I sure didn’t want to be writing this post…
But part of being a blogger is allowing you, my wonderful readers, a glimpse into my life– and that includes both the good and the bad.
I’ve alluded several times in my newsletter, and here on the blog, that I’ve had a rather bizarre, and quite unproductive gardening year.
At first I just thought it was coincidence and that I simply lost the gamble this year… (Because we all know that homesteading, and especially gardening, is a bit of a gamble. Or maybe a game of Russian Roulette rather…)
But as I started to do more research and dig deeper into my strange garden problems, my heart sunk.
I think I poisoned my garden.
I’ll get to WHY I think that in a minute, but first, allow me to share how I came to this conclusion.
My Garden Detective Work…
The year started out super promising… More promising than normal, actually.
I started my heirloom seeds in February, and they were happy and thriving. I was especially excited because, since our home remodel is complete, we finally had seed-starting space in the basement for the first time.
Mid-May, I hauled my trays of seedlings out of the basement, and started hardening them off and preparing them for transplanting.
Everything looked fine when I first put them in the garden. I planted my tomatoes (Amish Paste) in a new spot this year– normally they are along my fence, but this year, I had more plants so I stuck them in the area I usually plant my onions. I mulched them and watered them, and sat back to watch them grow.
As I tended to them, I felt they were growing a little slower than I thought they should… But sometimes it’s hard to tell. But then I noticed the tomato leaves began to look strange. Very, very strange.
They were curling… But not like curling from being too dry or too wet… They were twisting in the strangest of ways.
The plants were NOT dying or yellowing either. They were maintaining their color and were most definitely still alive. However, they weren’t getting larger or putting on fruit.
What the heck was going on? I started to do some research and these are some of the possible suspects I came across:
Why Are My Tomato Leaves Curling?
Too Much Moisture/Not Enough Moisture:
This was the first one I ruled out. I am well-acquainted to the appearance of plant leaves when they are either drowning or drying out. My tomato leaves were not rolling in a manner consistent with a dehydrated plant, plus I could tell my soil was sufficiently moist, but definitely NOT soggy.
There are a number of tomato viruses which may cause rolled leaves– tomato mosaic virus or cucumber mosaic virus are two of the most notable ones. Initially, I was almost sure this was my issue. However, I quickly ruled this one out when I realized none of my tomato leaves showed any mottling, spotting, or mosaic patterns. These sorts of discoloration are one of the primary symptoms of a tomato virus.
Plants infested with broad mites will often be stunted and curled. However, I found no evidence of eggs or insects on my plants. Plus, the pictures of broad mite damage was very different than the bizarre curling and twisting of my tomatoes. Nope, not this one.
Too Much Salt:
This was an interesting possibility that came up when I started talking with my local gardening neighbor. Animal manures can be high in salts, which can cause issues when compost with high-levels of salt is added to a vegetable garden. However, I ruled out salt in my compost for these reasons:
- It seems as though manure or compost from feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations are generally the culprits when it comes to high-salt content.
- I use 90% aged or composted horse manure in my garden, and horse manure has lower salt content than cattle manure. I also have never used commercial, bagged compost in my garden (which is often the manure with the higher salt content).
- The manure I used is composted, or aged outside for 6-12 months at the very least. My compost pile is exposed to the elements, and is frequently rained on, which would help excess salt (if there were any) to leach out.
- The pictures of salt-damaged plants I saw included yellowed leaves that fall off the plant. This doesn’t look like mine at all.
*ding ding ding* We have a winner folks… Or least this is the direction I’m currently leaning. And of all the options, I most certainly did NOT WANT IT TO BE THIS ONE.
In the years I’ve been advocating for the deep mulch method of gardening, I’ve had a couple people ask if I’ve ever had problems using non-organic hay. We get our hay from a variety of sources, and looking back, I’m almost certain some of it had to be sprayed at some point. However, as I always had thriving gardens by using our compost and hay mulch, I figured people who were concerned about non-organic hay or non-organic animal manure were worrying unnecessarily. I was wrong.
I was playing that game of Russian Roulette, and I didn’t even know it.
A couple of readers sent me links to articles about contaminated compost, and I read them with fascination. Upon closer inspection, I realized my tomato leaves looked identical to the photos I found of aminopyralid poisoning.
Aminopyralids are a classification of herbicides which kill broadleaf plants, while leave grasses unaffected. Therefore they are a wonderful option if you are growing hay and do not want weeds in your hay crop. The problem? Aminopyralids can go through an animal’s digestive tract, sit in the compost pile, and still affect your crop for several years after they are sprayed. They will eventually break down when exposed to soil organisms, but it takes a while.
Why I think Herbicide/Aminopyralid Contamination is likely my issue:
- The type of curling and twisting I’m seeing in my tomato plants is identical to the pictures I’ve studied in aminopyralid-damaged crops.
- Tomatoes are some of the most aminopyralid-sensitive veggies, and often one of the first plants to exhibit symptoms. Bingo.
- I had a super hard time getting other things to grow in my garden as well. After replanting my bean, kolhrabi, and beet seeds multiple times, I finally gave up because they just wouldn’t take off or even sprout. I know my seeds were good, although it’s a possibility that a critter was eating them down, too. But the fact I had such a hard time with them makes me wonder if it is somehow related.
Other Interesting Little Tidbits
- I planted four of the same tomato plants in a new garden I have up by my house. I only added a small amount of composted manure to the soil there (no hay mulch). They seem to be doing fine.
- The garlic, onions, cabbage, brussel sprouts, peppers, and potatoes in the garden seem to be doing OK– they show no signs of leaf rolling or curling, although none of my yields are spectacular (other than the garlic). But that might not be connected.
What I’m Doing Next:
- I need more proof before I can draw a conclusion, so I’m going to conduct a bioassay test here at home to attempt to pinpoint the issue– is it my compost or the hay?
- I would like to send soil/compost/hay samples to a laboratory, but I’m not sure if such a thing even exists. Working on finding out.
- I want to figure out WHY this issue started almost four years into me using loads of hay and compost. Did the herbicide residue finally build up enough? Did I get hay with a different sort of herbicide sprayed on it? Why didn’t I see these issues showing up sooner?
- I will NOT be adding any more compost or hay to my garden, which quite honestly makes me want to cry, as I can think of nothing better to build soil and organic matter. I do not know what I will use instead at this point.
- We were planning on building raised beds anyway this next year, which will be an absolute necessity now, since my soil is likely contaminated for at least the next several years until the residue breaks down.
- I will be ripping out all my tomato plants and burning them… I do not want to add them to my compost pile or till them back into the garden.
If You’ve Been Using Deep Mulch…
As much as it pains me to say this, I would NOT use any more hay on your garden until you can absolutely, 100% verify the hay or field it came from has not been sprayed with any sort of herbicide.
Although I’m not entirely certain the hay is my problem (I’m leaning towards the compost…), I am going to be extremely cautious until I know for sure.
If you are currently deep-mulching and having great results, you don’t really have anything to worry about, although I wouldn’t recommend adding any more hay to your garden until you are sure of its history. I have people emailing me CONSTANTLY with glowing reports of their deep hay mulch, and I’ve had beautiful results as well, so I don’t think *all* hay is a problem, and if you can verify your hay/straw is clean, I would absolutely still use it.
(I have updated all of my old deep mulch posts with these new warnings.)
Stayed tuned for more posts on this topic— I will be keeping y’all updated on this as I gain findings and more concrete conclusions.
To be honest, this whole issue bothers me very, very deeply. Composted manure is cheap, it’s natural (most of the time), and is readily available. If we can no longer use it on our gardens, what then? The same goes for hay mulch… I can hardly stand the thought of being stripped of these options due to herbicides. I’m still ruminating on these thoughts… I’ll share more in an upcoming post.
Interesting Reading in the Mean Time:
- Information page from Dow AgroSciences regarding Aminopyralid contamination
- Diagnosing Herbicide Tomato Damage (lots of photos)
- Another home gardener’s experience with contaminated compost
- A story of aminopyralid contamination in commercial compost in Vermont
- Aminopyralid FAQ page from Dow AgroSciences
If you have experience with aminopyralid contamination, or have any other ideas as to what could be damaging my tomatoes, PLEASE SHARE!