Ask a Question forum: Bleach damage in my garden

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DJS
Aug 30, 2016 2:04 PM CST
Hello!
I am distraught over what my neighbor has done. We live in Brooklyn and have a small but pretty garden, at least we did until about two months ago when our next door neighbor cleaned his patio paving stones with at least two gallons of bleach! He is only now admitting this to us. Over this time all the plantings some of which are at least 50 years established plants have dried up and lost their leaves like it was November. This is true of our grape vines a well as lilac bushes- almost everything. We first noticed a problem along the fencing of the perimeter of his yard but now the damage seems to be migrating and affecting our cherry tree and other larger bushes. It has also damaged a wisteria vine (I didn't think you could hurt those:)).
His neighbor on the other side of his house is experiencing the same damage.
At this point I just want to save our garden- any advice on how to get these plants back? I read somewhere that bleach changes the alkaline in the soil but I'm not sure how to go about remedying this.
Any advice is appreciated!
Thanks!
Name: Daisy
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
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DaisyI
Aug 30, 2016 3:15 PM CST
Welcome! to NGA

All's not lost yet but it's going to be tricky to fix. I asked my geochemist daughter and this is what she says:

Bleach is a very strong base. You might want to get a Ph soil test kit. Use distilled water and take your soil sample down by the roots of the plants, not on the soil surface.

The bleach needs to be washed out of the soil but, as you have probably noticed when you get bleach on your hands, it doesn't wash off easily. Her thoughts are that you water a lot and see if that helps. The bleach, as it breaks down, has introduced a lot of salt into your soil - it may be a matter of flushing the salts out.

Next thought: This is the desperation move and shouldn't be tried until you have exhausted the water option. Try to neutralize the bleach by adding a small amount of vinegar (mixed maybe half and half with water) to the garden and water some more. You don't want to cause too fast a reaction so small amounts of vinegar. By adding vinegar, you are hurrying the breakdown of the bleach along. Your soil may suddenly be too acidic, too salty, or hot (from the chemical reaction of mixing a base with an acid) - that would result in plants with BBQ'd roots. She also notes that this is not a chemical reaction you want to start in your house as you will be creating chlorine gas.

I personally would water, water, water. As your plants are not dead after two months, they have a good chance of surviving this. Hopefully, your neighbor will think twice about using bleach on his patio in the future. I'm surprised he didn't kill himself.

Name: Rick R.
near Minneapolis, MN zone 4a
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Leftwood
Aug 30, 2016 4:08 PM CST
If you get to that point, I would go with less vinegar with the "desperation move". Years ago, I did a little experimenting, using vinegar with municipal water out of the outside house spigot that ranged with a pH of 7.8-8.2. I applied it with a an Ortho dial 'n Spray over my potted materials (several hundred 3-6 inch pots). A mix of 1 Tablespoon per gallon water was not harmful. I increased the proportion to a range of 2-5 Tablespoons vinegar to 1 gallon water. (Sorry, I don't remember and didn't write it down.) This had visible effects on the foliage of certain plants, causing it to dull and look as though infected with spider mites. Apparently there was no detriment to the roots or soil, as the plants that showed symptoms came out of it in a couple weeks.

If you get to this point, you will want to do a lot more pH changing than I did, but my opinionated advice is to try to apply it to the soil and not the foliage, and perhaps one-quarter vinegar might be better. You could always repeat the application, too. Vinegar will drain through the soil with rain and watering much easier than bleach will.

I might also suggest that once your "adventure" is through, and you are kind of back to normal, realize that most of the soil flora has been killed off. This leaves a huge imbalance to a healthy soil that should be a living, vibrant community of myriads of soil organisms. Consider re-inoculating it with shovelfuls of healthy soil from another part of your yard or nearby.
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
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Weedwhacker
Aug 30, 2016 9:58 PM CST
Welcome to NGA, @DJS !

How close are your plants to where the bleach was being used? I'm having a hard time imagining how the patio cleaning is affecting plants not right in the path of the runoff. (but that may be because I live in the middle of nowhere...)
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Name: Sue
Ontario, Canada (Zone 4a)
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sooby
Aug 31, 2016 5:18 AM CST
Welcome! DJS.

The same thought occurred to me as Sandy, how come it affected such a large area. Did he somehow spray the stuff in all directions?

This University of Maryland Extension article suggests using gypsum:

https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/chlorine-toxicity-trees-and-s...

"Excess chloride can build up in the soil from swimming pool run off, irrigation water, or excess soil salts (sodium chloride). Chlorine (Cl) converts to chloride (Cl-) in the soil and is absorbed by plants in this form. Chloride toxicity is most common in irrigated, dry regions, seacoast areas, and near roads frequently treated with salt in the wintertime. Chloride levels can be reduced with the use of gypsum. Incorporate gypsum into the soil at a rate of 58 lbs. per 1000 square feet, in loam soils. Less gypsum is needed in sandy soils, more in heavy clay soils. Water thoroughly to leach toxic levels of chlorine from the soil."

I agree with Rick, I would go easy on the vinegar, if strong enough it is used as a herbicide itself. I've used it at one teaspoon per litre of water to temporarily lower soil pH but I would be hesitant to go any higher. Another option would be to ask your own local Extension office for advice.
[Last edited by sooby - Aug 31, 2016 11:38 AM (+)]
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Name: Lauri
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lauribob
Aug 31, 2016 10:32 AM CST
Two gallons of bleach is really a lot of bleach! I think you could clean a football stadium with that much bleach!
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Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
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dyzzypyxxy
Aug 31, 2016 11:25 AM CST
May I say, a light dose of vinegar in one of those hose-end sprayers (as Rick suggests above) is a much better application method than just pouring on 'a little vinegar'. Once you've taken some steps to mitigate the pH problems in the contaminated soil, I would get busy and top dress all along the area with bags and bags (or wheelbarrow loads) of compost. Most good nurseries sell it bagged, or at least will be able to tell you how to get it. This will re-introduce the soil's micro-organisms quickly as well as add back lost organic materials washed away by the chlorine.

Another fabulous soil amendment that really enhances the new growth of micro-organisms is alfalfa pellets. You can buy it in 50lb. bags as horse food. You can add that to the compost, don't use it exclusively or your neighbor will break out his bleach buckets again (it smells a bit like a stable if you leave it on the soil surface).

You only have a month or two before cold weather will be shutting down a lot of your active growth, so to see improvement in the soil and the stressed plants' condition I'd start collecting your supplies right away.

If you get the chance to speak to the neighbor again about cleaning his patio, advise him that about 1/4 cup of bleach in a 5 gallon bucket would have done the same job without nuking the surrounding neighborhood. Also ask him to rinse that patio off into his own yard, not yours? A power-washer and plain water is another, much better cleaning method.
Elaine

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." –Winston Churchill
Name: Daisy
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
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DaisyI
Aug 31, 2016 11:49 AM CST
I suggested a small amount of vinegar as a last resort. Small was the operative word as in a couple tablespoons of diluted vinegar around each plant at the most. The problem with spraying is that the foliage will burn if the vinegar comes in contact with it.

Lots of water to flush the soil is still the best option. The bleach has been there for at least two months - it is breaking down into salt (table salt to be exact) and water. That's what's causing the root burn.

Adding vinegar will speed up the process but the end result is always the same: Salt. Flush the soil with lots of water.

Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
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RickCorey
Aug 31, 2016 3:09 PM CST
I agree with Daisy's first post: water, water, water and flush. Maybe take a pH test, then MAYBE, if needed, AFTER trying the flush method thoroughly, a little diluted vinegar.

The ideas about diluting it a lot, distributing it uniformly, and keeping stronger vinegar off the foliage also sound right to me.

I agree that sodium hypochlorite ("regular" bleach) is a strong base in the oxidation-reduction sense, but I didn't realize it was also an acid-base base.

If the soil pH is still basic after thorough flushing, for example if the flushing water is also basic, some soil acidification wouldn't hurt. If the issue is no longer urgent after flushing, you could also do some long-term acidification with agricultural sulfur. Soil microbes turn that elemental sulfur very slowly into dilute sulfuric acid, which instantly combines with basic soil to release sulfate ions, which plants can use as a micro-nutrient.

I wonder what hydroponic people use to raise pH instantly? Very dilute nitric or sulfuric acid?

I used to basify solutions (I'm pretty sure that "base-ify" is not a word!) using a very little hydrated lime greatly diluted in water. That can be as potent a base as sulfuric acid is an acid, but using only very little, and letting it sit sealed with water for a few weeks before using, moderates it's strength.
Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
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dyzzypyxxy
Aug 31, 2016 4:28 PM CST
We're not worried about over-watering these poor plants that are already pretty severely stressed? With weather cooling off, too?

I think I'd try the vinegar in the hose-end sprayer, very dilute, only drench the soil first and see how that works. Then flush, then amend heavily to restore the soil goodies.
Elaine

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." –Winston Churchill
Name: Donna
Mid Shore, Maryland (Zone 7a)
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Shy_gardener
Aug 31, 2016 5:23 PM CST
Welcome DJS.... So, sorry about your garden... I'd be sick...

But you know, it seems odd that Bleach would have that devastating of an effect.
Folks use high concentrates of bleach to pressure wash their houses, and plants &
shrubs are typically growing at the foundation of the house with no ill effects.

Could your neighbor have used Round-up or heavy duty weed killers on his pavers?
I've seen some of the extra strength weed killers, kill large trees and everything it came
in contact with..... I sprayed some on some really tough weeds and the wind took
it to close to a Rose a Sharon bush, and it died rather quickly.......
"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." ~ Albert Einstein
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Aug 31, 2016 5:34 PM CST
You might be right, if the drianage is poor and the chemical damage not very severe.

However:
>> We first noticed a problem along the fencing of the perimeter of his yard but now the damage seems to be migrating and affecting our cherry tree and other larger bushes. It has also damaged a wisteria vine (I didn't think you could hurt those:)).
His neighbor on the other side of his house is experiencing the same damage.

The trade-off might favor "do whatever you can to get those chemicals moving somewhere ELSE", over "don't drown the roots of already-stressed plants". If the OP has poor drainage, it might be a painful decision.

We have not asked: was that "old fashioned chlorine bleach" (sodium hypochlorite, very nasty) or new-style "oxygen bleach" ?
Even the neighbor might not know!

Looking it up, I see that:
"Liquid oxygen bleach" is actually diluted hydrogen peroxide. (very safe, DON'T add vinegar. No salts, so don't flush.)
"Powdered oxygen bleach" actually has the active ingredients sodium perborate or sodium precarbonate. (??? Salty for sure.)

The I also read that they are said-to-be less toxic and more environmentally safe. I might not always believe that without some substantiation, but in this case, since the alternative is sodium hypochlorite, I'm inclined to believe them.

I assumed that the last-ditch suggestion to add a strong acid to counteract a strong base was based on assuming sodium hypochlorite bleach. But then, the oxidizing agents in "oxygen bleach" are also bases (in the redox sense), so vinegar might affect them also.

Really, I don't know, I'm just extrapolating the suggestion from Daisy's geochemist daughter.

But if the neighbor seems inclined to bleach his patio regularly, I would buy him a big jug of "liquid oxygen bleach" or a small jug of 20% hydrogen peroxide, if that's cheaper.

And bravo to the idea of "flush it onto your OWN yard!!!!!" , excpet that it does seem to diffuse out over time.

Another thing we didn't ask, those who favor flushing the heck out of the abused soil: where it will be flushing TO? Who or what is down-slope?
Name: Sue
Ontario, Canada (Zone 4a)
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sooby
Aug 31, 2016 5:54 PM CST
Two gallons is about as much as a watering can. Spread out over a patio (we don't know what size) he must have used a lot of water as well to have caused it to run off enough to damage plants a distance away. It surely wouldn't have run along the surface. There has been a drought in that area this year, are we sure some of the symptoms aren't caused by that?
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Aug 31, 2016 6:31 PM CST
I assumed that it was gradually diffusing through the soil horizontally, like many pollutants will if not flushed "away".

Just an assumption.

But I also guess that you are right, that he followed the bleach with a lot of water. If he's so eager to keep his patio "bright white" that he will BLEACH IT, he probably also washes it off obsessively, or at least flushed the toxins away from his patio and into the ecosystem.

Name: Daisy
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
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DaisyI
Aug 31, 2016 8:34 PM CST
Remember that the bleach is breaking down into table salt and water.

Flushing will cause the salt to go someplace else: someone down hill will suddenly have un-explained salt burn (they will be the next to ask us our opinion) or into the water table, if it is shallow enough. The salt will never break down, just go someplace else.

Hydrogen peroxide: a little oxygenates, a lot kills.

I still think a Ph soil testing kit is in order.

I also think DJS has left the building.
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
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Weedwhacker
Aug 31, 2016 8:41 PM CST
"I also think DJS has left the building."

I think you could be right, Daisy.

@DJS ?
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Name: Philip Becker
Fresno California (Zone 8a)
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Philipwonel
Sep 1, 2016 11:05 AM CST
Hay ! Y'all: what about baking soda ???
Actually.. I would go with the gypsum !
?😕? If that works ? It would be a double benifit !!! Cure his/her problem AND! Good for the soil. A win win !!!
If djs left the building. I wouldnt blame him
Cause i was about to. Some of Y'all sounded like a presidential debate gone bad ### Arguing your point !!! Please dont make us hear look bad !!!
Come back djs ! Let us/me know how things work out . 😎😎😎
And where you live ? Welcome! I tip my hat to you.
Name: Daisy
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
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DaisyI
Sep 1, 2016 12:00 PM CST
Phil,

DJS stated they lived in Brooklyn.

Debating and discussing is what we do in this forum. We try to be polite to each other and to the poster. But sometimes, for some reason, posters do not return. And sometimes, we get impatient with each other.

I don't think any of us are making the Forum look bad.

By the way, baking soda and gypsum are both bases. You just compounded the problem.
Name: Sue
Ontario, Canada (Zone 4a)
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sooby
Sep 1, 2016 1:07 PM CST
Philip, baking soda would not be good for the soil. The reason the Extension site I linked to above suggested gypsum is because the calcium in it repaces the salt from the bleach and allows that salt to move into the soil solution where it can be washed away. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) doesn't affect soil pH. With your baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, you'd be adding more sodium.

This article may be of interest. Managing Soil Salinity, Texas A & M. If you scroll down to "chemical treatment" the article also mentions that if the soil already has enough calcium carbonate then adding an acid will form gypsum to have the same effect.
http://soiltesting.tamu.edu/publications/E-60.pdf
[Last edited by sooby - Sep 1, 2016 1:34 PM (+)]
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