You’ve probably heard about the “Dirty Dozen,” but do you know what produce is on the list and why? If you’re concerned about exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, you’re in luck: Many of these fruits and veggies can be grown organically in containers!
What are the Dirty Dozen foods?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out an annual Dirty Dozen list, which refers to the twelve vegetables and fruits in our food supply with the most residues from pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides found on produce. These are the 12 most contaminated out of 46 analyzed each year. That means they may contain harmful chemicals that can be absorbed by your body when eaten.
The EWG reports that nearly 70 percent of all non-organic fresh produce sold in the United States contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides. The EWG bases its annual list on in-depth analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But you don’t have to rely solely on finding clean versions of the Dirty Dozen at farmers markets and the organic produce section at grocery stores. Many of these foods can be grown organically at home, even in a container garden.
Growing these fruits and veggies yourself can help ensure you enjoy them while avoiding exposure to dangerous toxins.
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What kind of chemicals are found on the Dirty Dozen foods?
Herbicides and pesticides are some of the chemicals that research shows can harm human health. The EWG report analyzes detectable pesticide residues and other potentially harmful contamination.
One of the pesticides most frequently found on kale, collard and mustard greens is DCPA, which is sold under the brand name Dacthal and used to kill grass and weeds. This chemical is classified as a possible human carcinogen and has been banned by the European Union (EU) since 2009. It’s used only for eggplant, kale, turnips and sweet potatoes — and it’s one big reason why superfood kale finds itself in the #3 spot on the list.
Another example is a combination of organophosphate insecticides found on peppers. These chemicals are banned in the U.S. for some crops and banned completely in the EU, due to concerns about harm to brain development in children. In 2017 the Trump Administration rejected a proposed ban on one of these compounds, chlorpyrifos, and it’s still in use today.
Some scary findings from the EWG analysis, according to their website:
- More than 90 percent of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy greens tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
- One sample of kale, collard and mustard greens had up to 20 different pesticides.
- They detected the most pesticides in hot peppers and bell peppers, 115 in total.
So what are the worst foods on the list, and how can you avoid them?
Which fruits and vegetables are on the Dirty Dozen foods list in 2021?
The following is a list of fruits and vegetables commonly found on the Dirty Dozen foods list, meaning they contain more pesticides and other chemicals than other crops. They’re often exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed by plants through their leaves, roots and seeds. Rankings are based on percentage of samples found with high levels of pesticides.
- Kale and collard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
To minimize your exposure to harmful contaminants, you can get many of these at the farmers market or the organic section at the grocery store. Buying organic fresh produce helps reduce your pesticide exposure, but it doesn’t compare to growing them yourself.
If this is concerning to you … good news! You can grow any of these in containers! That’s the best way to 100% know what’s going into (and onto) your fresh fruits and vegetables.
While it’s great that you can grow so many of the list in containers, keep in mind it’s harder to grow fruit trees in pots than container-friendly veggies like leafy greens and peppers.
If you’d like to grow your own clean versions of the Dirty Dozen in your container garden, from this year’s list, I recommend:
Spots 13-46 on the full list from the EWG report also include a few container garden-friendly plants:
- cherry tomatoes
- green beans
- snap peas
- summer squash
How do you grow clean versions of the Dirty Dozen?
Strawberries can be started from either bare-root crowns or transplants from another plant. June-bearing varieties will give you one harvest in early summer, while ever-bearing varieties generally produce 2-3 harvests throughout the season. Strawberries thrive in high-quality potting soil with full sun and steady water. Organic water-soluble fertilizer can help encourage fruit production.
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard)
Greens are some of the easiest vegetables to grow in containers. They prefer cool temperatures and can be started in early spring or late summer — they can grow in summer too but might need some shade. You can even throw a few varieties together in one pot! I currently have a gourmet lettuce mix in a fabric grow bag with kale and it works great.
Peppers (bell peppers, hot peppers)
Peppers are another popular container garden veggie. Most pepper varieties don’t need a lot of room to grow and can thrive in pots, with the right conditions. Choose a container at least 12 inches wide (10-gallon fabric grow bags are my favorite), use high-quality organic potting soil and fertilize with water-soluble fertilizer to boost production. Make sure peppers get plenty of sun — they love it!
Read my post about growing bell peppers in pots for all the details!
The important thing to know about celery: It’s heat intolerant and needs a long cool season to thrive. Start seeds indoors 10-12 weeks before the last expected frost, for a mid-spring harvest. For the fall growing season, sow 10-12 weeks before the first expected frost date. In warmer climates, you can plant mid-winter for an early spring harvest.
Read my post about growing celery in pots for all the details!
Tomatoes are awesome container garden additions. They’re easiest to start from seedlings, which you can easily find in any farmers market or garden store in spring. Make sure your container is big enough to handle these sturdy plants — a 10-gallon or 20-gallon fabric grow bag is perfect. Situate in full sun and provide phosphorus-rich tomato fertilizer to boost fruit production. Jobe’s Organics Vegetable and Tomato Plant Food is a great option.
Other resources about clean living:
- 10 Reasons Why Organic Food is Better for You and the Planet (Nature’s Path Organic)
- EWG Tap Water Database – search by zip code for reports on water quality
- EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning – safety ratings for more than 2500 cleaning products, including top products and a label decoder
- EWG Clean 15 – of those tested, the 15 with the lowest levels of harmful chemicals
Dirty Dozen foods you can grow yourself
One way to make sure that you do not come in contact with harmful pesticides while still enjoying nutritious foods like fresh fruits and veggies — which are critical components of a healthy diet — is to grow them in a container garden. Have you tried growing anything on this list? Let us know how it goes in the comments!
More ideas for container garden inspiration:
- How to hand pollinate vegetables
- Weird home remedies for container gardens
- How to attract pollinators to your container garden
- How to attract dragonflies to your container garden
- Compost 101
- Fertilizer 101
- Garden therapy quotes
- Small compost bins for container gardens
- Best edible flowers for container gardens