Low Nickel Gardening

Gardening brings me pure bliss. It’s astonishing when you truly understand the amount of water, effort and satisfaction involved in sowing seeds to full fledged fruits or vegetables. Controlling the types of seeds, growth medium, fertilizer and water used are some of the greatest benefits when you grow your own food. Depending on my living situation, I’ve cultivated fruits and vegetables in five gallon bucket containers, raised beds, in a community garden plot, used an aerogarden as a year round hydroponic garden and last year we grew our garden straight out of straw bales.

Multiple lists exist identifying foods higher or lower in nickel content, which begs the question why do the lists vary and which one do you follow? Geography and the geochemical composition of the soil used is one of the many reasons why some foods retain more nickel than others. In addition, some foods absorb more nickel from the air, water and fertilizers used to grow the food itself. Research has shown more mature foods are known to retain more nickel the longer it grows, so it’s recommended you harvest foods higher in nickel sooner than later. My resources page has lots of useful information about nickel in the soil and other identifying the quantity of nickel in certain foods.

The local community garden where we rented two raised garden beds in the summer of 2020.

My foods with nickel list works great and it includes comments from others like yourself who describe what they can or cannot tolerate. Several foods such as soy, oats, nuts, whole grains, seeds, beans, leafy greens, pineapple, raspberries are consistently identified as higher in nickel on nearly every list. My dermatologist provided me the list I use in the summer of 2009 when I was diagnosed with a systemic nickel food allergy

One of the most challenging things about this allergy is how it’s so different for each individual. After I diligently followed the low nickel diet for several months, not deviating or eating something higher in nickel, I decided to start keeping a food journal and reintroducing foods known for being higher in nickel. Corresponding my eczema symptoms with my food journal enabled me to identify which individual foods I cannot tolerate. Stress, dehydration and lack of sleep also dramatically influences whether my eczema flares out of control.

Eating crunchy arugula and mixed green salads are my true weakness on the low nickel diet. Giving up chocolate, nuts, and oatmeal did take couple months to adjust. Every year around birthdays and holidays I bake my own low nickel sweet treats, so I won’t indulge in the peanut chocolate oatmeal cookies. However, my salad jealousy gets the best of me and because it’s not a cookie or piece of cake, I give myself permission to deviate from the low nickel diet and eat one a couple times a month.

Hydroponic gardening, straw bale gardening and worm farm gardening are three great lower nickel gardening options you can try yourself.

Hydroponic Gardening

Using two small aerogardens to grow salad greens hydroponically

Maturing between 30-60 days, growing my own salad green hydroponically using an aerogarden helps and is a great cheap gardening alternative. The upfront costs of purchasing the individual aerogardens can be expensive, but once you have them you only need their seed kits every couple months when you choose to grow your lower nickel salad greens or herbs. You can also create your own hydroponic gardens using materials found at your local hardware store.

My body does not seem to react the same when I eat a green salad grown hydroponically without soil. When I make my own salad I’ll usually include a lot of cilantro, a known chelator that can help your body remove heavy metals like nickel from your body. Personally I don’t participate in a chelation therapy routine, but I’ve heard from some who do it under the care of a physician and have found great benefits.

Straw Bale Gardening

Two years I was asked if I’d ever gardened using straw bales? Never having heard about straw bale gardens, her question intrigued me to research more about it. From all appearances straw bale gardens seems easier to set up than both container and raised bed gardens, both of which require a large yard. I placed my straw bales over mulch and cardboard, for water retention. First the straw bales need to be “conditioned” for 10-14 days, which involves soaking them with water a couple times a day and adding fertilizer to help them break down. Originally we didn’t have one of our straw bales positioned correctly, so we broke it up and placed the lose straw around our other bales as a weed barrier. We spent $7.00 for each straw bale or $42 total, which seemed way more cost effective than the usual endless bags of soil!

Christy growing green onions, tomatoes, squash, and peppers in straw bales.

When planting your seeds or plants you do place about a cup of soil in the straw bales per plant. We cultivated sweet yellow and green bell peppers, spicy jalapeno peppers, zucchini, summer squash, pumpkins, strawberries, green onions, radishes and heirloom cherry, roma, and beefsteak tomatoes. All of my plants did well in the straw bales except the squash, which were infected with some kind of pest. I believe gardening using straw bales reduced the amount of nickel in my garden greens, but I didn’t grow salad greens or many foods higher in nickel.

I found straw bale gardening a lot more work than traditional gardening. However the trade off is that it doesn’t involve hardly any weeding! Joel Karsten who really started the straw bale gardening movement in the US lives in Minnesota and I think it would be easier to grow a straw bale garden in the Pacific Northwest or Midwest or Pacific Northwest where the it rains more often and is humid. The dry Utah heat didn’t do me any favors, but I’m glad I experimented with straw bale gardening and I might again if I lived in a wetter climate.

Worm Castings

Vermicomposting with red wigglers is one of the reasons why my gardens have always grown extra healthy and huge! Under the right conditions, red wigglers double in size within 90 days. Their mineral rich organic worm castings provide an excellent fertilizer that can be directly mixed with your soil and won’t burn the plant roots. About once a month we’ll also use casting to brew “worm tea” to water our gardens. Composting the low nickel unprocessed food we eat, our worms also eat a low nickel diet of used tea bags, coffee grounds and fruits and vegetables, (excluding citrus, onions, and garlic), mixed with coconut coir and our shredded paper. 

In 2012, we ordered our red wigglers in the mail from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm in Pennsylvania. Our mailman was both curious and alarmed when he delivered the package that said “live animals inside.” The following May, we gave him one of our tomato plants we’d grown from seed using the worm castings. Shocked at how big his the tomato plant grew and how delicious it tasted, he soon became a worm farmer himself!

You can grow your own garden directly from worm compost containers, but it’s tricky as the worms may try to escape your bin in the night! I’ve not grown directly out of my worm compost farm, but we use seedlings that start in our compost bin.

Do you love to garden? Have you tried one or all three of these low nickel gardening options? If so, I’d love to hear how it went for you and whether or not your body reacted the same way when you ate some of your own garden greens in the comment section below!

  1. What soil do you use to grow in? Do you use a potting soil? Do you use a specialty soil? Do you have your soil tested?

    1. Hi JD,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t use any special soil, but regular organic top soil from a local nursery and the I mix in my worm castings and fertilize using worm tea I create from more worm castings. I’ve never tested my soil, but I think the testing kits aren’t too expensive, especially if your local public university offers the service. Growing hydroponically is the lowest nickel option, but when you grown your own food, you also know pesticides weren’t used as they can also be high in nickel.
      Warm regards,

  2. I can’t wait to try the worm casting! Probably not this year as we are up in the air with everything right now. My allergy is more in my throat and mouth, which makes it more difficult to live with, but I’ve been doing it. Thank you so much for all the information you put out there.

    1. Hi Lori,
      Thanks for your comment and appreciation for my website. You might be able to start worm casting. I originally purchased our red wigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm and he still might be mailing out worms. We’ve made and sold several bins from our original worm farm back over 8 years ago!
      Warm regards,

  3. I am growing veg in a mixture of vermiculite and perlite with an organic fertiliser made from wheat! Looking forwards to harvesting the soyabeans next month!

    1. Hi Lyndsay,
      Thanks for your comment. Can you tolerate soybeans grown otherwise? I’d love to know how your gardening goes generally and if you’re able to tolerate the soybeans in this new mixture, meaning eating them doesn’t cause your body to react.
      Warm regards,

  4. Hi Christy,

    Just curious what the nickel content is in the soil in your area. I have a nickel allergy, too, and our soil is about 30 mg/million. I’m trying to find our whether that is too high for someone with AD.


    1. Hi Marianne,
      Thanks for your comment. That’s a great question that I have no idea what the answer is, if you find out I’d love to know. Perhaps master gardeners through the local university may have the answer. I don’t know what the nickel content is in my soil. Hydroponic gardening could also be a good option using fertilizers without nickel if gardening in soil causes issues.
      Warm regards,

    2. Maryanne, Can you share how you find out about your soil nickel concentration? Did you send the soil to be tested? If so, can you share where the soil was tested? Our son has developed Nickel allergy and we would like to find out about nickel concentration on the soil that we use. (We usually purchase top soil from Home Depot/Lowes). Thank you.

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