Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Reviews – Winter 2001-2002

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Winter 01-02 \ Reviews

A Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Food Irradiation
Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled
Building Soils for Better Crops (Second Edition)
The Maine Mulch Murder

A Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Food Irradiation
Public Citizen Foundation
2000; 35 pages, $3.50 (single copy, includes s/h), paper. Published by Public Citizen, 1600 20th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20009. 1-800-289-3787.

This small booklet tries to explain why food irradiation is unsafe, the impact it has upon small farmers and the environment, and steps you can take to safeguard your dinner. Food irradiation is coming to a table near you – if it’s not there already. Labeling is not required for irradiated foods that are served in restaurants, hospitals or schools. Neither is it required for prepared foods that use irradiated ingredients. Food irradiation is sometimes referred to, incorrectly, as ëcold pasteurization.’ If that is not confusing to consumers, then the label might be. It’s a cute little flower-like symbol enclosed in a broken circle, a design that closely resembles the EPA logo. Until the 1990s, irradiation was promoted as a way to kill insects in harvested food and to extend shelf life. As outbreaks of food-borne illness increased, the food industry began pushing irradiation as a way to make food safe. The process is rather simple: Expose food to ionizing radiation. Gamma rays from Cobalt 60 can be used to kill such microorganisms as E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria. In 1999, the USDA announced that refrigerated or frozen raw beef, pork and lamb could be treated with radiation to kill microorganisms. The regulations protecting poultry were weakened, allowing irradiated poultry to be used in processed products, such as TV dinners and baby food. A number of problems occur when food is zapped, however. As radiation zips through cells, it knocks electrons out of orbit and breaks chemical bonds. Left behind are ions and free radicals that recombine to form radiolytic products including such carcinogenic chemicals as formaldehyde. Also, evidence suggests that irradiated food may be more vulnerable to fungi and insects after radiation. Health risks have not been adequately studied, say the authors. Irradiation of food destroys vitamins, enzymes and beneficial bacteria. It lowers the nutritional quality of food, specifically by reducing vitamins A, C, E and the B-complex vitamins. Studies show that irradiation caused a depletion of up to 86% of vitamin B-1 in oats, and up to 70% of vitamin C in fruit juice.

Irradiation can also cause changes in spoilage qualities, something not apparent to the consumer. The FDA approval for food irradiation is based on deliberations of committees, using theoretical calculations of how much “potentially harmful” radiation products consumers might be exposed to. Even though no long term human health studies have been done, scientists have demonstrated that test animals fed irradiated foods suffer weight loss and miscarriages. Other studies indicate that substances formed during food irradiation attack animals’ immune systems. A discussion of industry rationale evaluates whether the benefits of longer shelf life do, in fact, exist. According to an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, no real evidence exists of economic or other benefits to longer shelf life. About the only obvious one is that food could be shipped farther – hardly beneficial to family farmers, small food producers and local rural economies. Who will benefit? The large slaughter houses and the nuclear industry, looking for ways to re-use rad waste, argues Public Citizen. Consumers will end up on the losing end.

And so Public Citizen ends with a section on “What You Can Do.” It’s the usual list: Write to elected officials, ask your neighborhood schools not to use irradiated foods, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Noticeably lacking from the list is this: Buy organic food and support your local organic farmers. If you’re concerned about food irradiation, this booklet offers an invitation to take action. It outlines facts, gives addresses of entities to write to, and does just about everything short of printing up the protest flyers. Bulk rates are available for food clubs and co-ops.

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, N.Y.


Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors and the Disabled
by Joann Woy
214 pages, $16.95 (paper).
Stackpole Books, 1997. ISBN: 0-8117-2652-5.

“During the average lifetime,” writes Joann Woy, “one in every five Americans will be faced with either temporary or permanent disability.” Whether it is due to accident or illness, or just plain aging, we’ll lose our ability to continue gardening the same old way.

Fortunately, many tools and techniques have been adapted for gardeners with special needs. Whether offering ideas for building raised beds accessible to wheelchair gardeners, or for tools specifically designed for arthritic hands, this book is jam-packed with information. We all know that gardening is good for us – the garden nourishes our body and soul. Folks who study such things note that gardening provides many of the same benefits as an exercise workout: better circulation and respiratory health, lower blood pressure, reduced stress. So as we age and as our bodies become less able to keep up with the demands of double-digging, we need to find ways to continue doing what we love. To continue nurturing the earth, we must first nurture ourselves.

Woy suggests the place to start is by assessing our needs and limitations, take a hard look at our existing gardens, and determine what to keep, what to change. The biggest change most people need to make is to scale back. If you love flowers, but annuals require more energy and knee-bending than you can do, Woy suggests low maintenance beds of hardy, easy-care perennials. For those who can’t give up fresh organic salads, she points out that 150 square feet will easily supply two people with all the fresh produce they can use in a summer. That’s about four 10' x 4' beds.

In her first chapter, Woy discusses garden planning and layout. She offers advice on making your landscape easier to live with, and hints on making paths and gates wheelchair accessible. Chapter two delves into the nitty-gritty details of paths, ramps and steps. She discusses slope and surface of the landscape, considers handrails, and gives designs for a self-closing gate. Her chapter on raised beds, trellises and container gardens could go in any good gardening book. Garden beds raised to a height of 9" to 12" can help reduce strain on your back, hips and legs. Woy not only gives many examples of how to build raised bed gardens, but she goes into details of plant selection and intensive spacing.

Chapter four is devoted to soil testing and preparation. Though she mentions fertilizers, she tends to favor using compost and humus. A useful table details soil nutrient deficiencies, noting symptoms, possible causes and treatment. Unfortunately, although Woy warns of the dangers of heavy metals, she sidesteps the issue of using sewage sludge composts by saying, “check with your county extension agent.”

Those of us who turn our own compost know that turning is as much of a workout as a rowing machine. Woy devotes an entire chapter to easy composting methods. She begins with a discussion of the traditional “layer and turn” piles, then suggests “no-turn” methods and trench composting. She discusses types of bins, and the more expensive compost tumblers. You need to know what your physical limitations are. An investment of a couple of hundred dollars sounds like a lot, until you consider that it may keep you actively gardening for another decade. Compared to what you’ll spend on medications, that’s a deal!

Water – without it the garden can’t grow. The standard watering can may weigh 9 pounds or more. The 50' garden hose, filled with water, weighs 30 pounds. Woy suggests planting flowers that require less water, and using mulches. She gives ideas on how to make water faucets user-friendly for folks with weaker grips, and lists water saving tips.

Woy devotes an entire chapter to “tools for accessibility.” She discusses leverage, handles, grip improvements. She talks about trowels and cultivators, and lectures readers on the correct technique for spading which, she claims, will save your back. “Take frequent breaks,” she says, “to straighten up. Put your hands on your hips, gently bend backwards and side to side.” Her advice to take breaks applies to everything from working with hand tools to tilling. Switch tasks, she advises. Repetitive tasks can lead to injury. And pace yourself. You don’t have to do it all in one day. Remember, we’re gardening for pleasure now.

Woy includes chapters on lawn care, creating accessible landscapes, and horticultural therapy. The appendices list accessible public gardens, sources of tools and supplies and other information. Each supply house is cross referenced to tools discussed in the text of the book. As you read about ergonomic trowels designed to reduce pressure on the wrist, you can immediately refer to the listings in the appendix.

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, N.Y.


Building Soils for Better Crops (Second Edition)
by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es
230 pages, $19.95, paper
Sustainable Agriculture Network, 2000, ISBN 1-888626-05-4. To order, send $19.95 + $3.95 s/h to Sustainable Agriculture Publications, Hills Bldg, Room 10, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405-0082, or call (802) 656-0484.

If you’re looking for a practical guide to ecological soil management, then put your hands on a copy of this book. Like the first one, this edition of Building Soils for Better Crops is a useful handbook for farmers, gardeners and even extension agents. The second edition is even more jam-packed with information, containing four new chapters on managing the physical properties of soil, four new chapters on nutrient management, and an additional chapter on evaluating soil health. A few farmer profiles are even tucked here and there. “A new approach is needed to help develop farming practices that take advantages of the inherent strengths of natural systems,” write the authors. Their goal is to help farmers prevent symptoms of unhealthy soils, rather than react to them after they happen. And if you’ve ever met Fred Magdoff at a conference, you know he’s adamant about maintaining healthy soils. The book is broken into three parts, and the chapters are short and tightly focused.

Part One presents the basics: background information about soil health and organic matter, and the physical properties of soil, water storage, and nutrient cycles. Soil is a living organism; it breathes and, like other organisms, can become sick if not nurtured. The authors discuss bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, as well as insects, worms and nematodes. Biological diversity is important, balance too. Of the over 100,000 different types of critters living in soil, only a fraction harm plants. While you can grow plants in soil with little organic matter (OM), a positive correlation exists between crop yield and soil OM. For every 1% increase in soil organic matter, crop yield increases 12 percent. Organic matter can also help decrease erosion, buffer changes in pH, even reduce pesticide leaching. In addition to OM, Magdoff and van Es enlighten us on the value of tilth, nutrient cycles and flows, and the implications of farming inputs.

Part Two illustrates practices that promote building better soils, with emphasis on how to build up and maintain organic matter levels. The authors discuss manures, cover crops, residue management, crop rotation, compost, reduced tillage and conservation practices for erosion control. A lot of organic material remains in a field after harvest. About three tons of residue is left after an acre of broccoli is harvested. Perhaps plant residues can be used as mulches, Magdoff and van Es suggest. A brief discussion covers the use of sewage sludge as a source of organic materials. In theory, they write, it makes sense, but troublesome issues are associated with agricultural uses of sludges; they note the heavy metals and other contaminants from industry as a major caution.

A fine chapter covers maintaining soil diversity and management to minimize pest problems. Another discusses managing animal manures. A detailed discussion about cover crops follows, with excellent advice on crop and cover crop rotations. They give examples of five-year and seven-year rotations and profile a vegetable farmer who manages a 10-year rotation of crops with cover crop. A chapter covers making and using composts, another covers management techniques to reduce erosion. The secret: reduce tillage, use cover crops, maintain soil organic matter. An entire chapter is devoted to preventing and lessening compaction and, as many of us have already discovered, permanent beds offer one solution. One chapter examines both conventional and reduced tillage systems and introduces ideas for rotating tillage methods much as one rotates crops. Lengthy discussions on nutrient management and soil testing follow.

Part Three puts it all together. These chapters focus on how to combine soil-building management strategies that work on the farm, and how to evaluate your soil to determine whether its health is improving. A glossary and a resource list, with more information on cover crops, composting, and other topics, concludes the book.

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, N.Y.


The Maine Mulch Murder
A. Carman Clark
The Larcom Press, Prides Crossing, Mass., 2001 $23, hardcover, 228 pages

In this quick-to-read mystery, Maine gardener and garden writer A. Carmen Clark introduces her heroine: 60-year-old Amy Creighton, who lives alone and works as an editor from her home in Maine. While Amy is collecting sawdust at a local sawmill to mulch her strawberries, she discovers the body of a college student who, the reader later learns, was searching for his birth parents. Amy works with the local authorities – including the boyfriend from her youth, Dort Adams – to discover “who done it.” In the process, she and Dort rekindle their romance.

Parts of this book pleased me as a gardener. Regarding the flower beds at the post office, for example, Clark writes, “Gardeners on the peninsula and summer folks supplied seeds for better and brighter hollyhocks. Plants with pale or dull flowers were removed, leaving those with bright or deeply colored blossoms. Bees mixed the pollens. Every year in late August, ripe seed pods were snipped from the post office plants and passed around. Granton hollyhocks, one of the joys of the summer season, now grew in almost every dooryard for miles around.” On benches near these flower beds, townsfolk sit and chat while awaiting their mail.

The language used by the main characters is quaint. Describing an out-of-state attorney, Dort Adams says, “He sounds like old beans and cow plops to me...”, and Amy Creighton regularly uses the expletive “Oh fidgits!”

The characters in The Maine Mulch Murder are not as well developed as in, say, Cynthia Thayer’s books, and the story moves slowly at first. The ending was a surprise, however. Those who enjoys this genre, especially when it is flavored with cooking and gardening lore, may enjoy The Maine Mulch Murder.

– Jean English


MOF&G Cover Winter 2001-2002