Testing Compost
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANCESCA YORKE/GETTY

Do You Need To Test Your Compost For Contaminants?

Persistent residues from herbicides can harm your plants.

July 7, 2015

Many communities provide free yard-waste compost to gardeners, and many gardeners use manure and straw or grass clippings when making their own compost, but these seemingly innocuous ingredients can harm your garden, due the use of persistent herbicides on many lawns and pastures. Weed killers can remain active, making the dirt you're using harmful to your plants.

That's what happened in the garden of Dr. Jeana Myers and Will Hooker. Myers noticed a problem after unknowingly using compost that was contaminated with weed-killer residue.

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"I am not sure what herbicide was in our compost, but it was likely in the pyridine carboxylic acid group, which includes picloram, clopyralid, and aminopyralid as three of the more persistent compounds," says Myers. "We don't know if it came in on the bales of straw we purchased, on the horse manure, or both."

The herbicide residue affected plants in different ways. Pole-bean plants stayed small and bushy and failed to fruit. Tomatoes grew long and leggy with leaves that were cupped, twisted, and thickened. "Once you are familiar with the distorted look of the leaves, you can pick it out anywhere," Myers says.

Broadleaf weed herbicides applied to lawns can be a source of contamination if the affected grass clippings are added to a compost pile or used as mulch. Some herbicides even remain harmful in the manure of animals pastured on treated grass. To avoid contamination risk, Myers suggests a simple bioassay test devised by Washington State University that can be done at home before adding the compost to your garden.

1. Fill three 3-inch pots with potting soil. Fill three more pots with a mixture of two parts compost and one part potting soil. Mark the pots.

2. Plant three pea or bean seeds per pot and keep them watered. Capture any water that drains from the pots so it doesn't contaminate soil in other pots.

3. Put the pots in a sunny, warm place. Once the seedlings have three sets of leaves, compare the plants growing in the compost mix with the control group in potting soil. Unusual cupping, thickening, or distortion of leaves signals the possibility of herbicide contamination in the compost.

"The levels damaging to plants only need to be parts per billion," Myers says. "The bioassay is a good idea even when you are buying a professional mix."