Tuesday 22 February 2011


Last summer a friendly fellow blogger suggested using Armillatox to combat white rot in my onions. I’d never heard of the stuff before, so off to Google I went to look it up.

Armillatox is sold in the UK and Europe as an all natural, totally biodegradable, non polluting ‘soap-based outdoor cleaner’, intended for use on greenhouses, paths and patios. However, in America and elsewhere exactly the same formulation is popular as a herbicide, pesticide and fungicide, solving problems from black spot to vine weevil to club root and indeed white rot. So why is it not sold as such in the EU? Apparently in 2003, the EU ruled that any garden chemical registered for use before 1993 had to be re-tested, and safety data brought up to date. The cost of such testing was around £3 million – completely prohibitive to many small companies, and as a result more than 80 brands were taken off the shelves purely for economic reasons. (See this Telegraph article for more.)

I hate to use chemicals on my plot, and keep things as natural as I can, but the white rot was only getting worse and I do love my shallots and leeks, and they do say this stuff is completely natural and environmentally friendly. A bit more Googling showed that many UK gardeners still use Armillatox to treat their soil against all kinds of things, and they love it. So out I went and bought a bottle...

Okay, now for the embarrassing bit. To treat soil for white rot, the (US) product’s website recommends using a dilution of 1:100, and applying 5 litres per square metre. An easy enough calculation, you might think. Well, don’t ask me what was going on in my addled brain yesterday when it came to applying the stuff, but I got it wrong. Waaaaay wrong… I think I put 6 or 7 times too much of the stuff on. I was mortified when I realised and spent the rest of the evening in a state of misery, combing the internet for signs of hope. Was my soil ruined? Would I have to wait 7 times as long before I plant my onions? (The recommended period is three weeks after application.)

Some people said as long as we got a few heavy rain showers it’d be fine. Some said my onions might taste of the stuff. Some pointed out that using anything not licensed as a pesticide/fungicide as such was illegal (a fair point, actually, but it’s exactly as illegal as making your own soap-spray or garlic infusion to ward off greenfly, and show me a gardener who’s never done that). A certain major UK gardening forum promptly told me off and locked my thread to prevent further discussion; a rather unfriendly overreaction considering I was just asking for advice. And some told me they most certainly wouldn’t eat vegetables grown on soil contaminated with carcinogenic coal tar, thank you very much.

Well, that was a new one. Off I went to Google again. But there’s even more confusion on that matter…

Coal tar, traditionally used in soap and in treating nasty skin conditions, especially psoriasis, and also commonly used in food additives, cosmetics and for coating playgrounds and car parks, was withdrawn from many products (information is painfully vague) in the EU in 2006.

Cancer scientists say that preparations with more than 5% crude coal tar are carcinogenic. (Remember Armillatox’s recommended dilution is 1:100, and it can’t all be crude coal tar. With the amount of water applied too, not even my accidental overdose would have come close to 5%. Oh, and I'm putting it on my soil, not my skin.) But evidence is apparently sketchy, with results of animal tests completely unsupported by evidence in humans, and controversy everywhere. Psoriasis sufferers are certainly keen to insist it is not harmful.

Environmentalists say that coal tar releases harmful PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) into the environment. But PAHs are everywhere in our environment anyway; they’re released by any combustion of carbon-based fuels. Wood, coal, diesel, cigarettes, incense… oh, and by grilling, frying or smoking food. Studies on places where coal tar was used industrially but then banned show no reduction in PAH levels even five years later. PAHs also occur in space, and some scientists believe they may have more than a little to do with how we all got here in the first place. Seems a little like banning beaches to protect us from sun exposure to me.

Then I received a pleasant and reassuring message from the makers of Armillatox:

“Don't worry, it will not have contaminated your soil - Armillatox is totally biodegradable. …Leave 21 days before planting your onions and you should have no adverse effects.”

Well, now. They didn’t reprimand me for unlicensed use and are quite happy for me to plant in the treated soil. But then, perhaps they thought I was American; my email address doesn't really give anything away...

Confused? So am I.

But if anyone has any wisdom to share, please do, because I’ve got 100 Stuttgarter Giant onions, a load of Picasso shallots and French Cledor garlic and three varieties of Leek seedlings (Malabar, Musselburgh, Autumn Giant 3) preparing to go into that plot and I'm still kinda worried…

Update: Since this is one of my most-viewed blog posts, I thought I should update it with the results of this little accidental experiment! I'm pleased to say that my onions etc. had no funny taste and didn't seem to be at all affected by the armillatox. However, it didn't stop my white rot problem either!

Friday 18 February 2011

Winter Veg

It's so satisfying, in the middle of winter, when we feel we've been neglecting the plot terribly, to go down there and see the rows of parnsips, swedes and leeks still standing faithfully waiting to be harvested! The past few weeks we've feasted on parsnip soup, parsnip bread, roasted root veg, creamed leeks - and we're still getting through the autumn's squash as well.

Parsnips seem to grow particularly well on our plot and with very little care. Here is just a fraction of our 'White Gem' crop.
 Of course, they're not all perfect.

The swedes suffer quite a lot of slug damage, but there are still plenty for us too.

And I was worried about our leek crop back in the autumn as there seemed to be a lot of onion flies on them - not something we've suffered before - but the cold weather seemed to see them all off, and the leeks have made a terrific recovery with very few signs of damage. Looks like I forgot to take any pictures of them yet, but I can show you the delicious creamed leeks I served here with cheese and chive mash and a lovely piece of lemon-and-herb-crusted pollack.
I used roughly the recipe from Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook, but it's a fairly standard recipe: just slice your leeks finely, fry gently in butter and olive oil for a few minutes until soft, then stir in double cream, a little mustard (I love wholegrain) and some salt and pepper. I do believe I sloshed in some white wine too, letting it reduce before I added the cream. Sarah's recipe calls for a sprinkle of chervil at the end, but sadly I didn't have any.
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