garden surprise

garden surprise by jek in the box, on Flickr

Guess what today is? You might guess May Day and, well, you’d be right. But it’s also the first day of International Compost Awareness Week! Woohoo! And… you lucky reader of this blog you… yours truly has been hired by the Center for Media and Democracy to blog about it.

To start out our celebration, unfortunately, I have a very sad story to share. You see, yesterday I went to help out in a garden in San Diego. The garden belongs to a man who has undergone a series of surgeries in the past year and while he and his wife love the fresh, homegrown food, he’s limited physically as he recovers. So I go over there every now and again to help him out. Yesterday I brought over a bunch of tomatoes, melons, and squash seedlings to plant and, as I entered the garden, I stopped dead in my tracks.

This garden is mostly organic. It’s an attempt at biointensive gardening, as described by John Jeavons in his book How to Grow More Vegetables… But there, next to the patch where we were planting the peppers, was a half-full open bag of Kellogg’s Amend.

The man whose garden this is, he’s a smart guy. We talk a lot, and he’s pretty aware of what he’s doing in his garden. He probably read the label before purchasing Amend. What’s in it? The label says “Ingredients: Blended and screened forest products, composted rice hulls, compost, poultry manure, gypsum.” It also says “Quality Organics since 1925.” The bag tells how the product should be used in vegetable gardens, and how it is ideal for loosening up clay soil. What it doesn’t say is that it’s actually made from Los Angeles sewage sludge. You would have no way of knowing that if you read the label. And if you didn’t know to look for the term “OMRI Listed” (which means that a product is suitable for organic agriculture) you might think the product is organic.

“Oh god,” I said. I told him that Amend was made from sewage sludge. He said the nursery he got it from recommended the product, and he used half the bag on his citrus trees. He was upset that it was made from sewage sludge, and that he had no way of knowing that before buying it. He was upset that he has no way of knowing what the hell he’s put on his citrus trees. Sewage sludge can have any number of contaminants in it (and often does). Some, like heavy metals, flame retardants, nanosilver, and certain pharmaceuticals, are almost universally found in sewage sludge, even the treated stuff approved to be used in gardens and farms. Other contaminants, including dioxins, furans, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, endotoxins, and more, are only found some of the time… but since they aren’t regulated, a gardener has no way of knowing if a bag of Amend contains them or not. Only 10 heavy metals, salmonella, and fecal coliform are regulated in the most strictly regulated sewage sludge, which is called Class A biosolids.

Ironically, this nasty product, Amend has a very big link to International Compost Awareness Week. International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW, for short) is being put on by the US Composting Council. USCC’s board is dominated by companies that sell sewage sludge as “compost,” companies like Synagro, A1 Organics, ERTH Products, and others. One of their board members, Jeff Ziegenbein, works for the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority. The latter organization operates a large sewage sludge composting plant that takes sewage sludge from both Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, composts it, and then sells it to Kellogg Garden Products, the maker of Amend and other sludge-based products, Gromulch, Topper, and Nitrohumus. And if you’re a gardener in Southern California, then lucky you! You can find these products for about $5.97 per 2 cubic foot bag in your local gardening stores! And since they don’t say “sewage sludge” or even the euphemism “biosolids” anywhere on the bag, you might buy them without ever knowing what’s in them.

So happy International Compost Awareness Week, Jeff Ziegenbein. This week, I will be doing my best to help promote awareness of WHAT’S IN COMMERCIALLY SOLD COMPOST PRODUCTS so that unsuspecting gardeners like my friend don’t accidentally buy your sludge.