Why Should I Test My Soil? | Part 1

Today’s post comes from a very close friend of mine, Hannah Whitney with The Whitney Homestead. Hannah and her husband are starting a small homestead in Southern Maine, along with their yellow lab, Maple, and a baby girl on the way! During her first year gardening, while living in an apartment in a small town, she discovered heavy metals in her garden soil. In this three part series, she is going to share lessons learned, and how to ensure the food you grow in your garden is safe for your family. 

Why Should I Test My Soil?

Part 1: Lead

I was introduced to the need to test my soil in 2016, when my husband and I planted our first garden together as a married couple.  At the time we were living in an townhouse style apartment, and we had outdoor space available for gardening. The concept of testing the soil there didn’t even cross my mind, and it certainly wasn’t something my husband and I thought to do when we were tenderly caring for our seedlings on the porch of our rental home throughout the early spring.

Through speaking with our next door neighbors who had a garden bed directly adjacent to ours, we found out that the soil was contaminated with unsafe levels of lead (more than 500 parts per million). Our new neighbors had tested the soil upon moving in, which saved us from consuming food grown in a contaminated garden.

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At this time, we had already planted our entire garden and it was heartbreaking for me to learn that consuming food grown in this soil would be unsafe.  So when we moved to our own little homestead in Southern Maine, I knew exactly what I was going to do when the ground thawed this past spring: send a soil sample off for testing. I wasn’t going to go through that again!

By talking with experts and researching online, I have learned a lot about nutrients and heavy metals in soils. I hope that through this three-part series on testing your garden’s soil, I’ll be able to transfer some of that knowledge onto you and inspire you to get your plot of land tested so you can garden with confidence, knowing the food you grow is safe for you and your family.

Why test your soil for lead?

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Soil can contain heavy metals for a variety of reasons.  In the case of the in-ground garden at our first rental property, we soon learned from the landlords that a barn had burnt down about 30 years prior on the location of the garden, and it had most likely been painted with a lead-based paint.  Lead paint from old buildings can also enter soils when it is carelessly scraped, or pressure washed without proper precautions.

Other than residue from lead paint on old buildings, lead from industrial and automotive emissions can still be found in soil, even today, decades after the ban of leaded gasoline.  Therefore, it is very common for lead to be found in soils in urban environments. Unfortunately, once the soil is contaminated, lead particles can remain in the soil for up to 1,000 years, so use special caution when gardening near roadsides or old buildings!

What if I don’t live in a city?

Although we didn’t live in a city, we did live in a small town with old homes built close together.  Even though you may think you are fine since you aren’t in a heavily urbanized area, it would still be wise to consider testing that soil, especially if you are unsure about the history of your land.

How does lead in the soil effect gardeners?

Lead can be dangerous to gardeners for a couple of reasons.  First off, there is exposure through simply working the soil with your hands, which disturbs it and can cause you to ingest lead particles.  Lead is also especially dangerous in gardens because it can accumulate in crops, as plants will take up whatever nutrients or toxins are available in the soil.  Leafy greens, herbs, and root vegetables are at highest risk for accumulating lead and passing the toxins onto the consumer.

So what can I do about it?

This information can be scary, especially with everything in the news about lead poisoning in children.  When you are trying to provide a sustainable lifestyle for your family, the last thing you want to be worrying about is introducing unsafe levels of lead into your family’s diet.

Thankfully, you can still garden on land that contains unsafe levels of lead, and the LAST thing I want to do is discourage someone from starting out on their gardening journey!

Keep an eye out for the next post in the series, where I will dive into the best way to test your soil for lead, and how to cope with lead on the homestead.

You can reach Hannah at whitneyhomestead@gmail.com

Resources:

https://web.extension.illinois.edu/bdo/downloads/24293.pdf

https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/2281e/

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