Garden Notes: Know what you eat

Another summer has sped by. We are now in the period when keeping abreast of the weather news of lows, tropical depressions, and possible hurricanes is useful for preparing gardens to withstand high winds, torrential downpours, or both.

Re-staking or tying, or pre-emptively harvesting flowers and fruit, are some helpful precautions. If we have heavy or prolonged rains, plants — shrubs and trees, especially those recently planted — may be blown over in their planting holes. More limbs, too, will come down in such conditions. Check the tools: Chainsaw for fuel, chain, and spark plug; pruning saw; loppers.

Know what you eat

It often seems that conventional farmers and agriculture lag behind the innovations of home growers and the tastes of consumers. Gardeners are far more likely to use measures such as compost, compost teas, mulches, floating row covers, specialty cover crops, and to adhere to organic practices. Numerous studies have demonstrated the abundant yields of soils managed organically, and demand outstrips supply.

It seems the industrial food system follows along only reluctantly. It makes bogus claims, or drags its feet at incorporating these “innovations” (some age-old), but sometimes it does receive blows with wonderful timing.

Recent developments including the recall of about 550 million eggs due to contamination with Salmonella enteritidis; the discovery two weeks ago of wild growing canola in North Dakota discovered to be 86 percent GMO (genetically modified organism); and a federal district court judge’s revocation of the government’s approval of genetically engineered sugar beets last Friday, underscore the risks that we Americans may take when we dine in our industrial food system.

A common defense of conventional agriculture and GMO’s is that “we (USA) feed the world” and that the synthetic inputs/patented life-forms/antibiotic-laced system that is conventional agriculture is what makes this claim possible. However, research by the Union of Concerned Scientists: ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html) has shown that yield increases of GMO crops are slight to non-existent.

Resistance to GMO foods is widespread and thoroughgoing. People everywhere want GMO-free foods and for GMO foods to be identified and labeled, so they can, per Michael Pollan, “vote with their forks”; yet policy makers at a corrupt FDA resist the public’s protection in favor of industry’s. Therefore, let your motto be “Be sure: know your source, or grow your own.”

Know what you touch

“Being sure” leads to another timely subject: Plant toxicity. A conversation with a fellow gardener led her to share with me the story of her frightening encounter with a toxic plant previously unknown to her and the rest of the crew, and the results of her exposure to it in a Lambert’s Cove garden.

The plant in question is a gorgeous but dangerous herbaceous perennial, Heracleum maximum (syn. H. lanata), or cow parsnip, a member of the hogweed family, native to North America. The mature plant is capable of causing severe dermatitis and, due to its many, even more poisonous, look-a-likes, poses a real risk. The juices of all parts contain a photo toxin that can act on contact with skin and exposure to ultraviolet light, causing anything from a mild rash to a blistering, severe dermatitis, depending on the sensitivity of the individual.

From Wikipedia: “Cow parsnip (Heracleum maxima) is easily confused with water parsnip (Sium suave), poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), western water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), and spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), all umbellifers in the Apiaceae. All are large and have white flowers in large compound umbels, and are easily mistaken for each other. All water hemlock is highly poisonous; water parsnip is not; but their appearances — even their common names — are similar enough that it is alarming to contemplate.”

Although home gardeners are not going to be exposed to the numerous varieties of plants, known and unknown, that working gardeners are going to see as they move from job to job, we almost all know to stay out of the poison ivy. However, there are always “tropicals,” those unfamiliar plants from other parts of the world, propagated for use in containers and interior decoration, which could be, unbeknownst to us, the poison ivies of their respective regions.

In my opinion, all gardeners should have a manual of toxic plants readily available in the truck or bookcase. Mine is “Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America,” by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski (Timber Press, Portland OR, 1991, 311 pp.).

Casually perusing this handbook is something of a shock, as one reads about the toxicity of mundane weeds, common perennials, and typical houseplants! Who would think that poinsettias, lantana, or foliage plants such as caladium, colocasia, alocasia, or philodendrons could be the cause of a visit to the emergency room; or that enduring landscape favorites such as ivy, lily-of-the-valley, delphinium, or daffodils could cause problems for at-risk individuals?

One must remember too, that increasing numbers of Americans have allergies, are on long-term prescription drugs, or are living with chronic conditions such as multiple chemical sensitivities, Lyme arthritis, liver disease, or chemotherapy, which may cause weakened immune systems or extreme reactions. Individuals with these constraints may have low tolerance for even minor contact with seemingly innocuous plants.

However — getting back to serious fear-mongering — a quick Google search for “animals avoid GMO feed” yielded 1,030,000 results. Although studies showing the results have been suppressed and university positions lost, more and more serious deformities have been found in “lab animals raised on GMO feed” (21,600 Google results). In addition to poisonous but natural plants, now we have GMO’s, not only in our environment but also in our intimate, personal environment — our food. The larger question is: What impacts will they have on our health when we add their presence to the above-mentioned collection of health issues?