Garden Lead Safe in 2021

While we’re currently at the tail-end of winter, many folks I know are eagerly anticipating the arrival of spring. Perhaps none more-so than gardeners.

These faithful Earth-tenders gain motivation from various places, but the majority of folks engaging in this ‘hobby’ (or way of life if you prefer) do so for the satisfaction of literally being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

However, as with most things, context is critical. Our soils bear the burden of historically high population density coupled with a prevalence of industrial activities in this region. Thus, soil contaminants such as lead are found in vast areas of our topsoil.

Mitigation Methods

Tall raised beds do double duty, helping to reduce bending and kneeling in the garden, while simultaneously providing a deep layer of uncontaminated soil suitable for root and tuber cultivation.

In order to reduce the impacts of these contaminants on our communities, there are several gardening tactics that gardeners can employ to better protect those who would share in the harvest from the dangers of lead poisoning.

First, it’s important to get the soil where you intend to garden tested. Many labs can perform this sort of work, and Grounded often works with Penn State to map out contamination levels on parcels where we do vacant lot projects.

Mulching is a very important strategy for preventing mud droplets from adhering to plants in the garden during precipitation events.

Another means to protect yourself is to practice raised bed gardening. Utilizing this method, a gardener relies on imported soil known to be free of contaminants to fill a frame (often very simply crafted of lumber, logs, large stones, or the like) where the desired vegetation is sown.

When soil lead contamination is high, trees and shrubs which produce their edible portions above ground can still be a viable option for food production.

Savvy gardeners also employ mulch in the spaces they tend. We can protect ourselves from lead-contaminated soil splashing onto our produce by covering the soil’s surface with organic material (leaves, wood chips, shredded paper, and many other materials are suitable). Not only that: the mulch also enhances the growth of our plants by helping to conserve soil moisture and reduce weed competition.

Gardening in Known Contaminated Soil

If the only space you have available for growing is known to be contaminated with lead, there are still techniques you can use to gain some value from it using plants!

An excellent way to extract value from a contaminated space is to plant it densely with species that serve other ecological functions (like a pollinator patch or meadow).

There’s the option of growing trees or shrubs that bear fruit or nuts: numerous varieties are well suited to our climate in Allegheny County (hazelnuts, mulberries, apples, cherries, walnuts, and serviceberries, to name just a few).

Or you could plant a dense, pollinator-friendly space, filled with perennials. Coupled with beekeeping, this can be an excellent way to continue to gain food value from contaminated land, while simultaneously reducing the risks associated with it.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re near the Pittsburgh area, be sure to check out Get the Lead Out Pittsburgh: they have excellent resources to help you protect yourself and your family from lead poisoning.

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