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My First Media Screw Up

I love Chicago radio's Mike Nowak Show.  All cities need a gardening show like this.  Mike is funny and also very serious.  He talks some major environmental issues as well as plants.  As I entered his studio last week, I heard him shouting, “There is no such THING as clean coal!”  And because it’s Chicago, his gardening show regularly includes sports talk.  Gardening is life and Mike knows it.

Now that I’ve been on his show for an interview, I have twice the admiration.  Live radio, keeping your wits about you when you don’t know what’s next, wow, that is hard. 

I sat down to talk about my book and soon got an audience question about making a garden on a spot where a dog had been pooping.

I said my typically relaxed thing—that I’d get the fresh stuff off, fence the garden to keep the dog out in future, but otherwise trust that winter and the soil microbes would take care of the rest.

Twitter instantly exploded.  Was I trying to give beginning gardeners roundworms?

No, I was just saying what I would do.

However, I conceded that if one wanted to be absolutely safe, one could dig out the soil and replace it.  Then I had a little tantrum.  “I’m not a scientist!  If you are that worried, take a look at the science! Talk to a county extension agent! Talk to a Master Gardener!”

In other words, if you want to be looking at worst-case scenarios—dog hasn’t been to the vet, has worms, deposits worms in garden, gardener fails to shovel piles off, eggs survive Chicago winter, gardener doesn’t wash produce, eats eggs, gets roundworm (an estimated 14% of Americans have been infected with roundworms, which generally cause no symptoms) and has one of the rare bad infections—well, talk to THEM, not me. 

I’m about the joys of growing food, not worst cases.

But here is what I should have said, as a reasonable adult:

I have not investigated the science of dog poop.  However, when researching my book, I was concerned about manure in the vegetable garden and the possibility of lethal E. coli infection.  So I called the appropriate CDC office and asked if they were aware of anyone who’d been sickened by eating out of a home garden.  They sent me a 1992 Lancet story about a woman who’d infected a few people after putting cow manure—presumably fresh—from her cow and calf on her garden all summer.

That was the extent of the CDC’s response.  Getting sick from a home garden?  Clearly, it is not a common story.  So common sense might suffice in the way we handle our soil: nothing freshly out of the back end of an animal.  Give time and the soil microbes a chance to rid it of anything harmful.

But nothing is risk-free, and I don't want to tell anybody else how much risk to assume.

I have to say, however, that the Twitter reaction only underlines one of the points of my book: We Americans have an outsized fear of what lurks in our dirt.  Why, in this age of vaccinations and modern diagnostic tools and antibiotics—many of them derived from soil microbes, which are EXCELLENT at cleaning up the joint—are we so afraid of our soil?

Here’s what’s really risky, to my mind: being too scared to dig in the dirt.  Not gardening.  Not getting the exercise, not eating the food you grow.  If you are an adult American, you have a 1 in 3 chance of being obese and a 1 in 9 chance of having diabetes.  Compare that to the small possibility of contracting a soil-borne illness from a vegetable garden.

Mike was very gracious about my provoking outrage all over the Midwest.  As I left, he shook my hand and said, “I like your book, but you don’t know shit about dog poop.”

Posted by on March 11, 2011 at 4:12 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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37 responses to “My First Media Screw Up”

  1. Oh for goodness sake. I like your response. Nothing fresh, clear away what’s there, let nature do her cleanup thing.

  2. Tara Dillard says:

    How many people create raised beds in the vegetable garden with railroad ties or pressure treated timbers?

    Arsenic & other toxic ingredients.

    But, no, dog poop !!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. JL says:

    As an observer, dog’s companion and gardener, I think the fresh is a definite disposal item.
    The longer the area has been used and the intensity of use would influence my concern.
    I have partially plunged large tubs with drain holes into the soil to use as raised planters within an active dog run.

  4. Katie says:

    Michele-I loved your book. The fear of dirt, soil, WHATEVER in this country exasperates me, too.

    I SPECIFICALLY ate Stewart’s hot dogs when I lived up in your neck of the woods JUST to build immunity to microbes. (And because they were convenient.) You think I’m kidding–I assure you I am not :)

  5. Frances says:

    Thanks for making this clear, Michele. I read the tweets and knew you would not recommend using doggie dirt on the garden. Now it is official.

  6. Michele Owens says:

    Katie, you are a braver woman than me.

  7. Ray Eckhart says:

    “Talk to a Master Gardener”

    Gee thanks – will remember that during the next crazy call… 😉

  8. Katie says:

    Oh, Michele! C’mon! They build immunity! Right!?!

  9. John says:

    but what about the stuff coming out of the back end of those birds flying overhead or that bunny munching in the corner or something that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe before you even walked into the garden zone… it goes on and on. Twitter would have imploded NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAID. There are enough people out there that just want to pick apart any advice you give that there is no way you and your response is gonna satisfy all of them. My solution would be to go outside, pull something out of the ground, wipe it on my pants leg and eat it right then, right there and shoot the finger to anyone that makes a peep about it.

    Selling books is harder than writing them.

  10. I think Michele is misestimating those who called her out for her first response.

    Michele’s advice was probably a little not a lot – off base. Not a WAY off base, but a little. And with this post she seems to acknowledge this. It is nice to see a media darling admit that her off-the-cuff answer could have been more accurate.

    But in making this acknowledgment she takes a swipe at her critics that is even further off the mark than the original poop statement. By painting her critics as “scared to dig in the dirt” it appears that she is trying to duck responsibility for her own bad advice. It is a strawman: what gardener is “afraid to dig in the dirt”?

    The fact is that the feces of domesticated omnivores (like cats and dogs) carries many risks above-and-beyond the risks from bird feces or herbivore feces. I’m not as worried about “the stuff coming out of the back end of those birds flying overhead or that bunny munching in the corner” because dog/cat/human feces carries a level of risk an order of magnitude (or two) higher than those things.

  11. Nina says:

    As Americans have become increasingly divorced from nature, (not withstanding love of organic food),they’ve become precious pansies out in the dirt. They may defrost their chicken out on the counter but Goddess forbid some insect should take a bite out of their lettuce or aphids should swarm over the brussels sprouts.

  12. Mike Nowak says:

    Hey, Michele, that’s why I bring experts and authors on my radio program–so THEY can say the controversial things, while I read the commercials. Thanks for the shout out. If folks want to hear the entire conversation (there was more than dog poop, honest!) here’s the link: http://www.mikenowak.net/podcasts/?p=episode&name=2011-03-06_20110306_20110306_mn_full_show.mp3 You’ll have to scroll through the first half of the show to get to Michele’s segment.

    I’m thinking of having “Poo U” shirts printed. You in?

    I’m also imagining a headline: “Poo Drops; Twitter Explodes”

    I still think you’ve written a terrific book.

  13. If only there were such Twitter freak-outs about the human feces in farmland where migrant workers don’t have access to bathrooms! I agree with the precious pansies remark–come ON people. Michele, you were not on the show as a poop scientist/soil biologist…it seems to me people just want to grab and tweet about whatever. It’s worse than typical American TV news.

  14. ~~Melissa says:

    I think it’s fear that got us into this everything-must-come-from-a-package-in-a-store mentality. Truth shall get us trusting our own hands and gardens once again.

  15. Cindy S. says:

    I want a ‘POO U’ t-shirt.

  16. commonweeder says:

    I have long thought that in so many cases Americans have shown themselves to be very bad at risk assessment – otherwise why would it be illegal for children in my town to eat the vegetables they have grown in the school garden, with the help of teachers and parents, in the school cafeteria.

  17. Michelle D says:

    Shit happens.
    If you’re concerned about dog crap in your garden then stoop , scoop and send a soil sample off to a lab.
    Later you can tweet about it.
    Until then, the sky is not going to fall on your garden chicken little.

  18. Marie says:

    “Live radio, keeping your wits about you when you don’t know what’s next, wow, that is hard.”
    Yep! My husband does a live, call-in radio show every weekday morning and it is a Gift to be able to take calls, deal with controversial subjects and/or callers, and sound as if you are just sitting there, drinking coffee and having a chat. It is not as easy as he makes it sound! I know because I sit right next to him, monitoring the equipment, as we do the show from our home. So, I think you did well, and are very very Brave to even go on live radio! And you aren’t the first person to come up with an even better ‘answer’ once you are off the air. LOVE the book, BTW. Love it!

  19. I wonder what the percentage is of people sickened in any way by homegrown produce, vs. people sickened by E. coli alone from store-bought produce?

    I suppose the old dog-poop site could be sterilized with the application of a good strong pesticide, which – oddly – is more acceptable to many people than a few doggy doots.

  20. Ivette Soler says:

    Some people LIVE to be super pains in the butt – to miss the overall point of an answer and go straight to what they see as a HUGE error that invalidates whatever was said. Please.
    I wish that these same people with all of their wisdom would themselves go on live radio or tv and see how well they do! Most people have no idea about the challenge of keeping all the balls in the air in those situations … it is SO easy to be an arm-chair quarterback!
    You KNOW your SHIT, Michele! The nit pickers are being silly – and when you are a “media darling” you are an easy target for those who think they know more and can do better. It makes me sad that some people live to be contrarians and would rather pick something apart rather than allow themselves to understand the spirit and subtext of an answer like the one you gave. I mean really – you were not advocating the use of fresh dog poo as a fertilizer!

    Your advice wasn’t BAD – there was just more info to give, caveats and contingencies that really can’t fully be addressed in the short time one has on a live show. Your point about the letting the soil do its work is a great one. Any further info can be gleaned by doing a google search or READING YOUR BOOK! Sheesh!

  21. Susan says:

    I agree, Michele – people have just gotten silly about the dangers of the natural world. And I’d bet good money that the ones who gave you such a ration about your answer are the same people you see at the mall, letting their toddlers run way ahead of them, or letting the toddler cross the parking lot while they say, “Don’t run out in front of the car!” Unreal. BTW, Mr. Nowak – “Poo drops, Twitter explodes” is absolutely priceless – love it! Or how about this: “Who put the ‘twit’ in Twitter?”

  22. Xan says:

    I’m one of the nitpickers. And I picked this particular nit because I was once a novice gardener who was afraid of the dirt. I used arsenic-laden wood for my raised bed because some “expert” said it was okay. I let mice nest in my compost because someone presented to me as an expert said it was okay. Garden rant is great; but once you put yourself out there by, I dunno writing a book about gardening and then going on a gardening show, whether or not you think of yourself as an expert, people, dumb beginner gardeners like me, are going to take you as such.

    You don’t have to know everything. You can say “I don’t know, here’s where you can get that advice.” What you cannot do is throw something out there and then try to backtrack while calling out the people who call you on your bad advice. Kudos to Michelle for getting there eventually.

    And don’t worry, Mike read me the riot act too, and convinced me that the book is great. Apologies for bruised feelings; this is why you’ll never find me on live radio.

  23. Ginger says:

    A Master Gardener? A volunteer with a few hours of schooling. Really?

  24. sarah says:

    Hey Ginger, don’t knock Master Gardeners! That “few hours of schooling” is a thorough course in sources and academic research information, as well as an overview of gardening. A well trained MG would know how to find the answer to the dog poop question, and she would know that her own anecdotal experience was not a substitute for research based facts.

  25. naomi says:

    When we were little, one of my brothers ate dirt all the time, until he was almost four. It turned out he had a mineral deficiency but the dirt took care of it. The doctor told Mom to let him eat it. We had a dog and a cat (and the neighbors’ dogs too, Castor and Pollux). He’s 6’3″, and doing fine in his fifties.

  26. Anne says:

    People get freaked and go freaky no matter what you say…I think you done good all things considered. Fortunately death by dog (or racooon) roundworms is not among the leading or actual causes of premature death.

    (Glad you asked Michele, keep this list in your back pocket!)

    The leading causes of premature death in 2000 were:
    1. tobacco (435,000 deaths; 18.1%)
    2. poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths; 16.6%)
    3. alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths; 3.5%).
    4. microbial agents (75,000),
    5. toxic agents (55,000),
    6. motor vehicle crashes (43,000),
    7. incidents involving firearms (29,000)
    8. sexual behaviors (20,000)
    9. illicit use of drugs (17,000)

    What REALLY kills us is our excellent access to cigarettes; even more excellent access to unhealthy food; not enough access to safe places to walk or recreate; excessive booze-drinking; infectious diseases (primarily influenza, pneumonia, septicemia and tuberculosis); the nasties that come out of smokestacks, tailpipes, factory pipes, and the chemical industry (yes, including many gardening products); driving too much and too fast (whether sober or drunk); shooting guns at people; nookie with people who have diseases that are spread through sex that can kill or disable you; and overdosing on drugs on purpose.

    So, uh, I think the average gardener, “expert” or wanna-be has more to worry about than dog crap and roundworms. Give the soil microbes half a chance and they’ll take care of their pathogenic brethren all on their own.

    Readers and ranters can go here to get the full scoop on what’s takin’ us down before our time:
    http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/291/10/1238.abstract

  27. Zone 8B says:

    My job is a customer assistance job of sorts so I can tell you from personal experience dealing with the public is not easy. Everyday is a new adventure in answering questions just when you think your prepared for what someone might ask you you’ll receive a call from a person who you wonder might be from another planet.

    You didn’t sound like you had a tantrum to me how can you anticipate that someone is going to throw a dog poop question at you and you will have an answer ready on the spot.

    It would be nice if people would do a little research on there own but from my observations all they want is a quick answer so later on they can have someone to blame.

  28. Rich says:

    Those same twitterheads who got upset about Michele’s slight and really, truly unimportant oversight (Vincent, you are just wrong about the actual level of risk, good fellow), might want to look a little closer at their own lives – how much we are unaware of what goes on in kitchens at restaurants we patronize and even in our own homes that is so much more “dirty” yet does no harm….

  29. @Rich

    I have not overstated the dangers of eating dog poop, certainly not relative to other kinds of poop (e.g. birds and bunnies) which are much less dangerous.

    But you raise an interesting set of additional arguments.

    The first is completely illogical: there will always be risks, so don’t worry about any of them? Seriously? That makes absolutely no sense. Eating things grown in dog poop is a serious risk that can be easily remedied (i.e. don’t do it). What does the kitchen at my favorite restaurant have to do with that?

    Second, no one is waging a flat-out war on all things “dirty” I think we all aware that a general exposure to generically “dirty” things is typically benign, if not outright beneficial (see research on asthma and allergies among farm kids, for example).

    But dog poop in a vegetable garden is NOT one of those “just eat it, it’ll be fine” kind of things, anymore than lead-contaminated soil is. Experts worry about these PARTICULAR things for good reason: the probability of a problem and the likely impact of those problems are high enough to warrant concern.

    Nature is a powerful remediator, I agree, but there is no reason to be blase. And I’ll repeat what I said earlier, in case it was missed: I don’t actually think Michele’s advice (before or after correction) was altogether horrible. I DO think it could have been better, coming from someone who sells herself as an expert. And I also think the smear against those who corrected her was out of line.

  30. Michele, loved your book. It was about loving a garden and the garden life. One shouldn’t get their garden advice from Twitter. Country Extension Agent would be my call if I were supremely worried.

    I try not to worry overmuch.

    Thanks for writing such a great book about the good life.~~Dee

  31. Michele Owens says:

    Thanks, Dee.

    Vincent, I am not trying to sell myself as an “expert.” I think of myself as an enthusiast and a reporter. If you’d read my book, you’d see that I am not interested in pushing people around. In gardening, conditions always vary. And I am well aware that what works for me might not work for you.

    In my experience, the “experts” don’t know anything. They are the people who told me to double-dig, to use lots of stinky powders in my garden, to lime, to fret about insects and diseases. None of which, in my 20 years’ experience with a large vegetable garden, is in any way necessary.

    I should have answered the dog poop question by saying it was something I hadn’t researched. And you are right, there is no reason for people to take unnecessary risks.

    The problem is that every conversation about gardening is about NOTHING but risks.

    And that is why would-be gardeners don’t garden.

  32. I’m still in the process of reading your book Michele, and so far I have found it sensible and wise. I admire your willingness to go on live radio, and can empathize with that feeling of coming up with the better response too late. It’s a shame when comments get taken out of context.

  33. Tammy says:

    I fenced off a “doggy” area, raked it, laid down thick sheets of cardboard and newspaper, and grew straw potatoes on it. No problems.

  34. Kay says:

    Check out the information of the CDC and the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s websites. Ocular larval migrans (from roundworms) is a leading cause of blindness in children. It is NOT just a question of building up your immunity. People do not know enough about zoonoses.

  35. Xan says:

    @Zone 8B the “twitterheads” who were listening and commenting are: a blogger/gardener/food activist who writes about and cooks real food, advocating for simple solutions to avoiding industrial food in your own life, a vegan garden blogger, and an urban farmer who sells at her local farmers market. All are Master Gardener trainees, so they’ve been having the idea of “research based answers only” drilled into them on a regular basis. This sounds exactly like people who have, in fact, “looked a little closer at their own lives.”

  36. Xan says:

    One more thing– can we stop with the name-calling? “Michelle gave bad advice and she’s done it before” warrants a counter argument, but not a complete dismissal via hate-speech of the questioners’ ethics and knowledge. (If I’m a “twitterhead” does that make people who comment on blogs “blogcommentheads? Just asking.)

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