Prevent a Chemical Calamity in Your Garden

Accidental chemical contamination of your garden can really ruin your day. Keep your garden safe from your neighbors’ lawn-care habits with these tips.

by Lisa Munniksma

Prevent a Chemical Calamity In Your Garden - Photo by Hemera/Thinkstock (

One of the last things you’d want to see upon entering your urban- or suburban-backyard garden is those little, blue chemical-fertilizer pellets from a lawn-care company that were intended for your neighbor’s house. Worse, you could find dead plants, accidentally sprayed by herbicide drift from the road. These are real situations for city farmers living in close proximity to people who might not understand the principles of growing your own food.

University of Georgia Extension consumer horticulturalist Bob Westerfield says he sees two chemical-contamination issues most often: accidental glyphosate overspray and compost or manure unknowingly contaminated with an herbicide. These are most often not malicious acts of vegetable murder, but rather genuine accidents. There are a few things you can do to prevent your garden from becoming a statistic, and if it does happen, you might still have the opportunity for recovery.

1. Speak Up

As with most things urban-farming related, communication with your neighbors is a big thing in keeping gardens within close proximity. If organic gardening is your chosen means of growing, don’t expect everyone around you to follow these same rules, and don’t take it personally when they don’t. Do have an open conversation with them about your gardening style—here’s the hard part—without attacking their style, and work out communications between you so everyone can do their thing.

“Sometimes the one-on-one interaction works, and sometimes it doesn’t work,” says Che Axum, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia.

He points out some people just want to be left alone to de-stress from their day and get their hands in the dirt when they have time to be outside in the garden, whether that be at home or in a community garden. They probably don’t want to hear about what you think they’re doing wrong. Some written materials educating others about your gardening techniques could be helpful. Just be careful about how you go about it.

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In the case of neighbors who have others take care of their lawns and gardens for them, you can ask them to let you know before they have lawn-care chemicals applied, says Lisa Johnson, University of Wisconsin Extension horticulture educator for Dane County, though they might not know, either: Lawn care and lawn-chemical applications are dependent on weather and the amount of work scheduled in a neighborhood.

2. Walls Up

You definitely can’t wrap your garden in a chemical-protection bubble, but you can build a bit of a barrier. Here are some ideas that might work for you.

Row Covers

Axum suggests putting out floating row cover to protect from chemical drift on a day that your neighbor or the road department might be spraying, though he points out that depending on the droplet size, the molecules could still penetrate. Plus, you’ll have to remove the row cover for the pollinators to do their jobs.

Similarly, Westerfield says you can put large cardboard boxes or painter’s plastic over your plants during the time of application to prevent direct chemical-to-plant contact. “Anything that blocks the mist from reaching those vegetables would help,” he says.

Privacy Fence

A privacy fence will help to block some chemical drift, but not all.

Good Planning

Apart from physical barriers like these, Johnson suggests thoughtfully planning your garden’s placement in the middle of your yard, giving space between your neighbors’ growing practices and your own.

3. Sign Up

Once you’ve taken interpersonal steps to communicate with your neighbors, take steps so that the community at-large knows you want your garden to be chemical-free.

On Your Property

Outside the city, you’ll see farms with a sign posted that alerts road crews to not spray chemicals on the property. Often, it’s just a simple, hand-painted “Organic Farm. Do Not Spray.” sign along the road. Even if you aren’t after organic certification, one of these at each edge of your property can be useful so county and city trucks spraying chemical herbicides and pesticides know to skip your house.

With Your Municipality

If your area has a do-not-spray list, get on it! In the Florida Keys, for example, you can call the Mosquito Control District to have your property put on a no-spray list for the spray trucks and a notification list for aerial spraying in your area.

With Landscapers

If you live in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Landscape Registry offers a free sign-up to be notified if a property adjacent to yours will be sprayed with landscape chemicals. Commercial pesticide applicators are required to notify people on the list at least 12 hours before applying pesticides. The notification can be made by phone, mail or written notice left at the registrant’s address. Check for programs like these in your state through your departments of agriculture, natural resources or environmental protection.

4. Read Up

Understanding the substances you’re using in your own garden is just as important as asking a neighbor to do the same, whether you use chemical or organic growing methods.

Lawn Care

Westerfield points out that some people who do not want chemicals in their garden will use them in their landscaping. The “weed and feed” fertilizer/herbicide combinations trip up home gardeners: “A lot of those products are designed to knock out broadleaf weeds and grass weeds,” Westerfield says. Corn is a grass, too, he adds, so a misapplication can knock out your vegetables, too: “Very carefully read the label.”

If you are using a substance on your landscaping that can be harmful to your vegetable garden, spray with a collar over your sprayer to prevent mist from reaching your garden. Westerfield suggests cutting a small hole in the end of a plastic coffee can and slipping the coffee can over the spray nozzle to act as a shield and direct the spray only to the areas you want to treat.

Compost and Manure

If an animal grazes on a pasture that has been treated with an herbicide and you use that animal’s manure before it is fully composted, that herbicide might still exist in the manure and contaminate your soil, preventing plants from growing or retarding their growth. “Know where the manure comes from,” Westerfield says. “Know the history of the field.” Manure that has composted for at least six months should be OK to use.

5. Own Up

Even if you take precautions to protect your garden from accidental contact with chemicals, acknowledge the fact that you live in the city and it could still happen. If your garden is sprayed with a chemical, it’s important that you find out what the substance is and read the usage instructions. “If someone screwed up and used an unlabeled product, I couldn’t recommend that you eat those vegetables,” Westerfield says. If you know what chemical was used, look at the days to harvest to see how long you need to wait before you should handle and harvest those vegetables.

Another Wisconsin statewide program is the Pesticides Complaint Hotline. “Anyone, if they believe pesticide drift has occurred, can call us, and we’ll talk to them and investigate every, single one of those complaints,” says Donna Gilson, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “The more information you have, the better.” This idea applies whether or not you are able to file a formal complaint. Document the event in detail, including:

  • location
  • time
  • temperature
  • humidity
  • wind speed and direction
  • the offending chemical, if you know
  • the amount of chemical applied, if you know

“That helps us to evaluate and see exactly what happened,” Gilson says. “If you’re seeing damage to plants, take photographs.”

If your state does not have a complaint hotline like this, contact your cooperative extension for help. While your extension agent might not be able to follow up on a complaint, he can help assess and remedy the situation.

With communication and planning, fingers crossed you never need to use these recovery tips, rather can work within your neighborhood—and your own yard—for a thriving urban garden.

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