Organic Gardening: The Toxic Top 12

Break the toxic cycle by identifying the store-bought fruits and veggies that pose the greatest danger.

Different colored apples on counter

Apples on Countertop

Apples boast skin in an array of shades, from classic red and yellow, to pale green, to streaked and striped varieties. For this autumn fruit, beauty is more than skin deep. A medium apple (tennis ball size) offers 80 calories, no fat, cholesterol or sodium, and is packed with good-for-you fiber—5 grams per fruit. High fiber content means the natural sugars are slowly released into the bloodstream, which helps with maintaining steady blood sugar levels.

Photo by: U.S. Apple Association

U.S. Apple Association

Steering clear of the myriad of harmful substances used in the manufacturing and distribution of fruits and vegetables means smartly navigating a minefield of genetically modified and chemically treated goods at the grocery store and even at the farmer’s market. If organic gardening comes to mind every time you stroll down the produce aisle, then growing your own veggie patch might be a good choice for you (see our tips below). Before you shop or sow, be aware of which conventionally grown items are the most pesticide-laden…and which ones are easier to avoid.

Shock Value

The consumer watchdog nonprofit called Environmental Working Group has created a shopper’s guide to pesticides that identifies the “dirty dozen” culprits. All of the food tested had been grown in the USA, except for the nectarines. Ninety-eight percent of all non-organic apples carried pesticide residue, followed by 96 percent of celery and 91 percent of potatoes. If that’s not enough to make your skin crawl, a 2011 study found 88 different pesticide residues on a single batch of bell peppers. One pepper alone tested positive for 15 different pesticides.

The Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Hot peppers

Home gardening expert and author Shawna Coronado says, “Organic food is very important for modern day families because more than 400 chemical pesticides are known to be used regularly in traditional farming. Residues from these pesticide chemicals remain even after washing the vegetables with soap and water. Children are particularly vulnerable to this chemical exposure as pesticides are linked to asthma and cancer.”

A (Small) Sigh of Relief

The “clean fifteen” —domestic cantaloupe, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, pineapple, watermelon, asparagus, avocado, cabbage, eggplants, mushrooms, onions, frozen peas, sweet corn and sweet potatoes—fare better. While not organic, each of these items had fewer residues, with 98 percent of avocado, sweet corn and onions carrying no detectable residues. More than 90 percent of cabbage, asparagus, sweet peas, eggplant and sweet potato samples had no more than one pesticide detected.

Backyard Action

Inspired to grow your own? Do it, says Coronado. “Growing your own fruits and vegetables at home organically makes perfect sense, because organic vegetables, especially non-processed or raw vegetables, have been proven to have a stronger vitamin and mineral content—up to 25% improved from regular vegetables.”

Dos and Don’ts

DO choose plants or seeds that work best for your region’s climate and soil. Be sure to have your soil tested for pesticide levels and make sure that the prep dirt and any fertilizers (i.e. manure) you use meet the standards for organic gardening. The garden expert at your local garden store should be able to assist you with self-testing soil kits and materials for putting together an in-ground or raised bed.

DO seek out natural alternatives to chemicals. “My favorite gardening tip for growing organic vegetables is to amend the soil well with ‘natural’ fertilizers,” Coronado says. “Adding rotted, composted manure and traditional compost instead of chemical fertilizers is a smart way to go. I only use organic fertilizers and soil additives for growing all of my vegetables and then hand-pick off pests which develop throughout the gardening season.”

DON’T be afraid to try different techniques or organic products, such as the self-watering GrowBox container system for drought-prone areas, organic anti-fungal treatments for wet regions, or Sea Magic organic seaweed growth activator. Use organic or heirloom seeds to create an ornamental garden in your front yard, or divide a backyard space into sections, placing compatible plants together. 

DO have confidence that you can grow food for yourself and your family.

DON’T expect that you will never shop in a grocery again. Instead, empower yourself with as much information as you can about the food you purchase.

Next Up

Top 5 Plants for an Organic Garden

An organic gardener uses native and drought-tolerant plants to create a wildlife-friendly garden.

What Is Organic?

Many of us seek out organic produce, but what does the word mean when it comes to growing?

Organic Gardening Techniques Help Control Pests

There are many benefits and lessons to learn from organic gardening. Among them is how to control insects through plant diversity.

Going Green: Organic Fertilizer

Keep your crops and land healthy the clean, green way.

Using Sea Kelp in the Garden

Aquatic plants give organic gardens an unexpected boost.

A Gardening Memoir

Author Jeanne Nolan shares her journey of growth and reconciliation through organic gardening.

What the Heck is Biochar?

A new look at an ancient strategy for building a greener garden (and planet).

Basic Organic Gardening Skills for Beginners

Follow this guide to learn how to start a healthy garden.

Organic Gardening Demystified

Compost tea, insecticidal soap and flamers help you go "green" in the yard.

How to Grow Organic Herbs

Consider the health benefits of growing herbs organically.

Go Shopping

Spruce up your outdoor space with products handpicked by HGTV editors.

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.