Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Soil Safety When Urban Gardening

Homegrown strawberries.
Homegrown strawberries.
One thing I love about living in Seattle is the number of urban gardens I see every day. I love that I can see rooftop gardens on top of high rises in downtown. I adore going to restaurants whose back patio is brimming with homegrown fruits and veggies that will later be served up on a patron’s plate. I can’t resist the temptation to try and grow my own food—strawberries, tomatoes, herbs, onion, and garlic are a few of the forays I’ve taken (not all successful). I’m proud to live in a city that’s the home of a 7-acre food forest, Beacon Food Forest (still in development).

The culture of growing your own food is intoxicating, and once you’re around it, it’s hard to put away the notion of jumping on the DIY gardening bandwagon. And that’s certainly an attitude that I can’t disagree with—I’ve been there. I’m there now. I love it, but I’m still learning a lot—and there are a lot of important things to learn.

Urban gardening increased a whopping 29 percent between 2008 and 2013, with 9 million Americans now saying they grow food in urban areas. The sentiment is fantastic, and one that I stand by absolutely. I think that we’ve allowed ourselves to lose touch with food, where it comes from, and what it takes to grow—and it would be to everyone’s benefit for more people to reconnect.

However, growing food in an urban area has its fair share of hazards, which aren’t always immediately apparent. See, soil has a legacy. One of the reasons it’s great for growing plants is because it absorbs water, which the plant’s roots can slowly absorb. Unfortunately, it also absorbs other things, dangerous things: lead, asbestos, heavy metals, cadmium, arsenic, petrochemicals, and more. Cities take their toll on nature in many ways, and growing produce in contaminated soil means we’re bringing those chemicals right into our bodies.

If you’re planning on doing some urban gardening, it needs to be done the right way. If you’re planting straight into the ground, you’re most at risk (but that doesn’t mean raised beds or pots are safe from hazard). The first thing you should do is get your soil tested to see whether or not it has been contaminated by lead, cadmium, or arsenic. Unfortunately, those tests don’t check for petrochemicals and some other really hazardous chemicals that may have seeped into the soil from car exhaust, cleaning solvents, old Laundromats, or even demolished buildings.

The best solution is to research your plot of land and learn its history—if any buildings were demolished nearby, whether it used to be a parking lot or a gas station or something else, and if there is any other cause for concern. Since you can never be completely sure whether the soil is 100% free of contaminants, wearing gardening gloves and washing all produce thoroughly is always a good idea.

If you’re using raised beds, be sure to think about what they are made out of (or what you’re using to build them). Reclaimed wood can be hazardous since you won’t know its history or whether it was ever treated with chemicals. The point: better safe than sorry.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to safely urban garden, check out this urban soil safety guide from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Do you urban garden? I’d love to hear about your successful and unsuccessful gardening endeavors!

Image from Shutterstock.