Organic Container Gardening

Written by Barbara Barker, Organic Container Gardening is a how-to book about growing the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, commonly known as the “Dirty Dozen.”

The EPA and USDA have a treasure trove of data regarding pesticide use and residue on fruits and vegetables. They even have a database listing the “tolerance levels” allowed for each chemical on our food. But they can’t tell us the cumulative effect of all the residues in our diets. Even in baby foods, some levels of pesticides are tolerated. The truth is, no one really knows how our health will be impacted by the total chemical burden we place on our bodies. I only know I don’t want my family to consume malathion and organophosphates with our green beans. This book shows how to grow certain foods organically—those that typically have the highest pesticide residues. I do occasionally use pesticides in my garden, but I know what I’m putting on my food and I know what residues I’m willing to tolerate for my family. Some chemicals are worse than others.

Unfortunately, food at the grocery store isn’t labeled “Captan” or “Organophosphates.” Unless we are willing to shell out extra cash for the organic label, we are expected to eat whatever is offered with no knowledge as to the chemicals we are eating. Even if the government did require labeling, I’m not sure I would trust the labels, given that much of our food originates in other countries. In the course of researching this book, for example, I was stunned to learn that many vegetables imported into the U.S. have DDT residue. While it may have its place in controlling malaria in foreign countries, we’ve known for many years that DDT has serious health consequences for humans and wildlife.

Before continuing, I should clarify a few terms. When I refer to “vegetables” or “produce,” I refer to both vegetables and fruits. I don’t want to confuse you by interchanging the words but I don’t want to bore you with extra words either. When I refer to “pesticides,” I’m also referring to Algicides, Antifouling agents, Antimicrobials, Disinfectants and Sanitizers, Fungicides, Fumigants, Herbicides, Insecticides, Miticides (acaricides), Microbial pesticides, Molluscicides, Nematicides, Ovicides, Pheromones, Repellents, Rodenticides, Defoliants, Desiccants, Insect Growth Regulators, and Plant Growth Regulators. Whew! I’ll be more specific when necessary, but in general you should know that pesticides are not the only chemicals on your food.

The FDA and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition compiled data into a Total Diet Study (TDS) that is commonly called the “Market Basket Study.” With a desire to begin to quantify the cumulative and combined levels of pesticides fed to children, they analyzed residues on commonly eaten prepared foods. This book relies on this and other EPA and USDA studies.

In 1988, The National Research Council was commissioned by the U.S. Congress to study issues concerning pesticides in the diets of infants and children. The results of this study are published in a 372-page book, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. The study concludes that children are uniquely susceptible to health problems from exposure to toxic pesticides because of their rapid growth. Infants and children also consume greater quantities of certain foods as a proportion of body weight. This leads to greater exposure to some pesticides.

The problem with pesticides is that the quantity of a vegetable your child eats may exceed government expectations. Anyone who has children knows they go through phases where they will only eat one food or one group of foods. Since the government is not in your dining room calculating how many pounds of strawberries your tot has eaten this week, they cannot tell you if she has consumed too much of a certain pesticide. The government can tell you what foods have chemical residue even after they have been washed and prepared for eating. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration conducted nearly 43,000 tests on produce samples from 2000–2004. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed this data and created a “simulation of thousands of consumers eating high and low pesticide diets…” Their study showed “that people can lower their pesticide exposure by almost 90% by avoiding the top twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead.”

The list of foods with the highest pesticide residues has changed slightly since 2009 when Container Gardening for Health was first published. Cherries and pears have dropped their notorious reputations and kale and blueberries are new additions to the “dirty dozen.” As of 2011, the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, as established by USDA data, are as follows:

Grapes, Imported
Sweet Bell Peppers

Unfortunately, my kids really like to eat the foods at the top of the EWG’s list. The “dirty dozen” includes a lot of fruits such as strawberries, peaches, nectarines, and apples—all foods that my children prefer over other fruits and vegetables. My kids are picky enough! While I don’t want them to eat pesticides with their fruit, neither am I content to further limit their diets from the wholesome produce they are most likely to eat.

After talking with other parents, I realized we all wanted an inexpensive way to feed our children more foods with less pesticide residue. None of us had time and few of us had the space to grow large gardens. I began researching the problem and soon realized a family’s intake of pesticides could be substantially reduced by selecting their favorite foods from the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list and growing these in containers or small space gardens.

An average strawberry plant, for example, produces 1 quart of strawberries. Just a few pots hanging from your patio can keep you in strawberries for most of the year. An ever expanding variety of dwarf fruit trees make it possible to grow peaches, nectarines, and apples in many regions outside the typical grow zones.

Growing a few pots of your family’s favorite fruits and vegetables is not only healthy, it’s enjoyable. Watching fruit ripen on the vine provides almost unbearable excitement for small children. There are many lessons to teach children through gardening as well. Patience and long term gratification are at the top of this list.

With Organic Container Gardening, learn how to grow fruits and vegetables for your family using only organic pesticides and fertilizers. You’ll find it takes very little time or space and, in addition to peace of mind, you’ll gain a fun activity for the whole family.


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