Everybody's a Critic

Martha Stewart gets fact-checked by hort professor

GardenPeople3 Look out, Martha, coz none other than award-winning hort professor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott is watching you – and correcting your mistakes. 

Take this interview you did for NPR.  Here's some of what Linda has this to say about it on her team blog.

She's a proponent of organic food
(as are many of us), and mentioned two reasons she doesn't like
conventionally grown produce.  The first – residual pesticides - is a
legitimate concern.  But then she stated her second concern that
"chemical fertilizers in the soil are taken up and stored in the plant."

No kidding.

Plants really don't care (excuse my anthropomorphizing) where their
mineral nutrients come from.  Nitrogen in ammonium sulfate is the same
element as the nitrogen in cottonseed meal.  The plant uses it for
amino acids, chlorophyll, alkaloids, and many, many other compounds. 

Martha's faulty thinking falls into the "organic is safer than
chemical" mindset that way too many people hold (you can read a column
I wrote about this in 2001 here). 
"Chemical" is not intrinsically bad and "organic" is not automatically
safe.  This is an emotion-based argument and inspires fear rather than
thoughtful discussion.  When someone parrots this mantra, I can't take
them seriously.

So Martha, do what smart garden writers are doing to avoid such gaffes in the future.  Subscribe to the Garden Professors Blog, then read Linda's The Informed Gardener and Jeff Gillman's The Truth about Organic Gardening.  Keep up, or stick to what you know.

Posted by on December 27, 2009 at 6:45 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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24 Responses to “Martha Stewart gets fact-checked by hort professor”

  1. Many garden blogs, mine included, could use some fact checking! There are lots of misconceptions and myths that are perpetuated by notable gardeners and bloggers alike. Let the reader beware.

    But really, to call out Martha. Tsk! Be careful!

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    Yes, call out Martha, Garden Rant, me & etc.

    Gardening should be treated seriously.

    Martha impresses me as the type of gardener who would appreciate someone using science applied to her work. Garden Rant also.

    I do.

    Plus, I was waitng for mention of machorizal fungi issues related to the topic of organic/inorganic fertilizer. Who wants to kill their machorizal fungi when they fertilize?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Give the girl a break for christs’ sake, she’s not a horticulturist or a bio scientist , she’s a media personality that has augmented the landscape of American living in a positive way.
    Martha’s thinking wasn’t “faulty”. She was trying to get the point across that organics are her preferred choice. Instead of saying that the vegetables themselves were impacted by the inorganic fertilizers she she should have noted that the soil they grow in is impacted.

    This ranks low on the scale of petty.

  4. greg draiss says:

    Wrong: She is a media personality whom peole take as gospel. Just like Oprah..what she says goes. Wrong or not.
    Fact is these “celebs” et away with crap like this all day just like politicians.

    The TROLL

  5. Elizabeth Stump says:

    Amen to the professor for calling faulty scientific assumptions to the table. It is fear based. After all, at the molecular level, organic and non-organic are the same. Now I will admit that the organic fertilizers may have some micronutrients that a non-organic fertilizer won’t have.

    If you want a non-B.S. look at the organic industry, watch Penn & Teller” B*llsh*t episode on the organic industry. People are under the impression that “organic” automatically means it tastes better. Watch the blind taste test. They switch plate colors, left or right on the organic/non-organic fruit throughout the taste comparison to overcome any bias for left/right or color preference. When it comes to taste, “organic” is perceived to taste better, but in the test, it proved otherwise.

  6. Claire Splan says:

    I still like Martha–but I consider her a gardening advocate rather than an expert. Especially as the momentum behind GM food grows, I really appreciate objective, scientifically proven input from people like Chalker-Scott.

  7. susan harris says:

    I agree that Martha’s opinions DO count and the example given here proves that – opining on NPR is taken more seriously than in a frothy media outlet like US Magazine.
    Also agree that bloggers should be expected to get their facts right, too, and when we Ranters don’t, a whole bunch of commenters tell us about it. And thank you.

  8. susan harris says:

    Just had lunch with Robin, author of the Bumblebee Blog. She told me to check out her “Disappointed in Martha” post and I’m adding it to our discussion:
    http://www.bumblebeeblog.com/2008/02/25/disappointed-in-martha/
    And note: Robin’s criticisms are on aesthetics, not horticultural grounds, plus pointing out the absence of seating in Martha’s garden, a subject I rant about occasionally myself.

  9. tai haku says:

    since we’re fact checking could someone point out where she says “chemical fertilizers in the soil are taken up and stored in the plant” because that quote isn’t in the linked interview (although something like it is). Let those who are without sin cast the first fact-checking stone.

    Incidentally there was an article in a british paper recently about how the bbc had made 7 key errors in planting a tree on a recent show, the “errors” turned out to be relatively minor technique issues like not “checking the roots for damage” – the article made tree planting sound as complicated as passing universal healthcare and probably put-off or worried unduly any number of would-be tree planters. So I guess I’m of the view there are errors that should be called out(like Martha’s bad science) and errors that maybe shouldn’t (like the beeb’s imperfect but effectual tree planting (they put it in the right way up – in my experience that is usually enough)

  10. I appreciate Linda’s making her thorough research debunking these old (and new) gardeners’ tales available. There is no excuse now for passing on myths as truths. I know I’ve learned a lot.

  11. Kitty says:

    I assume her place is zoned agricultural, but if not then there may have been restrictions on the height and type of fence. I have had to work with zoning restrictions that can make ones true intent turn ugly and laughable as well.

  12. Layanee says:

    As always thanks for more information and that link to the Garden Professors Blog.

  13. Donna Vogelpohl says:

    Martha who? Oh, that woman. She probably has a team of gardeners who does all her gardening for her so why is anyone paying her any attention at all.

    I’ve seen chemical gardening at the OSU Research Farm in Bixby, OK. The soil was dead around the huge tomato plants, the chemicals abounded and the plants looked healthy – but the soil was – well, it wasn’t soil, it was dirt – plain old dirt. And there wasn’t a bug to be seen – I kicked the soil with my toes and it hurt and I kept saying over and over – this soil is dead – loudly. Sue Gray, Ext Office Agent said they heard me – organic material is being added – I’ll let you know if I see a difference.

    My soil – my rich, deep organic soil oozes life. There are worms, grubs, rollypollys, ants and beetles roam the earth and the air is thick with life above the earth and deep inside there is humis – it smells warm, healthy, fluffy, alive. When aphids appear I don’t freak out because in days there are so many lacewings and ladybugs, it is a team effort and the aphids become a luscious meal.

    After years of teaching and practicing organic farming – and I can’t even use the term to the public because the government has taken my right since I refuse certification, I understand the chemical uptake is the same – but when I think of the research facility and the condition of the dirt – the deadness and hardpan, the lack of vitality the soil itself had, I’ll keep my soil as organic and lush and healthy as I do now.

  14. Michele Owens says:

    I LOVE Dr. Chalker-Scott. More science all around, especially in gardening, where crazy people will tell you to bury cow horns in the ground if you want happy crops.

    However, there IS evidence that organic food is different and better, and the nitrogen source does matter. Conventionally grown food contains more nitrates, lots more, which are implicated in bunches of diseases:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090705215239.htm

    Linda?

  15. There is a great deal of confusion in this web article, with comingled references to both nitrate and nitrite. Nitrate (NO3), along with ammonium (NH4) are the commonly used forms of nitrogen in fertilizer. Nitrate is also the mobile form of nitrogen in plants, and yes, plants contain lots of nitrate. As I mentioned in my original critique, this is the form used to make amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and many other essential macromolecules. So yes, plants contain nitrate, and when you eat plants you eat nitrate too. It doesn’t hurt you.

    Nitrite (NO2) is the compound that reacts to form nitrosamines, the chemicals of concern in the article. Nitrite is not, to my knowledge, used in fertilizers. It’s formed naturally in the soil by bacteria, which convert ammonium (NH4) to nitrite and then to nitrate. Nitrite is not a usable form of nitrogen for plants. Therefore, the fear that plants contain nitrites is unfounded. It is, however, in many processed foods and can react to form nitrosamines in people who eat processed foods.

    The article does say, however, that overuse of fertilizers can contaminate water supplies. I think that’s why the author says we are exposed to them more. I need to point out that this contamination can come from inorganic (conventional) OR organic fertilizers! The issue is fertilizer overuse, not necessarily fertilizer source.

    I thoroughly agree that we need to limit our exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals, whether in the water we drink, the air we breathe, or the soil we work with our hands. Misinformation from celebrities such as Martha Stewart shift our focus away from the real issues.

    (I’ll also apologize for taking liberties with quotation marks. I was trying to separate her concern with pesticide use – a valid concern – from that of fertilizer uptake – a nonsensical concern.)

  16. Michele Owens says:

    Okay, Linda. I’m going to be a pain about this, because I’m really interested in your point of view on it.

    So, yes, the jury’s still out on whether excess nitrates in vegetables are harmful to your health:
    http://74.125.155.132/scholar?q=cache:MvGJ9zApJZ0J:scholar.google.com/&hl=en&as_sdt=2000&as_ylo=2008.

    But the big Organic Center 2008 review of nutritional studies found that in matched pairs of conventionally and organically grown crops, there is way more nitrate in the conventionally grown vegetables, on average almost twice as much.

    Possibly because chemical fertilizers flood plants with nitrates in big bursts? Unlike organic fertilizers, from which the nitrogen is liberated more slowly, by the soil creatures?

    So Martha Stewart is not entirely wrong, is she?

    I love your Gerald Heron quote more than anything I’ve read in years.

  17. Not a problem, Michele! I enjoy the discussion.

    The issue is really nutrient availability. Slow-release nitrogen from organic material like compost or any other organic mulch is a more natural method of fertilizing plants than using readily avilable nitrogen. However, both ammonium nitrate (inorganic, conventional source) and fish meal (an example of an organic source) can provide way more nitrogen than plants need when they are overapplied. Then we have the issues with runoff pollution and with enhanced plant uptake.

    Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient in plants. They scavenge it whenever they can. If they are put into an artificial situation where they have more nitrogen than usual, you bet they will take it up as fast as they can. That’s when you see lots of leafy growth, sometimes at the expense of flowers and fruit. (Just like people evolved under conditions where sugar was not readily available in a pure form and so we too have a hard time not eating too much sweet stuff!)

    That being said, plants are a notoriously poor source of protein (which is formed from amino acids made in part from the nitrogen in nitrate), except for reproductive structures like seeds and some fruits. I find it difficult to believe that nitrate levels in plants are a serious human health concern, especially in view of the link you provided (which talks about actual health risks from nitrate, unlike the Organic Center review).

    So yes, I still think Martha is way off base. (And I doubt she looked at any of the material you’ve found!)

  18. Michele Owens says:

    Thank you, Linda. I’d no sooner apply fish meal to my garden than MiracleGro.

    I’m all about the mulch–slow food for the vegetable crops, as well as for the family!

  19. You and me both. I am a big proponent of organic mulches (especially wood chips), but you already know that. I do use a quick release nitrogen source (yes, stinky fish fertilizer) when I install a new tree or shrub, because the roots need the quick boost for establishment (especially if I’ve had to correct root flaws). But that’s the only time.

  20. marion says:

    You really devoted a whole blog post to this? Her main, and much bigger point, that pesticides are in an on the plants is dismissed?

    She could also add that synthetic fertilizers come almost exclusively from methane, a fossil fuel. And algae blooms may occur downstream with overzealous fertilizing of synthetic urea, rather than something organic, with much lower nitrogen level and slower release time, like the cottonseed meal you mentioned.

  21. Linda,
    We need your fact checking savvy! You know I’m a fan of yours.
    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report

  22. Thanks to both Michelle for pushing and Linda for patient answering. I feel so much more educated about this now.

  23. chris m. says:

    I want to ask a simple questions:
    how can I return to Garden Rant to see the latest entry?
    I have bookedmarked it but of course I only get the page I bookmarked.
    There must be a trick I don’t know…actually there are probably many tricks I don’t know!
    Thanks, I love and recommend your rant to everyone!

  24. susan harris says:

    Chris, return to the Rant from where? Email me susan@sustainable-gardening.com

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