There are many reasons to grow your own food: flavor and freshness usually top the list. Pesticides are another reason.
Pros and cons of pesticides
Pesticides can make quick work of pests that damage our plants or carry plant diseases. They can also spread to unintended locations, contaminate groundwater, and interfere with the delicate balance of countless, often beneficial, life forms. How much is too much? How can we know these chemicals were used responsibly by growers halfway around the world? It’s tricky.
Fresh produce is supposed to be good for us. We are urged to eat at least five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. But can all the pesticides and other chemicals used in commercial agriculture be washed off? The answer is no. In many cases, pesticides are systemic, which means they are absorbed by plants. How many otherwise healthy fruits and veggies contain high levels of pesticides? The list may surprise you.
Environmental Working Group
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of the twelve U.S. crops most contaminated with pesticides. The ‘Dirty Dozen’ are often sprayed with chemicals banned in the European Union. Did you know that peppers are sprayed with 115 different pesticides? Or, that spinach often contains twice as much pesticide residue, by weight, than any other crop tested by the EWG? According to the EWG’s 2021 Dirty Dozen, these crops are the worst when it comes to pesticides:
Personally, I like using this annual list as a guide to what I will grow at home. Store-bought strawberries rarely taste as good as they look anyway, so homegrown or certified organic are the only ways to go for me. Spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens are easy to grow and can be allowed to go seed, providing years of edible good health.
While fruit trees take time to get started, they are a good investment in your landscape and many of them can be grown in large containers. Tomatoes and peppers are regulars on my list of plants to grow, though celery has given me some trouble.
I’m not completely opposed to pesticide use. It certainly has its place. There are billions of mouths to feed, and pests feel no remorse about wiping out crops. Instead of applying broad-spectrum pesticides, we can use hand-picking, sticky barriers, and other cultural practices to manage many pests.
The good news
On the flip side, the EWG also publishes a list of produce available in stores that score lowest on residual pesticides. This annual list is called the Green Fifteen, and here is the 2021 list:
My three most pest-free plants have been almonds, apples, and bush beans. My three most pest-prone plants have been Swiss chard, tomatoes, and pole beans, always with aphids. Which three plants cause you the most trouble, pest-wise? Which three need the least amount of help battling pests? Let us know in the comments.
Moving from a house in San Jose, California, to an apartment in downtown Seattle, Washington brought many changes to this gardener’s life. Raised beds, fruit and nut trees, and many of my larger plants had to be left behind. Potted herbs came along, and they seem to be enjoying balcony life. But temperatures are dropping. It was time to learn more about my new USDA Hardiness Zone. What I learned surprised me.
It’s not unusual to discover that a new location has a different set of conditions related to gardening. The weather is certainly different. I went from a scorching hot, drought-prone climate to cool, overcast skies and a lot more greenery. The soil situation is very different. My heavy clay made better with wood chips must now be replaced with bagged potting soil. Instead of a compost pile for plant food, I will be using store-bought fertilizers. I’m sure there will be new pests and diseases to contend with, but I haven’t run into them yet. The biggest surprise for me, and one that affects all gardeners, was the change in Hardiness Zone.
USDA Hardiness Zones
The USDA Hardiness Zone map divides the U.S. into zones based on average winter low temperatures. Understanding these zones helps gardeners select plants that will thrive. The 1990 map, which I have been using for years, told me that my San Jose garden was in zone 8. The more recent 2012 map says it’s in zone 9. The same shift is true of Seattle. The older map puts Seattle in zone 7, while the newer map says 8. More on that in a moment.
Each zone is divided into 10°F increments. That means temperatures, as far as gardening goes, have risen profoundly in recent years. Before you panic, you need to know that some of those changes are due to better science and improved measurements. But temperatures are changing. Temperatures are critical in determining what will grow well and what will struggle in your garden.
Global zone issues
Back to Seattle. This past summer, there was a week with temperatures around 110°F. For anyone familiar with Seattle weather, you will know that this is unheard of. As we drove along I-5 to our new home, we could see the damage caused by those temperatures. Trees exposed to the afternoon sun were badly bronzed. Extensive sunburn damage can be seen everywhere. These plants were not able to protect themselves against the unusual heat. Many trees will die as a result.
This type of damage is occurring in food production around the world, too. An article published by Science Daily tells us that fully one-third of the world’s food crops are at risk because of climate change. Master Gardeners, farmers, and researchers around the world are trying to find out what works and what doesn’t under these new conditions.
What changes, if any, have you seen in your garden over the past few years? Have temperature changes altered what and how you grow?
How does one go from an expansive suburban yard with raised beds, bees, and hens in California to a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle?
It was difficult to walk away from an imminent harvest of almonds, apples, figs, squash, and tomatoes, but family is more important, and it was time. I did manage to can some tomatoes before packing day, however!
Sounds of nature
I do miss the sounds of the hens and the sight of bees busily going to and fro, but Seattle isn’t without its’ sights and sounds of nature. Instead of egg songs, I hear the cry of seagulls and cawing crows. Pigeons are common, but not on my 7th-floor balcony. I have seen various bees and mayflies. And I am not without a garden.
Choosing apartment plants
Choosing which plants to bring and which to leave behind took some thought. Aside from physically moving the plants, I had to decide how much space to dedicate to them. Herbs were my first choice. The chives, oregano, peppermint, stevia, summer savory, and thyme came with me. I transplanted all my saffron crocus bulbs into various pots of succulents. And I brought my strawberry pot planted with groundcherries. Next year, I may make room for some tomatoes or squash. I have to finish unpacking first.
Apartment gardening poses some unique challenges and opportunities. As always, light and temperature are critical factors. Living in a corner unit in a southwest-facing building, we get plenty of light. Since we have a balcony, I can give my plants access to pollinators.
Water conservation isn’t the same in Seattle as in California, but I still use the dregs from my dogs’ water bowl to water my plants. I figure the bits of dog food and who knows what else might help feed my apartment plants. Without a compost pile, I’ll have to rethink how I feed them. (The plants, not the dogs.)
If you’ve gardened in an apartment, what advice do you have for me, the New Kid on the block?
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.