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.”