After reading Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret, I have a strong fear of bags of soil. And fertilizer. Fateful Harvest was written by Duff Wilson, who was, at that time, an investigative journalist for the Seattle Times. His book is an expansion on an article he wrote for the Seattle Times in 1997. The investigative article was published in two parts by the Seattle Times on July 2, 1997 and July 3, 1997, titled Fear in the Fields. Duff Wilson was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the article.

In his book, Wilson writes about a small town mayor in Quincy, Washington, who fights the practice of recycling industrial byproducts, such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead, by labeling it as fertilizer. Companies, instead of paying for hazardous waste disposal, can earn a profit by selling their toxic waste to farmers, to be used as fertilizer on agricultural fields. This is a frightening EPA loophole, designed to promote recycling.

MiracleGro "Organic"

Interestingly, Fateful Harvest is not a book that is referred to often in the food-centric social media that I follow. I’m not sure why. As far as I know, there is still no law requiring the labeling of fertilizers as being derived from toxic waste or labeling of contents in bags of soil, compost, or fertilizer.

Based on this knowledge, when it came to finding soil for my garden this year, I carefully read packages and did a little research. Two popular brands, Scott and MiracleGro, had “organic” soil, but I think it’s just a product name. I don’t think there is any regulation on using the term “organic” on soil or soil amendments.

Cedar Grove Organic Compost

Every time I went to Home Depot this spring I saw these bags of “organic” soil flying off the shelf; I couldn’t help but think that perhaps people are getting duped.

Eventually I did find bags of compost with a “certified for organic agriculture” seal on it from the Washington State Department of Agriculture. (The other “organic” soils had no certifications or seals.)  The compost came from Cedar Grove composting, a local company that composts yard trimmings, wood, and food scraps from the Puget Sound region. Composting this waste (which is non-toxic!!) diverts it from the landfill and turns it into something useful, great for chemical-free gardening and landscaping, as nature intended.

Unfortunately, Cedar Grove does not sell top soil by the bag, only the compost. They sell top soil by the yard from their processing plant. Bags would be a bit more appropriate for a condo-dwelling urban gardener. For this year, I used the Cedar Grove compost to amend the potting soil I already had. My tomatoes are happy and thriving, despite the sun making its first appearance of the year in Seattle just this week.

So what is “organic” soil? I still don’t know. But I’m playing it safe by looking for products with a third party certification. Let me know if you have more insight . . . .


What is “Organic” Soil?
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3 thoughts on “What is “Organic” Soil?

  • July 21, 2010 at 11:12 am

    this is a tough question. i like the cedar grove option better than the others, but cedar grove doesn’t refuse conventional food scraps or yard waste treated with any number of conventional fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. I know that the best option would be to compost myself and I would feel the best about that, but it’s difficult to produce the volume of compost I need in the space I have. I do appreciate your recommendation of Fateful Harvest, I’m going to go check it out!

  • August 3, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Hi Jess, Do you use Cedar Grove anyway? Cedar Grove’s website (FAQ) says, “The naturally occurring microbes and heat generated during composting break down most toxic chemicals into safe compounds.” Hmm. The key word here seems to be “most.”

    Have you tried vermicomposting? I live in a condo, but have a worm bin along my front walkway. The benefit is it’s small; the drawback is it doesn’t produce a lot of compost. The worms are low maintenance though and easily able to digest all of our veggie scraps.

    Plus, it’s always fun to say “hi” to the worms. 🙂


  • February 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Hi Anneke, I would be careful about using Cedar Grove compost. Not only are you unsure of the herbicides, pesticides, etc. that are in the waste they are treating, but they also use meat in their compost. A big no no. I’m sure they have some way of treating this, but I have heard bad reviews from most of the people who have used cedar grove compost.

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