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February 13, 2018

Chemicals - The Good, the Bad, and Why You'll Want To Start Your Own Vegetable Seedlings

Happy Valentines Day - which reminds me that our hearts should be focused on healthy vegetable gardening - why not consider growing our own from seed this year? Here is a pretty good reason why you might want to bother growing your own seedlings this year.


Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You decide to start your own tomatoes or peppers at home. You take time finding the perfect variety, you sow your seeds at the right time - not too early nor too late. You take all of the precautions needed.
You set up a lighting unit.
You buy a plant timer.
You use a propagtion mat.
You use the best organic potting soil.
You monitor temperatures closely and even fertilize with a good organic fish emulsion.

Then, Just as the warmer spring weather arrives ...it happens.

You see some sixpacks of the same variety at your local Home Depot and they look million times better than your own plants.

Not able to help yourself, you them and begin to think "Why did I bother?"

All's OK, right? I mean, it was fun to try growing them anyway, right?

Yet here's the problem.  Those plants from the garden center that look infinitely healthier than your skimpy seedlings are more like Russian Olympians drenched steroids.

Really.


These snapdragon and pepper seedlings in my greenhouse are being grown the old-fashioned way, Allowed to dry out between watering which helps their roots grow stronger and reduces the risk of mildew, and they have not been treated with any growth regulators so common with both of these crops elsewhere.

No some of you might be thinking "well, I'm OK with that. I get that these plants were probably coddled better than mine, that they were fed some special secret diet and offered life in a fancy greenhouse and all....". But no. That's not what happened.

It's notbecause the growers had access to better seed or better varieties than you could get. T

The answer is a a little more disturbing, and its one which few people are aware about.  You've been seduced by healthy looking tomato plants because they've been treated with PGR's, or Plant Growth Regulators - chemicals that offer no benefit to the plant other than to make them appear stocky and thus look healthier.


These pepper seedlings are not a bushy and thick-stemmed as those found at the nursery, but I know that they havent been treated with growth regulators, and will soon be loaded with naturally induced flowers and fruit. I dont care if they need staking, I dont really want to eat any more chemicals.

Are these plants healthier (or less healthier) than those you can raise at home? No one is really all that sure yet.  At least I think that this is the case after researching more for my book on vegetables and discovering that most every corporate seed supplier offers guidelines on how to apply growth regulators  (not just on petunias, snapdragons and annual flowers as I had once thought) but for use on vegetable seedlings.

That bothers me to no end, and why doesnt anyone seem to know this?

Now you know me. I am not one who typically raises red flags especially about things like GMO's or any horticultural practice which seems to be under scrutiny today. Heck, I'm not even that innocent myself.  Like many horticulturists, I support the use of some insecticides and even responsible use of neonicotinoids.  I have a greenhouse.  I get it.

Yet, I would never use any of these on crops which I am going to eat. That just doesnt seem safe at all. Right?

The guys at http://arborjet.comArbor Jet came out and treated out Hemlock trees with some serious insecticide, but in a most interesting way - injection. While not thrilled about using a neonicotinoid, I am smart enough to know when it is useful. I use them in the greenhouse only as a worst case scenario - scale on a rare tree or something like that. Injection with trees beats how this used to be treates 10 years ago - by spray and drench. This is specific and localized chemotherapy. And, the US Park Service used them too. Thanks ArborJet.


I had to struggle a bit this autumn as we had to make a big decision about a grove of Eastern HEmlock trees on our property. They've been suffering from an infestation of the Wolly Adelgid, with nearly every needle affected.  They look like mealy bugs and the trees were scheduled to be cut down this comng spring, but I wanted to try one more thing. Injection.

The scary part was that the injection would include Imidacloprid. More about that in a later post but mind you, this wasnt easy to accept, but, with some research as guidanve by tree surgeons and those in the industry, I accepted that this was like chemo. On a warmish day in Novemberm our trees were injected with the pale pink fluid. A last-ditch effort to save 10 trees over 100 years old just to fight an attack of the Wooly Adelgid. It seemed worth the risk for a number of reasons, but since it had no contact with soil, and there appeared that there wouldnt be an irruption of winter finches (which woudl feed on the cones, yet again, there havent been any cone crops for about 5 years now), we decided to do it.

Our Eastern Hemlocks, which sit in a grove which has been there since 1900 sits just north, behind our greenhouse. The branches even hang over parts of the greenhouse which is disconcerting as well. After an exceptionally cold winter last year and a very wet summer, the adelgid population seems compromised a bit and some new growth on the branch tips encouraged us to try one last ditch effort to save these trees which were about to be cut down.

It was fascinating to watch the liquid be taken up into the trunk in just 30 mintues.  Imidacloprid is deadly for insects, less so for humans and dogs - at least, that what the data says, and as a science geek I tend to trust it. We know this as sometimes I have to use it in the greenhouse. USed wisely, its effective a safe. But use it on a food crop? Never. Use it outside in the garden? Never. Maybe we might inject a lily bulb to fight the lily beetle but that's it. We keep honey bees, we know the risks.

Yet with plant growth regulators, its just not something I want sprayed on my vegetables. It's bad enough that they use it on our annual flowers which I also prefer to raise myself from seed if only becasue of this fact. Im sick of buying apparantly stocky cosmos or zinnias only to have to stay dwarf and stocky in the cut flower garden. I was tall snapdragons and cosmos that are 5 feet tall like in the gardening magazines.

The ArborJet proprietary system was fascinating. The liquid enters the tree slowly, but one can see the tree actually drinking it up. Like a flu shot. Seeing it all happen in real life reminded me that these trees are living objects. I feel confident that this booster shot will help the trees overcome this infestation . 

All that said, I believe in the proper use of chemicals when nothing else works or when an organic method proves to be ineffective. I'm also a big supporter of organic food, organic food production and never ever use insecticides in the vegetable garden. I support and buy organic produce whenever possible and encourage others to do so as well.  It's all a balance, and we all have to make our own decision on where our ethical line is. Mine is on food crops.


Tomatoes, pepper snad eggplants are the seedlings most often treated by plug growers and vegetable transplant growers with something called PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators. It's hard to find even a single commercial grower or nursery who doesnt use these chemicals on our vegetable seedlings. Should this concern you? I'm not sure yet.

Yet while writing my new book, which my publisher told me this week while I attended an international sales meeting for it that I could and should start promoting - the Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardenings (Dec. 2018), I've been spending days in horticultural society libraries and universities researching, discovering some disturbing trends.


A gypsy moth lays it ugly egg case last July on some of our birch trees. While I know an outbreak is coming this year, there is little I can do about it, I could spray these tres but that seems wasteful, dangerous and not worth the risk to both the environment and this natural outbreak. I was fascinated however by titmice and chickadee's who have been cacheing sunflower seeds into these cases for eating later.


I support much of big agriculture. As a plantsman, I am not against GMO's (not yet) or even the big seed companies like Ball Seed, Sakata, and Pan American. I support plant breeders, and much of the industry involved with horticulture, but there is one thing which concerns me more than non-GMO food. And that is the use of PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators on food crops. Right now, only one is approved for use in a very limited way, but others are coming down the pike if the commercial trade magazines are correct, and most growers are asking for more approval for their use on vegetable transplants for spring sales.

Don't get me wrong, Ball, Sakata, and Pan American are very good companies and I trust that they are being very safe of what they suggest their growers do, but its not in their hands really. They are merely offering how growers can optimally raise a crop that will be, well, perfectly sellable. A grower could choose to raise something organically too, or just in a healty, reasonable way with as few chemicals as needed.

This is more a statement about the entire industry and where it is moving to, often in a response to what we the consumer is telling them through our purchasing habits. In many ways, we are to blame. We who tend to buy the larger tomato plant (albeit far too early in the spring) at the local Lowes or Home Depot when the pansies are out. We who by the larger eggplant in a 1-gallon pot just because it has a fruit on it already, or we who choose to buy the thicker-stalked seedlings over a packet of seeds.

 Some blame does fall on the growers too. But then again, they are in business and need to justify their sales. If no one is buying seedlings from the grower who raised his or her plants without PGR's, what choice do they have?

In a sense, this is virtual product design, and we the consumer are informing the growers what we want. Why would they grow anything else?  OF course the big retailers should know better, but lets be honest - the buyer from one of these big box stores more often than not knows little about agriculture or plants aside from a baseline knowledge that 'tomato plants must be planted out in the spring" and "Oh good, we have super healthy looking tomatoes that are much better than our competitor has.". 'Maybe I'll get a good bonus so that I can go golfing this spring".

Sorry, Mr. Plant Buyer. But now that I'm not wearing a polo shirt with a corporate logo on it, I can say it.

I've been immersing myself in reading the trade magazines for the industry and a couple of the leading greenhouse management magazines have featured articles about potential safety concerns with the use of Plant Growth Regulators and their use by growers on vegetable transplants. This irritated me and concerned me as I read on, not only because now I have proof that those stocky tomatoes were chemically induced, but here is what growers seemed to be complaining about - - that there wasn't enough research about their worker's safety. They were more concerned with how their employees should apply the product - the proper equipment to use and how to ventilate their greenhouses better to avoid overexposure.

Hmmm. I care about them too. How about stop using them?

Sooooooo......What about us the consumer?
Because we're eating the plants.

What about the lady who was buying parsley at the Home Depot or Lowes and who might cut some off and eat it when they got home? What if she picked that green tomato?

The chemical companies are kind-of covered here, for they provide some very strict rules and guidelines for wholesale growers on how soon they can spray a crop before it goes to market - but do I trust that 22 year old told to spray his bosses greenhouses on a Friday afternoon  that he is going to avoid certain crops?

Not really.

What about drift? I asked a friend of mine who works for one of the largest plug growers outside of Boston if they pay attention to what annual or vegetable gets sprayed, and he laughed. "The entire bench or greenhouse is just sprayed."  They'll avoid some crops which are sensitive, but mostly everything gets treated the same way. Certainly all of the peppers and tomatoes.

The crazy thing is at first I didn't react much about this. Plant Growth Regulators don't even really scare me all that much.  I never liked their use on ornamental annuals, but since I prefer to raise my own snapdragons and other annuals which are most commonly sprayed, I could work around it. beleive me, I too have been seduced by ridiculously healthy snapdragons only to realize that my skimpy seedlings out performed them.

Starting ones own seeds remains the best way to maintain crop safty at home. WHich reminds me - this week I started my sweet pea seeds. Spring is on its way.

I don't even mind their use on some disposable crops all that much . I'm a sucker for a super mum with a million buds on it formed into a perfect mound - I know that it isn't natural, but "it's a thing". I get it. Just leave my tomatoes alone.  I know just as I know that some Hollywood boobs are fake (it's true, some are), that tomatoes this husky just aren't natural. Some muscles aren't real either, you know. The same goes for hair, so I've been told.

So what are PGR's?

Plant Growth Regulators are chemicals used to treat many growing plants, especially potted plants. "Chemical's" is a dirty word for many, but not for me. Still, as chemicals, they must be used wisely. There are good uses for many of these PGR's. Science is an amazing thing when you really look into it, and PGR's have proven innovative in many agricultural uses, from research to plant breeding to saving endangered species. While there are many different types, the most common ones used are those which control plants through cell mutation. As one ad in a trade magazine states: (about the only one which is approved for use on vegetable seedlings called - Sumagic, "Controlling Cellular Mutation makes the plant more desirable to the seller and to the buyer.".

Lettuce should never be treated with growth regulators, yet more often than not, they are resulting in what looks like healthy seedlings. Even if it helps performance, who would want to eat that? 

The fact is growers have been using PGR'ssince I went to agricultural college in the late 1970's, and early 80's (yes, I'm that old). The question is are they safe today? Classed as pesticides by the US government the advice clearly strict for those applying the sprays, yet oddly the only articles I could find in trade magazines are those regarding safety concerns - not for us, the consumer, but for those humans in the 'greenhouse who are actually spraying the PGR's. Obviously they are handling stronger concentrations of the chemicals and the risks would be higher, but still, there are risks. Right?  Nothing here was making me feel any better (and I have a pesticide applicators license).

Call me crazy but while I'm slightly OK wearing a space suit to spray for an outbreak of scale, something in me gets nervous when I have to wear gloves to my elbows, suit up head to toe with an aspirator, goggles and a hood just spray my tomato seedlings.

I would encourage any home gardener to sow their own seedlings of every vegetbale to ensure that they are getting the best quality and health benefits from their garden. Even lettuce seed sown outdoors in early spring will look smaller than nursery grown plants, but they will grow into large and healthy plants as soon as the weather warms. This is natural.


Even more concerning was a secondary worry expressed more than a few times in articles by growers that "the use of PGR's might also raise a red flag about food safety as little research has been done on retention and residue on the foliage and fruit of sprayed transplants". All this regarding their use on the three vegetable crops most often treated with PGR's - tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants."

Yikes.

You might be wondering why do growers bother to use PGR's then?

Well, they do make plants look much nicer. I get that, and, plants are a product, and it's a competitive business. If I was a wholesale plug grower or a finished liner grower I imagine that might have to use PGR's just to remain competitive. Tomato plants are a big business and no grower can afford to lose an account like Walmart or Home Depot or they will go bankrupt.  The thing is, these growers won't go out of business if we --  the consumer-- begin to care a little bit more about things that are important, and not gluten, GMO's and fat-free junk. (And yes, it doesn't escape me that I these chemicals are used primarily on 'the nightshades' -- but I don't buy that diet argument either Sorry Elizabeth).

Is the solution here regulation? I don't know. Surely that will scare some folks. The of course, there is the fundamental question is the use of plant growth regulators even safe? I'm, not an alarmist, and while I well know that many phytochemicals can be dangerous which is why I even question the validity and use of triacontanol, when it comes to growth regulators that restrict growth, my antennae go up.

I trust modern science, and I am one of those who still aren't afraid of glyphosate (Roundup) use (yet I would never use it on my vegetables). The entire GMO arguments are useless to me. I make my ethical decisions based on real data and science. Where ever that takes me, so be it. Maybe Plant Growth Regulators needs a good, comprehensive documentary by Michael Pollan?



Home raised seedlings still require some attention, more often than not home growers default to being too 'natural' only using fish emulsion or randomly using a fertilizer becasue it sounded safer without any knowledge of what their particular crop really needs for nutrients. Always do some research yourself. Trust the research universities first before - dare I say it, blogs or articles in magazines. Most repeat bad information. If you only knew the contradictions I've run against researching my book! (you will know about them soon enough!)


I've spent time in greenhouse ranges over the past year, some which are very responsible even though they have dozens of acres under glass. One even impressed me with how they were moving towards more organic or natural controls on insects which were very progressive and interesting. I sense a movement with many growers to a more responsible use of chemicals.


PGR's like Sumagic or Uniconazole do have some online guidelines which are very strict, you can look at them here.  The chemical companies provide very strict guidelines on controlling the amount used on vegetable plants, and how many treatments are considered 'safe'. Their corporate guideline states that applications can be applied 2 weeks before a tomato plant can go to market. Since no one can guarantee that the grower did this, I remain suspicious.

Now, there are natural ways to control height and to create a sturdier plant but they are costly for most transplant growers. One method often talked about on gardening blogs is called 'brushing', it involves a mechanical arm that actually brushes each plant which simulates wind, or stresses the cells in the stems and foliage to grow sturdier. One can, and should do this at home if ones own seedlings to make them grow sturdier - brush them daily with your hand carefully, especially if they are being raised under lights in warmth.


PGR's have their good uses. Melons and cucumber crops use them to stimulate more female blossoms this increasing yeilds. 

I do believe that PGR's have their place though,. I consider myself a science geek and can appreciate the proper use of both insecticides and even PGR's. I use some PGR's myself to aid germination of rare or endangered seeds, and the use of gibberellic acid is common amongst plant people,, some seeds are extremely difficult to germinate without it. I just don't find its use on annual crops that we eat acceptably. Maybe the graphic designer in me should design a logo that can be used to identify plants where PGR's have not been used.


Some peppers from an out-take or a 'making-of' picture from my book. By raising one's own peppers from seed, the diversity and certainly the size and health of the plants can be controlled. Many wholesale growers treat peppers all as ornamental plants, treating them with extra doses of PGR's to both stimulate blooms and more potential pods at the time of sale.


Start one's own seedlings at home.  We can accept the fact that they might appear a bit leggy or not as healthy looking as the steroidal beasts at the nursery. They are supposed to look that way.

One can always ask a good nursery, as there are some who refuse to use any growth regulators. A mom and pop nursery who cares about the varieties they grow and their product will generally be proud of this fact, so ask. As for data out there on the safety of growth regulators, I have yet to read any that make me comfortable. Some state that the PGR's becomes inactive after a period of time, but even so, I don't want my vegetable plants stunted or mutated just because I am too lazy to stake them.



All pepper plants can be considered ornamental but left without growth hormones, they can grow to enormous size. This pot on the right is 30 inches in diameter and the plant nearly 4 feet tall. I would never dream of spraying it. Yet most hot peppers at nurseries have been treated to remain stocky and short. If you dont have to stake your peppers, something was wrong.

The use of PGR's with ornamental plants does concern me a bit. Last year I noticed that many of the perennials found at garden centers are treated to make them short and stocky, and to produce more blooms. This seems like the consumer is being misled, but may be legally growers or seed companies are exempt from lawsuits as many assume that their pots of fall asters or chrysanthemums are just temporary display plants. I suppose I can accept their use on mums but when I read in the trade magazine that their use is recommended on many crops including ornamental grasses and 5-gallon perennials that I am buying for my perennial border, then I am concerned. If I want a tall clump of monarda or campanula, then I want it to grow tall.

Another out-take from my book showing some of the many eggplants that I raised this year. Each plant, 3 of nearly 20 varieties was raised in 5-gallon pots, never sprayed with growth regulators, I had to stake them all but look at the harvest and the diversity.  Yes, I couldn't help but to grow them all.

In the end, the choice is up to us.  It was eyeopening for me to discover most every propagation guide from a major seed distributor outlined methods for wholesale plug growers and vegetable transplant growers on how to apply Uniconazole (Sumagic) to their tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings. PGR use is already used in many food crops to stimulate tuberization and flowering, so it's a slippery slope. Their use on cucumbers and melons to encourage more female blossoms concerns me less, and their use on seed crops to help create certain hybrids hardly worries me. Again, I can appreciate good science. Their uses here are practical and specific - to increase more male or female flower or to improve fruit set and seed production.

But their use on making my eggplant seedling a little more 'healthy looking" nope. I'm good.

The lesson here is to raise your tomatoes, peppers, chili's and eggplants from seed at home, and if you want really tall 40-inch snapdragons too.

A bit of a tease. This isn't the design, just my take for the sales meeting this week.

2 comments :

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  2. excellent post. I hate how stumpy annuals have become.

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