I’ve written many times on Aminopyralid contamination in compost, on herbicides in manure and on the danger of bringing amendments from outside on to your property. Unfortunately, Karen Land didn’t find out about me until it was too late. After posting a heartfelt YouTube video (subscribe to Karen’s gardening channel here) on her ruined plots of tomatoes, Karen discovered a video I’d done and contacted me personally about the issue. After hearing her terrible story of killer compost, I asked Karen if she would share her story here. This is a serious problem and I don’t want any of you to go through what she went through or what I went through a few years back.
-David The Good
Many of us have heard the term “herbicide drift.” Some of us have experienced it.
Herbicide drift is when a neighbor or nearby farm sprays an herbicide like Round-Up or 2,4-D on a breezy day, and some of that herbicide gets picked up by the wind and lands on someone else’s innocent plants. The result is herbicide injury, which can cause deformed leaves and even death of the plant.
There’s something even less cool lurking in our midst.
Unfortunately, most people have never heard of it. This thing that’s even less cool than herbicide drift is compost contamination. Specifically, herbicide contamination of compost.
This just happened to me, and I’m not happy about it.
My main garden consists of six 4×24-foot raised beds. This year, I needed to raise the soil level about 4-5 inches, so I ordered 7 yards of compost from a local supplier and had it delivered to my house.
My awesome neighbor then spent hours moving it, tractor scoop by tractor scoop, from the front of the property to the back, and into my raised beds. The next day, my husband tilled the new compost in with my existing soil. It was a beautiful sight!!
A few days later, I began planting out my tomatoes (which I’d been growing from seed in my house since January).
I got about 20 plants in the ground and for the first week or so, everything was fine.
After a week or so though, I noticed some slight distortion on the new growth on the plants. I tried to ignore it and pretend I didn’t see it, but that became increasingly impossible.
So I began researching and Googling every tomato virus I could think of, and comparing hundreds of images to my plants’ new “look.” I finally decided my plants had sadly suffered herbicide injury from herbicide drift. But because my knowledge of herbicide names was limited to Round-Up and 2,4-D, I spent another few days trying to decide which of the two was the culprit, and finally decided it was 2,4-D.
In this midst of my obsessive researching, I was also continuing to plant out my other tomato plants. About 50 more plants went in.
(Can I rewind my life at this point?)
Unbelievably, after about two weeks, every single plant had the same deformed new growth. And I was pretty much freaking out.
Here are some of the possibilities I contemplated during that time:
Tomato Mosaic Virus
TMV causes new growth to come out deformed and curled up beyond recognition (that symptom, by the way, is impossible to differentiate from 2,4-D damage). Check! However, TMV also causes other symptoms, like, you guessed it, a mosaic pattern on the leaves. I don’t have this on a single plant. Moving on.
With nitrogen toxicity, while you may have some burnt leaf edges and that sort of thing, you’ll also have a massive blast of new growth. My plants are completely stunted. Not that. Moving on again.
Some Other Virus Spread by Bugs
I will begrudgingly say this is “technically” possible, but with viruses that need to be spread by a bug (in other words, not a virus that can spread by contact or soil splash), it’s not very likely that all 70 of my tomato plants would simultaneously fall victim to such a disease.
The Answer Appears
At this point, I’d done as many different Google searches, rearranging words and phrases as many different ways as I could think of, but I still really didn’t feel I had a definitive answer.
Leaning toward 2,4-D, I finally called on my local extension office to get their take on the situation.
I told them the whole story and sent in pictures. Within minutes, I received an email telling me it was definitely herbicide injury, but not from 2,4-D. Instead, they blamed it on a word I’d never heard before: Aminopyralid.
I wish I could go back to never having heard this word.
What is Aminopyralid?
Aminopyralid is a broad leaf herbicide. David the Good goes into this issue in multiple posts on this site.
In a nutshell, if it’s sprayed where livestock grazes, the manure from said animals is not to be used as compost.
Because the herbicide goes straight through the animal and into their poop. It doesn’t break down or deactivate at all. So it goes into the poop, and there it stays for years. Yes, even in aged, fully composted manure.
Sidebar: Not all plants will show signs of aminopyralid damage.
Plants like squashes and cucumbers will likely appear just fine.
My tomatoes and potatoes were the canaries in the coal mine. The sacrificial lambs. If I hadn’t planted them in that compost, and only planted less sensitive plants, I would be feeding all of that poisoned food to my family.
So, in a bittersweet way, I’m grateful I put my beloved tomatoes in first.
So let’s say you’re lucky enough to be BFFs with a super cool farmer who you KNOW doesn’t spray herbicides on their pastures or fields, and he’s offering to give you composted manure for your garden.
Think you’re safe? Think again.
Unless your BFF farmer friend is BFFs with his hay supplier and knows for an absolute FACT that that hay was never treated, you’re really not safe. And, even if your BFF farmer friend is super great and never sprays herbicides, and knows for an absolute FACT that his BFF hay supplier doesn’t treat their hay, what if you super cool BFF farmer friend lets his cows graze all the way down to the ditch on his property, where herbicide has been carried down to from the not-so-cool farmer next door who sprays herbicides?
Guess what you have… herbicide laden manure.
So what’s the answer?
Oh wait, yes I do. Read David’s book Compost Everything and stop buying compost from outside sources.
One last little shove of info for those still skeptical that this was herbicide-contaminated compost.
Remember my initial theory of herbicide drift?
Well, guess what: my potatoes have the exact same deformed new growth.
Here’s the kicker . . . my potatoes are nowhere near the tomato beds. In fact, the potatoes are on our deck in pots, about 50 feet from the tomato beds, and are among a myriad of other sensitive nightshade plants (tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos), and none of those plants have any issue.
(Ed. note: look at how Karen’s potatoes exhibit the same deformed growth as the tomatoes pictured above):
Herbicide drift would not come onto my property, only land on the tomatoes, ignore the cucumbers that are four feet away, then hang a left and make a beeline for my deck, but then ONLY drop into my potato pots and spare every other plant.
How could this be, you ask?
Because the potatoes are the only thing on the deck that were planted in the same compost as the tomatoes.
So this probably isn’t the most uplifting story you’ve read today. But don’t worry. I haven’t wasted this enormous learning opportunity. I’ve not only learned about this herbicide and how to avoid it, but I’ve also learned how to improvise and grow in containers.
On three-quarters of an acre, there aren’t many reasons to learn how to in containers, but now I am! I had a few pots of tomatoes that hadn’t yet gone into the raised beds, so I potted them up!
I’m also growing peppers, rat’s tail radishes, bush and pole beans, lettuce, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, and a few different squashes… all in containers!
It is my dearest hope that my story will help you avoid having this issue yourself, and to show you that, even when really bad things happen in the garden, you can always plant another seed somewhere. Soldier on and keep growing.
~Karen Land of Love Your Land
Karen is an accomplished gardener and highly knowledgeable on a wide range of horticultural topics. Despite her catastrophic encounter with aminopyralid she isn’t giving up. Subscribe to Karen’s YouTube channel here and visit her Facebook group here.