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Dear Ruth,

Can I put non-organic vegetable scraps, like potato peels in my compost?

~ Jeff

Dear Jeff,

I think that is a personal choice. I put all of my vegetable scraps – whether they are conventional or organic – in my compost pile. I don’t like the idea of compostable veggies heading to the landfill. However, potatoes are among the top 12 most toxic conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables – they are ninth on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of conventional produce to avoid because of pesticide residues. Compost made ONLY with organic vegetable scraps would undoubtedly be more pure.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), in 2009 “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national bio-monitoring program has detected pesticides in blood and urine samples from 96 percent of more than 5,000 Americans age 6 and older.” Children are more vulnerable than adults because it takes less pesticide to affect their smaller bodies. Parents and everybody may want to check out these FAQs to get a refresher on pesticide exposure concerns.

The EWG’s 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides divides produce into two groups:

  1. The Dirty Dozen lists the 12 produce items that have the most pesticide residues – so they are important to eat organically.
  2. The Clean 15 lists the conventional produce that is lowest in pesticide residues.

But you still have to use your own judgement – even though sweet corn is second on the Clean 15 list, rated on pesticide use only, if you want to avoid GMOs, you will need to buy organic sweet corn until GMO labeling is mandated.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides that can be trimmed to fit in your wallet.

Grow veggies everywhere! Even in your flower garden!

What does this mean to the organic gardener?  We can avoid pesticides by growing our own.  Right now, without changing anything, I already grow at least five things on the Dirty Dozen produce list in my garden every year without any chemical pesticides: spinach, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, lettuce and kale/collards. You probably do too. If you include my meager blueberry harvest, I grow half the items on the Dirty Dozen list.  Conventionally-grown cilantro and cucumbers are 13 and 14 on the list of produce to avoid. Many of us already grow those too.

The challenge is to maximize the number of “Dirty Dozen” produce items that we grow in our own gardens.

How? That would mean growing more, and growing over a longer harvest period.   Here are some ideas:

  • Plant more plants (potatoes, and especially blueberries!). If space is limited, consider French Intensive gardening techniques. Nestle blueberries, other small fruit, and fruit trees into your home landscaping.
  • Plant more often (plant lettuce every two weeks for continual harvest). Have transplants ready to pop in the ground right behind those you harvest.
  • Plant extra to harvest for freezing, canning, drying, and/or long storage. Even one or two items that you can eat over the winter will give you a thrill when you break it out on a 20 degree day.
  • Extend your growing season – by using season extension techniques like floating row cover during colder seasons, and by planting bolt-resistant varieties during summer. Plant a fall garden about mid-August for fall/winter/early spring enjoyment.
  • Keep it do-able. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you have a larger garden than you can realistically take care of, it will be discouraging.
  • Supplement your garden with organic foods from our amazing array of area Tailgate Markets. Don’t be shy about asking farmers about their growing techniques. Most farmers are very forthcoming about their growing methods (but don’t expect them to give you a dissertation during a busy market). Our area is incredibly blessed to have access to such high-quality local food on a regular basis. Take advantage of this!

One last note on compost piles: Don’t add diseased plant material – including diseased hardwood trimmings (from fruit trees for instance), diseased fruit, and diseased garden plants (like blighty tomatoes and squash vines with powdery mildew) to your compost pile. Weeds with seeds should not be added to cold compost piles. To kill weed seeds and pathogens, compost piles must attain a temperature of 150 degrees for a few days.

Your compost pile is a marvelous resource packed with beneficial microbial activity and the ability to seriously improve soil. Even a little spread across your garden or added to planting holes will bring benefit to your garden and your plants.

Thanks for writing!

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2012 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us!

Ruth Gonzalez

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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