Garden hygiene: response to a question from Joan Axthelm

Garden hygiene: response to a question from Joan Axthelm thumbnail
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Joan Axthelm asked us the following question related to garden hygiene:

You asked for questions to answer in your writings (which I adore) and I know that this will be the first of many to come: With Farm Fresh produce and eggs: what do you look for regarding contaminants and what steps do you take (how..) to make sure your food is safe to eat? I am asking because of all the E. coli in the greens and salmonella on the eggs stories that are out there. How do you insure – in your home – that the foodstuffs you eat from your farm or others are clean and safe to eat?

Great questions, Joan!

A bed of cool weather crops in our spring garden.

A bed of cool weather crops in our spring garden.

Let me start by saying what we do in our own garden and with our own food is quite different from what we do at the farm. Additionally, food safety inspectors would probably tell us we’re crazy with some of the things we eat from our garden and/or foraging, but our practices (we think) are based in sound science and logic.

A while back, I wrote an article titled “I’ve been sick one day in 10 years. Here’s how to avoid getting sick.” In the article, I outlined the 10 broad approaches The Tyrant and I utilize to avoid getting sick, while acknowledging in the intro that some of the reasons we don’t get sick are/were totally out of our control (natural birth, breastfeeding, genetics, luck). In the article, #2 is “Get Dirty”:

“This might seem antithetical to the first recommendation, but people/children living in hyper-sterilized environments actually get sick more frequently than people who do not. This phenomenon is explained by the “hygiene hypothesis,” aka the biome depletion theory.

Humans are basically a giant garden of microbial life; among other functions, our microbes serve to protect us, produce helpful pharmaceuticals for us, and inform our immune system about what it needs to be prepared to protect you against. You need your microbial systems to be both biodiverse and robust or you lose the “forcefield effect” they serve.

One of the best ways to “get dirty” without introducing yourself to harmful synthetic chemicals? Organic gardening.”

A Bit More About Hygiene Hypothesis, or “Old Friends Hypothesis”

“Old friends” refers to all the microorganisms in and on us that we’ve co-evolved with over tens of thousands of years. These old friends help make our bodies and minds work, and when they’re not present, our various biological systems are prone to malfunction.

For instance, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and chronic inflammatory diseases are all markedly increasing in the industrialized world and studies show that our bodies’ microbial ecosystems in the west are ravaged in comparison to other cultures. Another interesting fact: people without these health problems who move here from abroad and adopt a stereotypical western lifestyle (poor diet, sterilized living conditions, little exercise) soon develop the same “western” illnesses and diseases.

These aren’t necessarily slow processes either. For instance, food can have an amazingly quick impact on our gut flora, which is home to trillions of microbes that are arguably the most important to overall health. Researchers have found that we can radically alter our gut flora within a matter of a few days by changing what we eat.

As Eugene Chang, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago says, “… in contrast to what we thought might take days, weeks or years began to happen within hours.”

As it turns out, we’re all cultivating vast gardens of microbial life in and on us, and those gardens have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. We need our “old friends” to be our best selves! 

Garden Hygiene / Food Hygiene: How and Why We Eat What We Eat

A typical spring dinner for us at Tyrant Farms. Asian-inspired ramen with a wide variety of garden-fresh, organically grown veggies and duck eggs.

A typical spring dinner for us at Tyrant Farms. Asian-inspired ramen with a wide variety of garden-fresh, organically grown veggies and duck eggs.

With all that information in mind, you can probably guess why we:

  • Eat a primarily plant-based, whole food diet;
  • Exclusively eat organically grown or foraged foods (we think that the combinations of pesticide residues on conventional food is likely to cause dysbiosis, and will start getting a lot of press in years to come as new studies emerge);
  • Don’t ever drink sodas (sugared or diet), and instead drink tea, water, and fermented beverages (fermented cordials, kombucha, etc).
Sparkling wisteria flower cordial. It's interesting to note that the pigments that the fermentation process pulls out from the flowers are bright pink, not purple. Perhaps a chemist could explain this coloration?

Homemade sparkling wisteria flower cordial, a great-tasting probiotic.

Do we wash food from our garden? It depends.

Every night when we walk our gardens with our ducks, we’re picking and grazing things straight out of the garden, unwashed. For instance, last night during our walk, we ate different varieties of strawberries, sugar snap peas, green coriander seeds, kale, and serviceberries.

Since we mulch our beds, our garden produce never has dirt caked to it, which is pretty common in tilled garden systems. If it did, we’d rinse it to avoid chewing on grit!

Are we worried about pathogens or parasites? Not really. Maybe we should be, but we’re more focused on loading up and cultivating our good microbes than we are on killing all the microbes before we eat something. Like it or not, the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, and the food we eat are all covered with bacteria, yeast, fungi, and a wide range of other critters. There’s no way to avoid that reality. Instead, our aim is to cultivate our own microbial gardens to be diverse, robust ecosystems that can fend off any “bad” critters that might to take up residence in and on us.

Azur Star kohlrabi growing in a no-till organic bed in our garden.

Azur Star kohlrabi growing in a no-till organic bed in our garden.

Interestingly, this perspective mirrors our approach to organic gardening and farming as well. Rather than try to kill everything and create a perfectly hygienic environment, we try to orchestrate robust ecosystems that self-tend and balance themselves. After a decade of eating these types of fresh foods, we’ve never had a single incidence of food borne illness. Granted we’re only two people, so that’s anecdotal data, but it does square with statistics from broader population-wide epidemiological studies as well.

What About Our Ducks and Duck Eggs?

On both conventional and organic farms, there are strict guidelines on when, if, and how animals can be used in association with crops grown for fresh consumption.

Jackson, one of our Welsh Harlequin ducks, hunting for slugs, insects, and worms in our garden.

Jackson, one of our Welsh Harlequin ducks, hunting for slugs, insects, and worms in our garden.

On a farm, we couldn’t let our ducks forage for insects amongst our veggies. At home, we’ll regularly let our ducks into certain garden beds to forage (once the plants are large enough that our ducks can’t trample them).

Are we exposing ourselves to pathogens? Maybe in small quantities. However, our microbiomes and immune systems are robust enough that we don’t have any problems from this practice. Pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, and agriculturalists have been doing what we do for tens of thousands of years, and it doesn’t tend to cause problems unless poor livestock management practices are in place or the food is being consumed by people who don’t have the same environmental exposures as the people who produced it (e.g. sterilized “city folk”).

Like most of the rest of the world, we also don’t wash or refrigerate our duck eggs. Eggs have a protective microbial “bloom” on them that keeps pathogens out. When you wash eggs, you remove that bloom and make it possible for pathogens to penetrate the shell – that’s why eggs in the US have to be refrigerated.

Recommendations & Takeaways?

At risk of opening ourselves up for a lawsuit, we should state very clearly that although we’ve carefully evaluated the available data and taken the approaches outlined above solely for ourselves, that doesn’t mean you or anyone else should follow what we do.

If you want to bleach or scrub your food before you eat it, so be it. If you want to spray your food with endocrine disrupting neurotoxins, so be it (as long as you warn others who might be impacted by that decision).

This article simply outlines what we do and why we do it. It’s not meant to be prescriptive. Hopefully, it is informative and makes you do some digging, both literally and figuratively, in order to find a healthier lifestyle best suited to your particular situation.

Yellow wonder strawberries, which taste like fruit punch. No way are these making it inside to be washed before we eat them.

Yellow wonder strawberries, which taste like fruit punch. No way are these making it inside to be washed before we eat them.

I’ll conclude by saying that we are both terrified and horrified by western health trends and statistics such as:

  • Nearly 75% of our adult population is overweight or obese;
  • Trillions of dollars of economic loss is incurred each year due to preventable sickness/illness;
  • Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens die yearly from preventable, diet-related diseases.

Things must change. Doing the same things as everyone else while expecting a different outcome doesn’t seem like a wise path to follow. That’s why we use our garden and our food to get back in touch with some of those “old friends.”


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