresh healthy dirt. It’s what you should’ve done in the first place anyway silly. It’s pretty cheap and it’s really a lot less work in the long run. If you’re here in New Orleans, you’ve got a few cheap bulk options around town. I’m not going to tell you what they are because brand loyalty or something.
So maybe you are wondering now ‘how do I know if there is lead in my soil?’? And I am wondering now how to grammatically deal with me asking you a question wherein you ask me a question. As per your question, the LSU cooperative extension provides this service for a pittance, I think $12 these days but don’t quote me on that, I didn’t do the research. They will test your soil for lead, arsenic, and all manner of dangerous toxic things very accurately. If you look up something like ‘LSU cooperative extension lead test’ online you will find all you need to know. It’s quick and easy and probably important.
(update, I did the research. Go here: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/en/our_offices/departments/SPESS/ServiceLabs/soil_testing_lab/test_schedule/index.htm#SoilSamples. It’s only $5 to test, you will want to purchase a ‘heavy metal test’.)
Utilizing cardboard in your urban gardening adventures is pretty much the best thing you can possibly do in the name of sustainability and practicality. When one thinks of utilizing what’s around their urban space in the name of permaculture or ecologically friendly farming practices, one tends not to look much beyond what is actually happening in the space where they are gardening. One needs to think bigger.
I suppose thinking bigger happens in the name of compost quite frequently, but rarely sustainably. New hip and happening restaurants and cafes want to compost their leftover food waste and coffee grinds. They really do. Gardeners and urban farmers want to make their own compost. Really and truly. But all this is logistically difficult and rarely actually happens in practice. Gardeners and farmers often cannot be counted on to pick up compost in a dependable and timely manner, and things start to rot. It’s not their fault, they’re busy people. Farmers and gardeners frequently don’t realize how much food waste a cafe or restaurant actually goes through and can easily find themselves overwhelmed with more rotting food than they can handle, which brings about rats, angry neighbors and other less than desirable consequences. Composting can be a full time job in itself, and while organic matter and good soil are the secret to any truly effective garden, the dream of creating a bountiful cycle of sustained soil health for free in the big city can be a hard one to achieve.
This is a conversation for another day, but I bring it up because cardboard. Because logistically, cardboard is easy. Every single restaurant in any city, I think I can safely say without exception, throws away cardboard boxes. All of the time. If you open your eyes up to them you will see piles of broken down boxes everywhere, waiting for you. The restaurants are already done with them, they aren’t depending on you to pick them up, so if you fail you are neither hated nor forlorn by your benevolently uncaring provider. Cardboard is a resource in your urban space that is extremely abundant and extremely free. More importantly, it’s also extremely useful.
Cardboard is a fantastic mulch. I think it is the best mulch. It’s the best mulch unless you have no idea what mulch is for and just want something to dress up your flower bed and make it beautiful with shredded tires dyed red with the future blood of your firstborn’s firstborn.
Cardboard suppresses weeds like nobody’s business. In New Orleans the weeds rule the Summer. They are unconquerable, they will stop for no man-made chemical, they will eat everything you want to eat alive and they will do it quickly. In my experience the only real tool at your disposal is a cover, something that completely squelches any hope for sunlight the weeds may have harbored. Tarps do this, cover crops do this, landscape fabric sort of does this, depending on the quality of the fabric, plastic does this, and cardboard does this. To my mind cardboard is the best option because it does this for free. If weeds are conquering your fertile mounds, cover all of your things in cardboard.
Cardboard acts as any other mulch would, only better. It is water permeable so it keeps the weeds down while letting water in. Like other mulches, it helps to maintain moisture in the soil longer and maintain moderate and amenable soil temperatures. The cardboard itself slowly biodegrades into the soil as organic matter in its own right. Carbon. Plenty of carbon.
Cardboard has a few tiny downsides. Slugs and snails like to hang out on the moist underbelly of cardboard boxes. That’s okay. They’re always hiding somewhere in the garden anyway. Also there is plastic packaging tape on a lot of cardboard. That does not biodegrade. It’s not pretty, and it’s not good. It’s maybe even a little bit bad. Just a little bit. That’s pretty much all of the bad stuff. Also you might slip on cardboard and hurt yourself. That’s what you get for walking on your garden bed. Don’t ever be stomping on all that sexy loam you just finished building up, cardboard or no.
In conclusion, if you use cardboard all the time for everything forever you are winning at loving nature and saving the world and growing delicious food, so do it, okay?
A Treatise and a Sales Pitch: Why Southobund Gardens Plant Starts are Small, and Other Reasons our Plants are so Exceptional
When placed side by side to other similar contained foodstuffs in the garden center, the plants that we grow here at Southbound Gardens can seem pitiably small. The uninformed consumer of plant starts and many an informed consumer as well will automatically reach for the bigger thing that costs the same amount of money or less. This is what we do, for are we are not Americans? Even discounting the fact of our unfortunate cultural predilections, the intuitive inclination towards larger vegetable starts is understandable. The internal argument basically assumes that bigger means older and therefore closer to maturity and edibility, and bigger also means stronger and better able to handle the rigors of climate, insect and whatever other hardships life in the ground may present.
This is wrong. Our small plants are better. Way better. let me explain the myriad ways in which this is irrefutably and without exception true.
Let us begin by exploring what it is that makes other vegetable plants so much larger and greener than ours. There are two primary factors lending the plants such apparently incredible prowess over our little local starts; these catalysts are fertilizer and painfully artificial environments.
The fertilizer used by most plant growers is inorganic and derived from petroleum. You may or may not have druthers regarding this fact, but it is not my crunchy worldview that accounts for the inferiority that I claim these vegetables to have. Petroleum based fertilizers are powerful beasts that offer insanely huge amounts of nitrogen, the primary ingredient in leaf growth for plants of all stripes. A plant that is fed an extreme diet of petroleum-based fertilizer will grow rapidly and will flush deep green, to all appearances seeming a most beneficent plant to put in one’s garden.
Here’s the kicker though: that plant is going to collapse immediately in your care if you are not willing to feed it a rigorous diet on a regular basis. It has become unreasonably dependent on huge amounts of fertilizer and has very little capacity to grow on its own terms, as it has only known unregulated gorging on artificial nutrients its entire life. This is not the plant you want to eat.
Our plants are certainly fed nutrients, but of a different sort, and at a different pace. They are given a steady but somewhat meager diet of fish emulsion to help with their general growth in a healthy way and at a reasonable pace. They are also fed every couple of weeks with a booster shot of liquid kelp and bat guano, which is loaded with the micronutrients that will be coursing through them for the rest of their lives, giving them a strong immune system able to withstand many a pest and disease. Additionally, our plants are grown in a soil that is loaded with mycohhrizal fungi and other probiotic bacteria that will help enhance the soil ecosystem surrounding the plant’s root system in the short term and provide inoculation to your dirt that will last in the long term and thrive so long as your garden shall live.
You are supposing likely that I am going to argue for the ‘localness’ of our plants in regards to environment, and if you are supposing this, you are a little bit right. And you should support your local businesses. And plants that are born and bred locally are going to do way better round these parts, especially if they are grown from saved seed and are many generations deep in this climate. The thing is, even plants that are grown here in New Orleans or in the surrounding area are often grown in horrifically artificial climates.
Ours are not. We shelter our plants in non-acclimatized hoop houses that do serve to protect our young plants from the crueler tribulations of the world, such as wind, driving rain, wild cats and wild caterpillars. Our greenhouses provide controlled water and help ensure that the plants receive plenty of sunlight. We have ourselves a controlled environment designed to optimize our plants’ chances of success not just as they grow with us but also as they leave us.
Many, if not most commercial growing operations work their magic indoors where climate is controlled and lighting is artificial. Plants grown under these conditions are not ready for the sun’s heat nor brilliance and will often falter soon after they are let loose from their childhood homes.
Finally, let us revisit the issue of size in a different light. Potted plants that appear to be thriving in their small pots because of their gargantuan size often will not grow the least bit once introduced to your garden because they have become rootbound in their tiny potted, overly long-lived homes. If a plant lives too long in a pot its root system will overtake every tiny corner of space allowed in that pot, begin to grow thick roots, and essentially lose its ability to ever become anything more.
We get our plants to market at a time in their lives when their roots are strong in number and fierce in will, but have not nearly grown to the point where they have been forced to fight one another for space in their pots. They are primed to continue growing outwards (as opposed to inwards) when they make it into a larger dirt-filled ecosystem. The plants that we sell to garden centers are of such an age as well, so that if they do not fly off the shelves in their first days on display they will not quickly degrade into a lesser product unfit for the world you want to bring them into.
Vegetable plants at garden centers that are derived from a nursery of a lesser caliber than ours often come onto the shelves looking incredible; they are lush, verdant, upright and eager to please, but within a couple of days they become leggy, pale and droopy. They hit their prime long before they ever got a chance to become somebody’s food, when they were still living in some greenhouse eating ungodly amounts of nitrogen on the daily, waiting for the week when they would look just perfect enough to sell to the uncanny consumer.
Our plants don’t do that. Our plants are fed well on a steady, but lean diet. Our plants find their place in the world as soon as they have the legs to carry them. Our plants have had youthful experiences that have prepared them for the world no matter what may come. Our plants can’t make it without you, but they don’t need you to hold their hand. Our plants are a little bit smaller on the outside, but what lies beneath their soil’s surface is infinitely more complex, resilient and ready to take on the world without fear or second thought. Buy local, buy organic, buy our babies.
I don’t approve of container gardening. I sympathize entirely with the plight of the modern urban dweller, that plight being very specifically the lack of a yard to grow in. I sympathize but I do not agree with the adaptive methodology of container gardening. I am frequently asked questions about scale and the viability of urban farming, specifically its capacity to feed a city in realistic terms. My answers: I want to believe, The truth is out there, trust no one. The point though, whatever skepticism myself and the world hold towards the prowess of urban farming ought to be focused instead on container gardening and concentrated with powerful lasers a few hundred times over. It doesn’t work, it will steal your money then break your heart. You’ll probably try anyway, but you should probably do something else instead.
It Doesn’t Work
Plants. They get their energy from the sun and their nutrients from the soil. They use their leaves to harness the infinite power above, and their roots to pull nourishment from below. This nourishment in the earth is made available to plants in complex and mysterious ways. In a word or two, through the soil ecosystem. The soil ecosystem is a marvelous enigma that is in many ways as unknown to science as the heavens themselves, or gut bacteria.
This is relevant to container gardening because the soil used in container gardening is contained. It may have a limited ecosystem writhing within, but all the things that make a garden and the plants growing therein work alongside natural processes do not exist.
Let a zebra roam the grasslands and it will live well on its own (not so much on it’s own but with the help of its loving herd. The metaphor stands okay?). Put a zebra in a zoo, and it will live, but you must feed, water, and wash it constantly. Put a zebra on a preservation and it will thrive, because inputs have been put in place to ensure that the ecosystem is perfectly tailored to its maximum happiness and the happiness of all the other living things it now shares this space with. It is the same with the zebra-striped tomato.
To clarify, the zoo is the container, the zebra is the zebra-striped tomato. If you put a zebra-striped tomato in a container it will have no capacity to take care of itself whatsoever. You must water it every day and consistently add nutrients to the soil to ensure even moderate growth. Additionally, the roots will only have so much space to roam in a container. In a more free-range environment such as a garden bed the roots can exercise their willful desires. If the tomato started life in a particularly nutrient-poor spot of land, the roots would wander until they found what they desired for optimum health and happiness.
To clarify further, this applies to all vegetable plants, not just zebra-striped tomatoes. Plants grown in traditional containers simply do not grow as well as plants grown in beds, mostly because you aren’t god and you cannot replicate the natural conditions required to optimize plant size, health, and happiness.
It’ll Steal Your Money
Okay, hydroponics is real, greenhouse growing is real, soilless container gardening is real. They are all very real and very credible, nay, incredible cutting edge ways to optimize plant size and health, though almost certainly not plant happiness. Even if you have no regard for the emotional wellbeing of your plants, these methods are ungodly expensive. If you want to play god you must pay the devil. The initial costs to growing in such a manner are humongous, and the upkeep is equally expensive. Climate control, proper lighting, water circulation, fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer. Someday it will probably be the best way to make food happen affordably in the real world and in the comfort of your gardenless home, but until people are willing to pay $20 for a gram of kale at street level, you aren’t going to find many vegetable growers experimenting with such breakthrough technologies.
Though far less costly, container gardening is still very expensive for the home gardener. If you want your plants to have any chance at feeding you anything at all, you will need pots of a reasonable width and depth, you’ll need a high quality potting soil, and you’ll need to fertilize regularly. Two liter coke bottles with the tops cut off filled with homegrown compost are not going to work even a little bit. You can, and if you want success probably should, easily spend $50 to grow three pots full of vegetables. Three pots means three vegetables in most cases. Three vegetables worth of produce for $50. Perhaps people are already willing to pay $20 for a gram of kale at street level. If you are out there, you should know that I’m right here and I’m perfectly willing to sell you kale for half that.
It’ll Break Your Heart
You will spend all that money anyway because you really want to start growing your own food, I know. You will spend money on all the right things, your pots will be large and you will put them in an appropriately sunny space. You will water them every day and you will give them fresh nutrients regularly. You will dig your hand in the soil one day and find worms in there and know you must be doing something right.
But you waited months, and that lettuce head never got quite big enough to justify harvesting. The beets never sprouted. You did get that one delicious tomato though. Also a few carrots. They were the size and shape of birthday candles, but they tasted amazing. You had enough kale to make a smoothie once, but the plant died a week later.
You gave them so much and they gave you so little, and now you have surrendered, never to try your hand at food gardening again. Still...
You’ll Probably Try Anyway, but You Should probably Do Something Else Instead
If this hasn’t ruined the prospect of container gardening for you entirely, good. I encourage you try it. I’ll even try to help. Not today however, so stick around or whatever.
Next time: How to Grow Veggies in Containers and Reasonable Alternatives to this Hopeless Venture.
Without the soil that plants grow in we are all as good as nothing. When we eat plants we are eating energy, that energy which they have pulled from the sun in ways that we can describe scientifically but not even sort of replicate or truly understand. In the end when we eat meat we are eating the energy that our cows (or pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, dogs, deer, people) have eaten from plants that the plants have taken from the sun. We need plants to eat the sun so that we may eat the sun through them is where I’m going. It’s where the energy is.
Yet and still, without the soil, plants forget how to eat the sun. There are exceptions to this if you are growing in our future ways where soil is null and our rudimentary understanding of the complex inner workings and sharings intrinsic to soil nutrient magicks are put to work, or you know, hydroponics, but I will not speak of these exceptions now. Let’s talk of the world of soil, the world where we always start and will always end up if we do not completely ravage this most potent example of nature’s recycling prowess. More specifically, let’s talk of how to keep soil happy, in order that we may keep plants happy.
If you are in an urban space, chances are good that whatever soil you’ve been given, on whatever tiny or large plot of land you have, is compacted, contaminated and or too sandy to work any nutrient and water containing magicks. Additionally, here in New Orleans we’re basically at sea level, and raised beds keep plant roots from drowning in days and weeks of the perpetual moisture that is our blessed curse.
Raised beds call for fresh and new soil. Mostly the whole point of a raised bed is for fresh and new soil. In order to keep things simple and relatively cheap, five parts cheap topsoil to one part bagged compost is a great way to get a raised bed started. Your raised bed only needs to be about a foot deep as most vegetable roots don’t go deeper than eight inches, excluding a few gigantic root vegetables and some edible grasses. Lay your bed with topsoil on the bottom, top dress it with the compost. If you have time, you can make your own compost, or compost a bunch of yard waste in your raised bed and cover it with cardboard and wait very patiently, but do this only if you have time, six months or more. It is a rare thing to find one who wants to grow vegetables and has that kind of patience in an urban kind of place, but perhaps you are the one. Also, five parts topsoil to one part compost will not give you perfect soil. You can spend a lot more money if you want something better. Buy some Foxfarm potting soil, mix some perlite in there, look up Mel’s mix, throw some creepy miracle gro soil in there, do any or all of this if you’re a $60 tomato type of person. I am not.
For the sake of the soil, your raised bed does serve a further purpose. It keeps the dirt free from your meddling feet. About the worst thing you can do to your soil is compact it. Pathways for water, air, and microorganisms are ruined. Important mycorhizzal fungi are no longer able to create nutrient sharing fungal highways between plants, worms die, everything dies. Do not step on your soil, ever. Don’t put any of your human weight on the soil. Don’t even look at it unless you have to, and definitely don’t take any pictures, because a piece of your soil’s soul will be lost each time you do. Mostly just don’t step on it though, okay?
Your first round of plants will probably be fairly content with that fresh bed of topsoil and compost, and you’ll probably feel great about all the things you’ve made happen with my fantastic advice. It won’t last. In nature, plants are always dying and feeding their death back into the soil, perpetuating a cycle of nutrients that enables nearly indefinite growth. When something comes along and eats plants for nutrients, the soil in which those plants reside lose some nutrients. Guess what? You get them, you lucky such and such! Your soil suffers for your stomach’s sake however, and nutrients must be replenished.
In the deep south we have the privilege of being able to grow food year around, and it is hard to resist the temptation to do exactly that. As a result, as southern gardeners we leech nutrients out of our soils faster than more rational folk in more temperate climates tend to, and we never give our soil a chance to replenish itself on its own. Additionally, it rains a lot here, and while rain is quite nice for plants, it does take nutrients away from the soil when it is long and constant. So we must replenish. If you are responsible and exceptionally environmentally savvy, you keep your own compost pile. That compost is all you need to keep your garden happy more or less forever. The thing is, you probably don’t have enough. Ideally, you want to be adding a foot of decomposed organic matter to your beds twice a year, once before your Spring planting and once before your Fall planting. If you have enough compost for that, good on you. If not, start stealing bagged up leaves from people’s front yards. If you don’t have that kind of leisure time, I’m afraid you’re going to have to start spending. You can buy those aforementioned bags of compost as an alternative to making your own, but frankly those bags are not nearly as potent as homegrown compost, which has a deep and magical ecosystem already in place which is super stoked to be a part of your garden proper. If you use bagged compost, again I’d recommend a foot twice a year, but you should also invest in some bone meal or other well rounded organic granular fertilizer to apply to your soil every couple months. On top of all that, you probably want to buy some organic liquid fertilizer to douse your dirt with every few weeks. This is what it will take to make your soil thrive eternally if you want to grow in it all the time. That or your own compost, which is free if you don’t value your labor.
You can also grow legumes hard every summer and turn them into the soil before they give you any edible product, but if you want to depend on this as your sole means of keeping your soil healthy, you will need to grow a lot of beans.
Snow Peas! Which are Legumes!
The only other serious big deal when it comes to keeping your soil happy enough to keep your plants happy is crop rotation. Basically, don’t plant the same thing in the same place twice in a row. More specifically, wait a couple of years to plant the same thing in the same place. Different plants have different wants and needs in terms of nutrition, and their manner of getting those nutrients can be subtly different. There are plenty of diseases and malicious little microorganisms that will accumulate around a plant species they desire. If that plant disappears for awhile, so too will the little monsters that want to devour it.
In conclusion, a list!
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.