Growing healthy, uncontaminated produce may be one of your top reasons for gardening.
My #1 goal when I started my first garden was to save money on my grocery bill. But not too far down from that goal was my hope to grow healthier food for my family, food that tastes better too. We definitely couldn’t afford to buy organic, so it seemed a natural fit to grow the foods that typically have more pesticide residue on them when they’re grown in a conventional environment.
Basic Facts of the Dirty Dozen List
You may have heard of the Dirty Dozen. It’s a list that the Environmental Working Group compiles each year that represents the twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables you buy at the grocery store, when grown non-organically.
Through testing processes, the Environmental Working Group ranks pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of more than 36,000 samples taken by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.
Though you can read all of the details on both their testing process and the results on their web site, here are some quick stats that alarmed me a bit:
- 70 percent of samples of 48 types of conventionally grown produce were contaminated with pesticide residues.
- 178 different pesticides, persisted even when washed
In the 2018 study, the twelve crops that showed the most residual amount of pesticides were — in order — strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. Hot peppers also find their way in the “Dirty Dozen Plus” category.
Using the Dirty Dozen List to Make Healthy Changes
This was enough to make me want to start growing more of my own food, and I needed a place to start. Perhaps you’re like me and you want to take healthful steps in the produce you consume. But sometimes the information can become too overwhelming.
That’s why in today’s episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast and blog post below, I’m highlighting five of the Dirty Dozen crops that you can grow yourself. I share specific details on why these five landed their spot on the list as well as some basics on how to get started growing them.
And be sure to scroll down to the bottom to print your free Dirty Dozen Alternative Guide. It’s a “cheat-sheet” of sorts that will give you all this information in a one-page printable. Consult it as you plan your garden, and even take it in your garden with you as you plant!
Avoid Pesticides by Growing these 5 Dirty Dozen Crops Yourself
Our family loves strawberries. That’s why their #1 spot on the Dirty Dozen list is more than a little disconcerting. In fact, a single sample of strawberries in the studies showed 20 different pesticides.
If this alarms you as much as it does me, you have two alternatives: buy organic or grow them yourself. In my area, organic strawberries command a hefty $6 per quart in the off-season.
If you want to grow them yourself, you’ll have to plan ahead. Although you can harvest a few strawberries the first season, the bulk of the harvest won’t come until years two through four. I harvested several gallons out of a 4×8 raised bed in my strawberries’ second year of production. With that amount, we ate strawberries fresh for about a month, plus extra to freeze and can strawberry jam.
For more information on planting or growing strawberries, check out this podcast episode and post: Getting Started Growing Strawberries – a Beginner’s Guide.
Spinach samples had, on average, twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
Depending on where you live, spinach may be hard to grow. In my climate, it doesn’t last long in the spring before it bolts. That’s why I have to plant my spinach in the fall. I harvest it most of the winter and into the spring.
If you eat it fresh, you won’t need a lot of space devoted to spinach, but if you plan to freeze it, you’ll need to plan to grow more since it shrinks down considerably after cooking.
But the good news is, since spinach is such a cold-hardy plant, you should have ample space in your garden both in the early early spring, and in the late fall.
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Let me tell you, after reading the book Tomatoland, I’ll never look at buying tomatoes from the grocery store the same again.
Still, I was a bit surprised it made it onto the Dirty Dozen list. For me, growing tomatoes is a no-brainer, as it may be for you. Even if you don’t like tomatoes fresh, most likely you eat canned or jarred tomato products. Depending on your space, you can grow tomato products to last you a good bit of the season.
Sweet Bell Peppers
Sweet bell peppers came in at #11 on the Dirty Dozen list. To me, these are the most obvious to grow. One, in my experience, they’re relatively easy especially in my hot summers, and two, they take up so little space. Just a couple of plants can fit at the end of a raised bed. I usually grow 4-6 plants, and I have enough peppers to cut and freeze for a year’s worth of peppers.
Hot Peppers required a special classification. They didn’t meet the traditional testing criteria. However, the samples were found to have the residue of an insecticide known to be toxic to the human nervous system.
Most avid gardeners have fun growing different types of hot peppers. But after learning this information, it’s just another reason to grow them instead of buy them. I grow jalapeños and at the end of the season freeze them whole. You can also mince them and freeze like other peppers.
Potatoes rounded out the Dirty Dozen list. In the 2014 report, they found the average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other food.
I personally love growing potatoes. They are the most beautiful plants, and at harvest time, it’s just so much fun to harvest! Even in my hot and humid climate, I’m able to store my potatoes in my pantry for up to 6 months. My goal is to grow enough to eat for six months. Then I purchase organic during the rest of the year.
If you’d like to get started growing potatoes, this podcast episode and post will give the beginner the basics.
Those are five crops you can grow to reduce your pesticide intake. This will also save money if you’re not having to buy their organic counterparts at the grocery store.
Don’t forget to download this Dirty Dozen Alternative Guide to help you get started. Plus, I’ll send more more information on what I do in the off-season when I can’t harvest these Dirty Dozen crops from my own garden, and I’ll share which crops I don’t purchase organic because of the Clean 15 List.
Get Your "Dirty Dozen Alternative" Garden Guide
Make small strides for better health by growing five of the twelve most pesticide-loaded crops yourself. In this guide you'll learn the space needed to grow each of these crops (for fresh eating and/or preserving), as well as where to purchase and when to plant them. Shortcut your way to consuming fewer pesticides!
With your e-mail address, I'll also send you more tips to on growing organic and saving money, along with my information-packed "In the Garden" email on Fridays, periodic updates on garden resources relevant to you, and access to my bank of free garden downloads.