I generally try to comment on anniversaries or observation days for environmental or safety issues. This past Friday I forgot to observe National Public Gardens Day. Normally I’d try to go to one of my local parks anyway, or our fine Botanical Garden, but I got sidetracked. Something I’d like to mention specifically, however, is community gardens. Where I live, there are two basic types. One is a beautification project for a neighborhood, perhaps in an unused central divider/green space or a partial triangular lot, and involves mostly flowers and decorative plants. The one I focus on is the other type, the vacant lot in an urban area that is usually low-income, where neighbors get together and plant mostly vegetables, edible produce, and often has a compost operation, leftovers from which participants can use at home.
The latter type of garden really does tend to involve an entire community, instead of some highbrow committee, and encourages kids to be a part of it, instead of wasting time on less savory activities. For many inner-city kids, this is as close to nature as they ever get. However, there’s an insidious threat which may be present at these locations, and that’s pollution.
I’ve said before that I do historical property research going back to the late 1800s. Many businesses operated at sites where there are now little subdivisions. There might have been a factory covering a whole block. In the days before zoning, there might have been a metal-plating shop on the street, or a corner gas station. Then there’s also peeling lead paint from houses that were torn down, or may still be standing right next to a community garden. Petroleum and other organic chemicals (hydrocarbons) usually do impact plants; the vegetation looks yellow and sickly, and it’s pretty obvious that something’s wrong. But with lead and other toxic heavy metals, like cadmium, chromium arsenic, and barium, the plants tend not to show an effect. They uptake these metals from the soil along with the nutrients they need, and it isn’t just root vegetables that are affected, it’s leafy ones too. If people are eating this stuff, and the soil is “hot,” there’s trouble.
It’s a drag that people who are trying to do something positive for a struggling neighborhood may be unwittingly contaminating themselves and their kids, but it’s very important to test the soil to find out what’s there. As a consultant and historical researcher, and speaker on these issues, I’ve tried to get some of these groups interested in having me give a talk, do a little “digging” into the past, and do some simple soil tests. There are very cheap lead-test kits that you can find at most paint departments at the hardware store, but it helps to have someone with experience to use them correctly. So far, I haven’t gotten any feedback from anybody, although I’ve contacted some of these groups a few times over the past several years…I fear that some people just would rather not know. I wouldn’t even charge for my time, just for materials and bus money.
What to do if your site IS hot? The usual practice is to take off the top few to several inches of soil and replace it with clean fill, but that’s beyond the means of most small groups in depressed neighborhoods (it also depends on how deep the roots grow). Another option is to grow stuff in elevated wooden boxes meant for that purpose. It’d be worth contacting garden shops, florists that have a site where they grown their own flowers, or hardware stores with garden departments, to see what they do with their old growing boxes; some might be happy to donate ones they were going to retire anyway.
Just a thought.