Maintenance & Composting

A Warning about Chemical Fertilizers, soil amendments such as, Ironite and liming products, and other commercial industrial chemical products: In 1997 Duff Wilson, a Seattle Times reporter discovered the dangerous truth about fertilizers: Toxic waste (containing any variety of heavy metals and even radioactive waste, including but not limited to lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, chromium beryllium,dioxins and furans (maybe the most dangerous molecules known to man)  and rodium are being used as fertilizers under the Green mask of recycling. This is really Green washing, not green recycling. This is completely legal and even encouraged by the EPA. The federal government performs no tests and sets no limits and requires no disclosure to buyers, of the heavy metals and other dangerous toxins which are hidden in plant foot.

Dioxins, by-products of high temperature processes, captured by air pollution technology in smoke stacks of metal smelters, cement kilns and garbage incinerators) are said to cause birth defects and neurological damage. In fetal development, at a critical stage, a single exposure to dioxin molecules can cause cancer fifty years later. Cement kiln dust has been sold to increase lime content on acid soils. The cement kilns can burn any hazardous waste (such as say, medical waste) while making cement.

Beryllium may cause death from extremely low concentrations of the element and its salts. Cadmium, if ingested causes choking, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea; if inhaled; causes cough, headache, vomiting, chest pains, pneumonias, and bronchopneumonia. Chromium and its compounds are extremely toxic. Everybody’s heard about how dangerous mercury and lead are. And while they have been banned from paints they are allowed, even encouraged in fertilizers. Maladies from respiratory problems to cancer and even death are the side effects of contact with these dangerous toxics allowed in chemical fertilizers.

When you read the numbers 8-8-8 on the fertilizer bag showing that it has 8% Nitrogen, 8% Phosphorus and 8% Potassium you get a total of 24%. Maybe the bag also has another 10% or less of micronutrients when you add up their amounts. Now you have approximately 34% say,  of the contents of the bag. Ever ask yourself what the other 66% is? This mystery product is likely toxic waste, as disposing of toxic waste by selling it as fertilizer has become an accepted practice in the US. I’ll say it again. It is legal to spread hazardous wastes as fertilizer, liming material and soil supplements.

If you are like me, you likely find this shocking, unbelievable in fact, as I did. But it’s true. Our government encourages this practice. Companies with hazardous waste,which costs a fortune to dispose of in lined and capped landfills, now sell their hazardous waste to fertilizer companies to dispose of as fertilizer for spreading on farms which grow our food supply and gardens where we live with our families.Critics have called this practice,Toxic Economics.

The government, specifically the EPA calls it Green Recycling. In fact, some public company profits are way up due to this practice.

Any toxic waste with a small amount of plant food in it may be legally sold to unknowing buyers as fertilizer. It is legal. It is encouraged. And the contents of the bag which has mostly mystery hazardous waste and to a lesser degree fertilizer are kept secret from consumers. In fact record keeping is non-existant according to some reports. Manufacturers are only required to provide the details of the amount of fertilizer in the bag. Disclosure of the balance of the contents is not required by the government.

Soils have been tested to find unsafe amounts of many of the toxins. Foods have been tested and some take the toxics up into the food, others do not. The toxins have been found in milk from cows which grazed on vegetation grown in toxic soils. Potatoes particularly have been shown to have high contents of lead when grown on soil contaminated with fertilizers with high lead contents. In fact, even soils where organic crops are grown have been tested and produced unsafe levels of toxic metals, indicating that organics are not all being grown organically or that even products sold as organic are tainted with the same toxic recycled hazardous wastes.

Little has changed since Wilson’s, expose’ though a few states have limited quantities of some heavy metals in the fertilizers.I’ve read about Washington, Oregon, New Jersey and California as states with some regulation who are still finding violations. Are those from the same group of bags of fertiizer you bought, even if you are in a state with limitations? While I have placed calls to Department of Agriculture, EPA, USDA and such to find out about Florida’s (a state which is home to phosophorus mining for fertilizer and the superfund waste sites this creates) regulations, if any. The only phone calls I’ve received in return have been dead ends.

I have found some regulations at the Florida Department of Agriculture website, regarding the required listing of plant nutrients on fertilizer labels, I have not found any requirement for listing the mystery products or so-called inert materials, which constitute the major portion, in some cases, of the so-called products.

As far as I can tell from the website info, the testing done by the agency is only for the plant nutrients, not for heavy metals or other toxics, allowed in fertilize as their are no laws prohibiting it – by calling it a product rather than hazardous waste. Though there is one  document which lists heavy metals (none for radioactive materials that I saw) it is difficult to interpret, as the documents instructs that to find the allowable amount of these heavy metals one has to use a scientific formula which I could not immediately interpret. As soon as I have some answers I will keep you posted. Or if you know, give me a call.

While some have challenged some of these toxic economic practices in court and sought damages, these practices continue and are labeled as Green recycling. Orwellian double-speak where danger and harmful and hazard become Green and good recycling, in a society as Orwell predicted. Green is as far from the truth as one can get with this type of toxic recycling / toxic economics. Henrik Ibsen wrote about these types of issues in his play, Enemy of the People. Erin Brockovich fought problems like this in court. But none have stopped this practice which continues with the EPA’s blessing. Toxic metal standards apply to wastes, not products. Call a toxic waste a product, like fertilizer, and it is exempt from standards for hazardous wastes.

Biosolids from governments, Lime and Ironite have also been shown to be highly contaminated with hazardous waste and is being sold to us, the unknowing, unsuspecting citizen consumers:  Who knows what else is dangerous among our array of garden products?

When I read about bee colony collapse and mass bat and bird deaths, increases in the rates of many cancers, dementias, autisms, birth defects and the like, I suspect that wildlife and diseases are sending us a message, like the canary in the coal mine. Answers to these mysteries are only guesses so far and few are kept in the light by the media. If industry and government continue on this path, and toxics continue to accumulate in the wrong places; our farms, our gardens, our homes, our food, our air and our water, what happens. Is nature no more? I suppose people will continue to eat and drink but how long can we live ingesting ever larger doses in our food supply, and creating stockpiles in our living landscape, our farms and our homes? What will be the quality of our lives? Will life continue? I know I continue to eat even with concern and ask for a blessing of my food, while foods are tested with high contents of heavy metals.  Still, I never met a potato I didn’t like. Could the lead content in potatoes or other foods be to blame for the respiratory diseases, dementia diseases and the various autism diseases, which in recent years have increased as plagues on the old and the young unlucky enough to be stricken?

To read Duff Wilson’s articles go to:


or read the book: Fateful Harvest by Duff Wilson who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

or Read this report: WASTE LANDS
Matthew Shaffer, Toxics Policy Advocate
CALPIRG Charitable Trust
The State PIRGs

Check this California report out:


Below is the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Secret Code to determine their suggested limits of heavy metal toxics in our fertilizers. I could not decipher it. How much they suggest is a mystery. However the feds and the state do not test fertilizers for quantity or amounts of heavy metals and other toxins in them. They do some tests, sometimes, but only to check for the amounts of actual plant foods, nitrogen, phosphorus, and such. While regulators are changing the quantities of phosphorus in products and making recommendations to folks for best practices to limit run-off of plant food into our water supplies, they are not doing the same for other hazardous wastes in plant food and soil amendment products.

Despite copious research, I could not locate any regulations about rates of heavy metals, radioactive hazardous waste or other toxins, also known by the euphemism coined by regulators and industry, as “products” found in the fertilizers, even over a decade after Wilson’s expose.

While products such as paints have removed at least the lead, no such thing is happening with our fertilizers and soil amendments, our soils are being treated like hazardous waste dumps, and government and industry are calling it Green recycling.

5E-1.026 Adulteration Levels for Metals in Fertilizers; Certificate of Analysis.


Fertilizers that contain guaranteed amounts of phosphates and/or micro nutrients are adulterated when they contain metals in amounts greater than the levels of metals established by the following table1:


 Metals  ppm per 1% P2O5  ppm per

1% Micro nutrients2

 1. Arsenic  13  112
 2. Cadmium  10  83
 3. Cobalt  3,100  23,0003
 4. Lead  61  463
 5. Mercury  1  6
 6. Molybdenum  42  3003
 7. Nickel  250  1,900
 8. Selenium  26  1803
 9. Zinc  420  2,9003


To use the Table:

Multiply the percent guaranteed P2O5 or sum of the guaranteed percentages of all micro nutrients (Iron, Manganese, Zinc, etc.) in each product by the value in the appropriate column in the Table to obtain the maximum allowable concentration (ppm) of these metals. The minimum value for P2O5 utilized as a multiplier shall be 6.0. The minimum value for micro nutrients utilized as a multiplier shall be 1. If a product contains both P2O5 and micro nutrients multiply the guaranteed percent P2O5 by the value in the appropriate column and multiply the sum of the guaranteed percentages of the micro nutrients by the value in the appropriate column. Utilize the higher of the two resulting values as the maximum allowable concentrations.

Biosolids, and all compost products4, shall be adulterated when they exceed the levels of metals permitted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR Part 503. Dried biosolids and manure, as well as manipulated manure products not supplemented with chemical fertilizers shall also be deemed adulterated when they exceed the levels of metal permitted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR Part 503. Hazardous waste derived fertilizers (as defined by EPA) [Emphasis with preceeding bolding mine] shall be adulterated when they exceed the levels of metals permitted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR Parts 261.2(c), 266.20(a) and 268.40(i), dated May 14, 2002.


1 These guidelines are not intended to be used to evaluate horticultural growing media claiming nutrients but may be applied to the sources of the nutrients added to the growing media.

2 Micro nutrients (also called minor elements) are essential for both plant growth and development and are added to certain fertilizers to improve crop production and/or quality. These micro nutrients are iron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum and boron. In addition, cobalt and selenium can also be considered micro nutrients.

3 Only applies when not guaranteed.

4 Includes all compost products that are not supplemented with chemical fertilizers, even those registered as fertilizers (making nutrient claims).

Specific Authority 576.181 FS. Law Implemented 576.181 FS. History–New 7-29-02, Amended 2-25-03

A special thanks on behalf of gardeners to Patty Martin, the tireless and brave former mayor of Quincy, Washington who brought this practice to light amidst great difficulties and shed light on government and industry by sharing her story with Duff Wilson.

If you still insist on using chemical fertilizers be forwarned. Wear your gloves, mask and hazmat clothes.Keep the kids and pets off of the lawn and out of the garden.

All  fine cultivated landscapes, including greenscape naturescapes, require a good maintenance plan, even if the garden is a low maintenance xeriscape landscape garden.

More About Fertilizers:

I always believed that fertilizer was an especially important part of landscape maintenance, especially in a new landscape which hasn’t yet acquired years of quality soil amendments and intelligent gardening practices which create, when it is lacking, a rich topsoil. The  fertilizers we use now concern me and worry me.

So, now I tell you what I knew about fertilizers before I learned about the other percent of mystery products in the bag.

Though many fertilizers claim to be the right ones for your specific plants, the labels are not always touting the complete truth. This now we know to be the case. Formerly, if you were going to use chemical fertilizers the best fertilizer to use was one that is balanced and complete. Complete means the fertilizer contains micronutrients or minors, the terms used for trace elements required by plants for health. Fertilizers without these additional elements are incomplete fertilizers. Balanced means that you use a fertilizer which has the same number for all three of the main elements. Small amounts is also important to use, as it is common knowledge that often, likely a result of poorly planted landscapes and living landscapes such as lawns that have only very little root structure to absorb all the contents and keep them from becoming run-off, going  into waterways. Oceans, lakes, aquifers are suffering. Lake Okeechobee already has too much phosphorus accumulating in  it,  and too much nitrogen is causing problems with too. Too much overgrowth which kills sea life. I knew nothing of the hazardous wastes that we now know is concomitant and are likely the culprits killing fish and polluting our water further.

Fertilizers have three numbers identifying the main elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If the three numbers are the same, 6-6-6 or 8-8-8 or 12-12-12 then the fertilizer is balanced. However, those are the only elements in the fertilizer if the package does not say that it also contains micronutrients or minors. The package should show a list of other elements and their numbers in much smaller quantities.

Providing consistent small amounts of balance and complete fertilizer circumvents nutrient deficiencies in plants and the need to supplement with additional  nutrients in larger quantities. Good nutrients also make plants stronger against disease and pests. It’s rare to find a balanced complete fertilizer, though occasionally I see close to balanced and complete like a 10-8-8 with minors or micronutrients labeled as ornamental fertilizer or another specialty name.

Why Gamble with Chemicals and Hazaradous Waste: A Word About Top Dressing and Soil Amendments:

It is better  to amend and organically top dress your soil with composted or aged animal manure and home made compost. Cow manure is fine and easily purchased at local home and garden centers. Home compost is easy to do. Remember not to use fresh manure, as it will burn your plants. Compost it if you are getting it from your sister’s horses or someplace you trust. Beneficial microorganisms are necessary for soil health. They can be killed by fertilizers as well. Composting, organic mulches, and top dressing with composted manure help build soil structure and provide microorganisms.

A Word About Mulch:

As long as you are not using unnatural mulches such as plastic, or rocks which often put plants in south Florida under added stress, this is an easy way to improve the quality of your soil over time. This way your plants are being nourished well all year and not just when it’s time to fertilize. Apply a shovel of manure under each plant and around the perimeter of each plant or cover your planting bed. Apply it directly over your mulch and then reapply fresh mulch. The mulch and manure will break down over time and slowly provide nourishment while improving your topsoil’s quality and helping it to retain water and providing added nutrients which keep the roots of your plants healthy.

A warning about some mulches:

***Stay away from red or dyed mulches made from recycled building materials. While the term recycled sounds wonderful as we addressed talking about fertilizers, as it makes us think we are doing  good for the environment, the truth is that often these products either contain poisons, heavy metals or other hazardous wastes. Sometimes the processes used to make them are big pollutants. Researchers at several Florida Universities, including University of Miami have tested the red dyed mulches made from recycled building materials such as pressboard. They tested random samples found on local garden supply retailers shelves. They found that the products contain unsafe levels of formaldehyde and arsenic. Neither of which is listed in the ingredients on the bag. Those two chemicals are known carcinogens and will leach into the soil, and maybe absorbed by your skin, and your children’s and pet’s skin when you come into contact with them, whether walking barefoot through the garden or as children and pets will do, sitting or lying on it or touching it or putting it in their mouths. There are a lot of fine alternative choices. Use the pine mulch if you are looking for deep color and contrast in your mulch. Use the Eucalyptus. They both have some pest repellent qualities and smell wonderful.


Water is the most important thing you can do for a new living landscape planting. When you water right in the beginning, and after your landscape is established, if you are using the right plants in the right place, and using the practices of amending and improving your topsoil over time, along with having provided soil amendments at planting, a landscape will eventually be self sustaining, existing for the most part – with the exception of draught conditions, on natural climate and natural rainfall.

When the garden is first planted, water deeply. In fact, even with an established older landscape, it is important that the plants are watered deeply when watered. Many people water for 20 minutes 2 to 4 times a week. This is an incorrect way to water and does not help the plants to become deeply rooted. It is much better to water long and deep for 40 minutes once a week than to water for 20 minutes – a shallow watering – every other day.

So, water deeply, especially with a new garden. Make sure you are getting the roots soaked. Roots are not just at the surface, they go down deep into the soil, 1 foot, 2 feet, 3 feet, depending on the size of the plant and its rootball. Usually 40 minutes with a sprinkler or soaker hose will do. Drip irrigation is always best and one wastes less water with errant sprinkler heads which water the deck and road and sidewalk.

Stick your fingers in the soil to test how deeply the water has soaked in, or you can dig a shallow hole and put a cup or bowl  or tuna can down to see how much water is reaching plants. In the beginning it is best to hand water. Hand watering ensures that plants get a good soaking into the root where it is needed and is less wasteful, more effective and takes less time than sprinklers for deep penetration of the soil. Early mornings are best, when possible. Water liberally until your plants are established so they will be healthy and long lived and be nearly self sustaining, but for the cultivation you provide.

For a new plant or a new garden:

Water plants daily for the first week.
Water every other day the second week.
Water twice a week the third week.
Water once or twice a week the fourth week.

For active growing, plants require at least a 1/2 inch of water a week, usually two long waterings, along with warm weather when the garden is young. When it is mature you can water once a week. In South Florida in really cold weather, water late in the evening to warm plants and keep them from suffering damage during the night if you have plants that are sensitive to cold. You shouldn’t have to do this if you’ve planted the right plant in the right place. However, with young citrus trees, watering through the night when a freeze threatens is a good idea until they are mature and established.

Every year until the garden is mature, top dress with composted animal manure. Cow is fine. Do this 2 or 3 times a year if your soil is really poor. Or, if you have a compost pile,  use your own compost. Add new mulch as well. The best mulches to use in south Florida are eucalyptus, malaluka or pine. Avoid using mulches made from dyed recycled building materials which have been found by University researchers to contain carcinogenic formaldehyde and arsenic which is dangerous and toxic to you, your children, pets, plants, soil and water supply.

Many undesirable garden pests are repelled by the eucalyptus malaluka and pine mulches. A rule of thumb stay away from dyed mulches. You can get good contrast with dark pine mulch if that is what you are looking for. The colored mulches are not fresh cut trees and are made from previously used building products which can contain carcinogens. They may also come with their own pests such as termites or other undesirable garden bugs and have been found to contain dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde. The dyes in the unnatural mulches will stain clothing and carpets when brought in on the soles of shoes.

Water liberally with new plants. Let nature take its course with mature gardens which have been nurtured along to create sustainable landscapes over time.

Compost encourages earthworms and other beneficial organisms whose
activities help plants grow strong and healthy. It provides nutrients and
improves the soil. With the addition of compost soil is improved and becomes nutrient rich. Clay soils will drain better and sandy soils will hold more moisture when amended with compost. Creating a compost pile keeps organic matter
handy for your garden, and, keeps these materials from
filling up overburdened landfills.

Coffee Grounds
Lawn Clippings
Tea Leaves
Chopped Branches
Garden Weeds
Hay or Straw
Apple Cores
Egg Shells

uncooked fruits & vegetables – orange peels, apple cores, corn cobs, mushroom stems, asparagus ends, and the likes

Do not include cooked foods, meats and fats or plants or wood products which  have been treated with chemicals. Sawdust is fine if the wood has not been treated. Plants or leaves, stems and branches from plants with disease, such as rose leaves with black spot, should not be put into the compost, as the disease will spread in the compost, if included in the compost, and could be transferred to the garden with use of the compost if not killed by the heat. Weed plants which are in seed might be better left out of the compost pile. Even though some seeds may be killed during composting, survivors might create an unnecessary weed problem in the garden.

Composting is easy

Use garden waste and lawn clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, raw fruits and vegetables waste, banana peals, tea leaves, wood ashes from the fireplace, newspaper, haw, straw or any organic which has not been treated with chemicals. If you have a garden plant with disease, such as black spot on the leaves of roses, do not put that in your compost pile.

Create about a six inch layer and cover that with a three to six inch layer of soil or manure. Continue adding alternating layers (kitchen waste/organic materials and soil/manure) until it is about three feet or so.

If you want add an “activator” to speed up the process. Good activators include  alfalfa meal, bonemeal, blood meal or cottonseed meal. If you use an activator, sprinkle your activator and water over each layer.

Turn your compost regularly, once a month should be sufficient.


Top dressing your garden with organic composted manure three times a year for the first several years when you begin to establish a garden is the surest way to healthy soil and plants. Composted manure provides necessary biological activity in the soil. This process takes 100s of years in nature with the build up and break down of organic material to create healthy top soil. We can reproduce this in are gardens much more quickly, efficiently and economically with the use of composted manure. Use organic composted manure from your local garden center or take it from your neighbor’s property, if he or she has horses or cows. Many horse farms create compost with piles of manure. Be sure that it is composted (aged) otherwise the manure can burn your plants. If you are concerned about the smell, a good layer of pine or eucalyptus mulch over the top dressing will offer up a wonder scent in the garden. Over time your plants will be healthy and your garden will not need fertilizers to continue to perform at optimum. You will have growing healthy, happy plants.

Happy Gardening!