Urban Farming and Cities

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

Editorial La Finquita Community Garden in Holyoke

The growth of community gardens, educational farms, school greenhouses, college plots, backyard growers, rooftop gardens and container operations in urban areas of the US indicates the current breadth of interest in producing food by city residents. Such a flowering has not been seen in many years. The history of agriculture in cities, however, goes back thousands of years and may surprise some readers. We have traced that history here.

There are of course clear difficulties with such growing in contemporary America, especially issues of soil toxicity and access to land, on both of which we have articles in this issue. The larger strengths and weaknesses of urban agriculture are also addressed here from an agro-ecological perspective.

One of the most striking features of this phenomenon, of course, is how heavily it is the work of people of color, primarily African-American but also Latinx communities. The demographics of marginalized groups in American farming are traced in another article, as well as their contributions to the science, technology, and business aspects of agricultural success.

Our features, one on urban farming in a historically African-American community in Brooklyn and one on a CSA focusing on front-line communities and racial justice activists in Providence and Boston, both illustrate the realities of raising food for urban residents with a special concern for being led by, and serving, people of color.

Many NOFA farmers and homesteaders, of course, are white and primarily rural. Even our gardening and landscaping members are far more suburban than inner city residents. Yet the realities of our work with soil, seeds, tools and weather are closely aligned, wherever we farm. The issues of toxic chemicals, food safety, market regulation, economic viability, crop quality, even succession are very much the same.

It is our hope that with this issue urban, suburban, and rural growers will all see the common features that unite us. Such a consciousness, we feel, can help us forge an alliance in the work we need to do together to address the myriad ills of today’s food system.

Growing on City Land in the State’s Poorest City

Green Team selling their produce from Costello Urban Farm at the Lawrence Farmer's Market. FullSizeRenderLawrence, Massachusetts, called “The City of the Damned” in a 2012 Boston Magazine feature, has seen some hard times. According to 2014 data the national median number of violent crimes per 1000 residents is 3.8 and the Massachusetts rate is 3.9. Lawrence comes in at 11.1. It is also the state’s poorest city (per capita income less than $17,000 per year), has the highest unemployment rate (over twice the state as a whole) and has been poorly led — it’s last mayor was investigated by state and federal officials for corruption (an aide was convicted and received 18 months) while a state-appointed overseer managed the city’s finances.

But it wasn’t always so. Sitting on both sides of the Merrimack River at a point where a series of natural falls of 5 feet or so were not sufficient to drive water powered equipment, the future city of Lawrence occupied a site containing enough drop, if engineered, to support a massive output of power. The wealth-producing potential of water power had been amply demonstrated a generation earlier in Massachusetts, first at Waltham by Francis Lowell and then at Lowell itself, only 11 miles upstream from this new site. The call went out for investors and in 1845 Abbot and Amos Lawrence raised a million dollars, created Boston Associates, and purchased seven square miles of land on either side of the Merrimack River.

At the site the architect/engineers Charles Storrow and Charles Bigelow designed and built a massive Great Stone Dam, rising 35 feet and impounding enough water with its 30-foot drop to provide 13,000 horsepower in the mile long North Canal. ‘Mill rights’ to this power was sold to textile mills that would produce textiles for the world. Just the Ayer Mill alone was equipped with 400 broadlooms and 44,732 spindles. Over the years the mills were operated by streams of immigrants of Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, Syrian, Irish, English, German, French-Canadian, and Portuguese origin. (It was in Lawrence that the great “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 took place. Led by the Industrial Workers of the World and seeking a 54-hour workweek, it pitted 20,000 immigrant women machine operators against the militia. The strike lasted two months and resulted in significant wage increases after public exposure of working conditions at the mills.) Subsequent to World War Two, however, textile jobs, accompanied by the wealth they created, left the region and the country.

In 1999 a group of Lawrence business people, joined by the city administration itself and the National Park Service, initiated a feasibility study. They were anxious to improve the living conditions in Lawrence. The purpose of the study was to see if a model of community organization that had been successful in England for 30 years might work here.

The model, called Groundwork, calls for local grassroots efforts to first establish the specific needs of the community. An organizer will go into the community and find out what residents believe are its needs, what organizations are already there, which are or are not able to meet those needs, and if the Groundwork model is the right one.

The community votes on whether the model makes sense. If they vote yes, that decision goes up to the national Groundwork organization. The board will review it and if it seems like a good fit they will accept that community into the national network. Then the local community goes through a launching strategy to kick off activities, moves into incorporating and builds a non-profit 501(c)3.

Currently there are 22 local Groundwork organizations throughout the US. Many work on programs like cleaning up brownfield areas, establishing green zones or corridors in a city, or working with urban youth to raise fresh and healthy food.

Groundwork Lawrence has done most of those. I visited them in January of 2016 to find out what they were doing and what sort of success they were having getting people to raise food on municipal land.

“We started with our first community garden,” says community engagement director Lesly Medina, “which was in an alleyway that the city allowed us to develop. The Alleyway is a passageway between a number of the three-decker houses in one of the densest parts of the city. It was dirt and hadn’t been paved. It was used for access to the back of homes. We created a garden there.”

Another project they are proud of is the Greenway, a long pathway that follows the Spicket River as it flows into the city from Methuen. Some is really green with plantings, some has sidewalks connecting these green areas — the whole thing is three and a half miles connecting 6 parks with little league fields, gardens and walkways. Educational signage exists in many of the parks, and eventually they hope to have it designed for people so they can put their phone up to a spot and get linked to web pages with information appropriate videos, etc.

“Food and farming are central to our work here,” executive director Heather McMann says, “as of the end of 2015 we have 8 local community gardens, over 60,000 square feet of gardening space, and over 150 active gardeners in the network. We also have a half-acre urban farm over at Costello Park, which is a city park. The farm is used by our local Green Team of youth who plan, plant, harvest, sell and donate the produce over the summer months. We have three farmers markets, one on Wednesdays, one on Saturdays, and one in Methuen on Fridays. Of course our farm is completely no-spray and we don’t use any pesticides. We teach the use of natural processes and methods in growing.”

Five community gardens that are not part of the park system came through the city taking tax title to the land.

Besides the actual farming and growing experiences, Groundwork Lawrence teaches about food through a “pipeline” that reaches kids as young as Kindergarden.

“We have tours of the Greenway and the Urban Farm,” explains McMann, “they are digging in the soil and learning about this all the way up through high school. Then we have cooking classes and nutrition classes. We do a lot of things at the adult level as well. The pipeline means getting the kids started on this path early, understanding the importance of clean water and air, and fresh food.”

Over the summer the program involves three teams of ten young people each. One focuses on park stewardship doing such things as trail maintenance, invasive species removal, and historical site maintenance at the Saugus Ironworks Park. Another track does more community engagement and outreach, sponsoring a 5K trail through the Greenway, and another focuses on the farming.

Food Corps member, Alex Stenner, demonstrates tools at Costello Urban Farm

Food Corps member, Alex Stenner, demonstrates tools at Costello Urban Farm

Part of farming requires clean soil, of course, but the soil in Lawrence is all urban fill with high levels of lead. Groundwork Lawrence tests every soil they grow in and often bring in clean healthy soil to the garden sites, using it or compost or both on top of a barrier in raised beds. There are a lot of ideas of how to amend soils and how you can build them up, but for Groundwork Lawrence it is easier to bring in safe soil rather than wait ten years or longer to rebuild them.

“One of our food access programs,” says community food manager Heather Conley, “is getting the bodegas or corner stores to offer healthier food options. We partner with the city and the mayor’s task force on a program called ‘Healthy on the Block’. We target corner stores in the most densely populated areas of the city. They are called Bodegas. We help them offer healthier options – usually more around product placement so healthy food isn’t in the back with junk food in the front. They sign a memorandum of agreement to have a healthy shelf and do more product placement of healthy stuff in the front. We agree to help them with marketing and have small amounts of money to be able to purchase shelving or building credit lines or anything they need. One Bodega wanted a lead on an accountant who spoke Spanish!

“Inherent in everything we do,” she continues, “is the social justice piece. With the Green Team we focus on the inequities in the food system. All the way from wages in fast food restaurants to access to fresh and affordable food – the Bodega work and our farmers market EBT benefits, matching dollars for fresh food with money from state funding and our share program. People will use their cards and get twice as much food as is billed to their card. We pay the farmer directly the difference. We include the greening of the city by cleaning the water and the air and improving places for playing. We don’t specifically deal with GMOs, but will present that information to our Green Team members. We introduce them to those ideas without pushing them on any issue. We took them to see a militant vegan activist, then we introduced them to ideas on the other side. Right now they are reading ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’.”

The Green Team kids have to be Lawrence residents, fit the age requirements (14 to 21 years old), and go through a full process of applying, getting letters of recommendation, and being selected. At this point the entire city of Lawrence is considered low income so almost any kid fits that criterion! Seventy-six percent of the population in Lawrence is Hispanic, with large groups of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. During the school year 10 kids are hired, and during the summer they hire an additional 20 to make 30 total. They all get paid.

“At the beginning of the school year,” says outreach and events manager Rose Gonzalez, “they are able to work out on the farm on weekends. But our farmers markets fall during the school day through October so the kids are in school and can’t help with that. But they do a lot of jobs in school. They went to the NOFA conference in Worcester last weekend. We brought 9 kids with 2 staff members. They were excited because they will be taking what they have learned and incorporating it into the farm over the summer. They are learning about soil health, composting, food access, inequities in the food system — we have many program areas.

“We are building our environmental improvement program,” she adds, “by planting trees, building parks, and planting gardens. Our education programs have grown. We are in 12 public schools with about 2000 students. We do science and nutritional education during the school day. The kids have a choice block and go to whatever program they want. Some places have a rotation for all the kids, especially for the pre-K age.”

Groundwork Lawrence takes the Green Team kids camping, skiing and exposing them to things they would never experience otherwise. As a result, the staff have a lot of exposure to team member families, who understand what the program means to their kids. The Groundwork relationship thus goes beyond the youth to their families and homes.

photo courtesy Heather Conley Groundwork Lawrence staff and Food Corps member after a big harvest

photo courtesy Heather Conley
Groundwork Lawrence staff and Food Corps member after a big harvest

As a result, quite a few people who have been through both Green Team and the summer youth program have come back to be leaders. One alum is on the board of directors now. others are teachers in the school system who are teaching science and are referring students back.

Part of the support network the group has flows from relationships with other non-profits.

“When we did rapid ecological assessments,” explains Lesly, “we worked with Mass Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, other city agencies and the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council – they all increase our capacity to be effective. We find the groups with the skill sets and the knowledge to make something happen. For example the WIC program – we partnered with them by organizing the farmers market. In another case we knew we had this beautiful wild area – Den Rock, a 120 acre wooded preserve – and we wanted to maintain it. We worked with the AMC, which has the expertise to do that and teach our kids.

“We are a key program with the city,” adds McMann. “We pride ourselves with our relationship building. Ever since 1998 when the feasibility study started we have worked hard to make sure we have good relationships with the mayor’s office and the 9 city councilors. Having those personal relationships helps us get to where we are today.

“We have been through 4 mayors since we started,” she concludes. “All were very supportive and enthusiastic about us because we are building capacity for the city in areas where they aren’t strong.

But where our model is extremely powerful is this: Municipalities have two-year or four-year terms. I’m talking about city councils, about mayors. They have to show results quickly. We want to show results but we have a much longer horizon. None of us is going to go out of office.”

Assessing Urban Impacted Soil for Urban Gardening


F E3 Garden Zone DepthUrban gardening is gaining momentum in North America. Urban gardening can provide broad health, environmental, social and economic benefits.

Often the land available for increasing the urban land base for community gardening are lands that are vacant, abandoned, or previously used for purposes other than food production. Despite a growing interest to garden on these lands, previous and current activities on or next to these sites might have resulted in con-tamination of the soil.

This guide is a decision-support tool used to identify areas that may be contaminated but could be suitable for food production and to identify appropriate ex-posure reduction actions based on the condition of the site.

T E1 Table of Land UseStep 1 – Establish a Level of Concern
The initial step of the guidance is to assess the likelihood that the soil quality for a garden may be of concern due to contamination from past activities. The appropriate Level of Concern is identified by conducting a site visit and researching the land use history to determine if various indicators are present.

A site visit is conducted by walking through and inspecting the site thoroughly. The site is walked through and checked for indications of illegal dumping or burning of garbage. The soil is turned over with a shovel in the areas intended for gardening and checked for soil staining (discoloration, usually dark patches) and odors (chemical and gasoline smells).

A site history is researched by searching available city records and asking local neighbors for information about the past and current use of the site and adjacent properties.

Each indicator is associated with a level of concern. The indicator of greatest concern defines the level of concern for the site as a whole. The table to the upper right lists the various indicators, the appropriate Level of Concern, and the recommended next steps for the garden site.

For sites that have been characterized as Medium Concern, go to Step 2. For all other gardens, go to Step 4.

Step 2 – Sample and Test the Soil
If the planned garden on a Medium Concern site is larger than 13 by 13 ft, the soil should be tested to determine the concentrations of soil contami-nants. The cost of a raised bed garden of this size is less than soil sampling, thus it is not cost effective to conduct soil testing for gardens that are smaller than this size. We recommend that small gardens in the Medium Concern category go to Step 4. For larger gardens, the depth of soil to be sampled is 0 to 40 cm.

We developed the above streamlined list of contaminants of concern (COCs) for the Medium Concern sites. The cost to analyze each composite sam-ple for all the parameters listed is approximately $250. The number of required composite samples is determined by the size of the garden. For a community garden 1 to 2 samples covers 225 to 450 m2, respectively. The average community garden is 280 m2. Thus, most community gardens will require 2 samples at a cost of approximately $500.

Contaminants of Concern for Medium Concern garden sites

Contaminants of Concern for Medium Concern garden sites

If the indicators identified during the site visit and site history suggest that the soil might be contaminated by other soil contaminants not on our stream-lined list of COCs, then the site should be treated as a site of High Concern (Go to Step 4).

Step 3 – Interpret the Soil Tests
In Step 3, the Exposure Reduction Tier for the garden is determined by comparing the soil concentration of each COC with the Soil Screening Values (SSVs) on page B-8.
The SSVs define the three risk levels, and are used to interpret the soil test data as follows:

• If the concentrations of all of the COCs are below the respective SSV 1, then the site requires Tier 1 Exposure Reduction;

• If the concentration of any COC is above the SSV 1 but does not exceed the SSV 2, then the site requires Tier 2 Exposure Reduction; or,

• If the concentration of any COC is above the SSV 2, then the site requires Tier 3 Exposure Reduction.

Urban Gardening Soil Screening Values (mg/kg)

Urban Gardening Soil Screening Values (mg/kg)

Step 4: Mitigate the Risks
There are many simple and inexpensive actions gardeners can easily take to reduce their exposure to urban soil contaminants depending on the risk level for the site. The illustration on page B-8 summarizes the recommended exposure reduction measures for the gardens that are required for Tier 1, 2 or 3 Exposure Reduction.

Existing Gardens
Through regular gardening practices gardeners already do many of the activities outlined in Tier 1 and 2 Exposure Reduction risk levels. For example, gardeners add soil and organic matter to their gardens on an annual basis to improve the yield of their garden. These behaviours, year after year, re-sult in a reduction in both the concentration and bioavailability of soil contaminants. In addition, gardeners turn over their soil at least twice a year, aer-ating their soils and exposing deeper soil to sunlight (two mechanisms that degrade and reduce organic soil contaminants). These practices over many years significantly reduce the concentration and the bioavailability of soil contaminants.

Existing gardens on lands that are in the Low Concern category should continue to use Tier 1 Exposure Reduction measures. Existing gardens in the Medium Concern category should use Tier 2 Exposure Reduction measures, with the exception of avoid or restrict growing produce. There is no need to test the soils. Existing gardens in the High Concern category should follow the soil testing indicated for Medium Concern sites.

Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden

City sign hangs on the fence surrounding the garden

photo by Jack Kittredge City sign hangs on the fence surrounding the garden

The Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City is composed of about 150,000 souls. Dutch farmers were the original European settlers, but the region slowly developed from farms to villages to towns to a city because of closeness to Manhattan. By the 1870s rowhouses began to be constructed here and the neighborhood adopted its current look.

After the completion of the Fulton Street IND transportation line in 1936, many people left an overcrowded Harlem for better housing options among Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones. During World War Two a large influx of southern African Americans came to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a resulting largely successful effort at ‘blockbusting’ by real estate agents and speculators to drive out whites left the neighborhood with a 85% black population by 1960. Over time it has become a center for Brooklyn’s African American culture.

By the early 2000s the area’s large stock of substantial rowhouses on tree-lined streets began attracting an ethnically diverse population of Afro-Caribbeans and foreign-born people, as well as gentrifying whites. According to the American Community survey in 2013, the population was 56% Black, 22% White, 19% Latinx, and 2% Asian.

Carthan Community Garden.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Neighborhood residents maintain many beds at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden.

Perhaps this eclectic and cosmopolitan population base explains the look and feel of Bed-Stuy’s Hattie Carthan Community Garden and Farmer’s Market when I visited in October. The Community Garden is on the end of a block of brownstones and contains numerous plots for individual gardens as well as quiet public areas, picnic tables, and stretches of trees. It has been in existence since 1981. The Farmer’s Market, established in 2009, is on a narrow strip of land adjacent to the Garden. It serves as a site for community members to gather, buy and sell food, and take part in educational, spiritual, musical, artistic and cultural programming.

Perhaps the two pieces of land represent the needs of the community at the time they were established.

The community garden is like so many other such facilities in densely populated American cities – a site from which private housing had disappeared and which residents, often from rural backgrounds, began using for growing food. Ultimately this activity became so popular that the city, having taken title for non-payment of taxes, allowed it to be formalized for that purpose and supplies such basic necessities as water.

The farmer’s market is a much more up-to-date space, once an abandoned lot where trash was dumped, now it is filled with murals, chicken coops, demonstration plantings, free libraries of kids books, composting spaces, display tables, rows of raw and processed produce for sale, live and recorded music, and costumed people.

Or perhaps the two spaces have taken on the character of the two strong black women who established them.

Hattie Carthan (1900 – 1984) was a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who loved trees. Mrs. Carthan led the charge to preserve a particular Southern magnolia tree, brought on a ship from North Carolina in 1885, that became a symbol of the neighborhood. The tree, rare in the northeast but protected from killing frosts by adjacent buildings and probably heat from the nearby subway, had grown to 40 feet in height. Carthan not only succeeded in having a wall built to protect this tree but also spearheaded the successful attempt to designate it an official city landmark in 1970. Noticing natural conditions in her neighborhood beginning to deteriorate, Mrs. Carthan began replanting trees there. She started the Neighborhood Tree Corps in 1971 as a way to teach young people how to care for trees, and the Green Guerillas, a force behind the resurgence of the community garden movement. The organization began informally in 1974 with tactics as simple as throwing water balloons filled with seeds into abandoned lots; the positive response showed the overwhelming need for more green space in the inner city. In May 1998, the garden was named in honor of Mrs. Carthan.

photo by Quincy Ledbetter, courtesy Yes! Magazine Yonnette Fleming holds one of the hens at the Hattie Carthan Community GardenYonnette Fleming is another natural community leader. Born in Guyana, she came to the US at 15 years of age. She had grown up living on large family sugar, rice, and coconut plantations, and with a grandmother who still grew food and baked bread. But upon coming to America she got caught up in the dream of success for a time and worked as a financial broker on Wall Street. Since 2003, however, she has been active in urban gardening and farming. Currently vice president of the Hattie Carthan Community Garden farm, she is a raphaologist, ordained minister, plant and sound medicine practitioner, reiki master, healing circle facilitator, and herbal Wysewoman. She teaches a Food Justice course for the Farm School in NYC and is a member of the Farm School’s advisory board, considering herself a ‘social change activist’.

When I first met Yonnette she, along with others helping with the market, was wearing a flaming orange and black face mask.

“This is the Day of the Dead for us”, she explained. “We have altars that were set up this morning. We are introducing children to their dead. My grandmother’s body is on that altar. She died at 106!” (She shows me the urn with her ashes in it). “So the majority of the world is celebrating this time with All Souls, All Saints, everyone is celebrating. So we make a concerted effort to pay attention to this. We have land, so we have to have the ancestors, all the old gardeners who have spent 40 years of their lives here, you have to have them in memory. That is what we are doing today. Almost all of the world celebrates their dead now. Yeah! But you would never know it from where we are in this country – Halloween costumes, trick or treats, candy…”“All of these beautiful tablescapes,” she continues, “were created by me and the children this morning. The craftings conjure up memories. Here we have our juniper berries, our amaranth that reminds us of where we are from. Here is an amaranth that is from Guyana, all of the beautiful things that we have prepared for our dead. This in itself speaks a volume about culture and us. Over on this table, what we asked our community to do is either bring pictures or a representation of their culture for our dead table. If they have nothing, we encourage them to write notes. What we know about the dead realms is that the way is paved by the heart. In other words thinking, standing still, remembering. So that is what we are doing. And this is going to be built up all afternoon, and our ritual ends with the drums and a whole celebration and eating.”

Yonnette is proud that the Hattie Carthan Garden is known for its spirituality, not just its beauty and practicality. Other activities that illustrate this are:

• the Menstruation Hut — a place for HER to celebrate the mystery of women’s blood and for cultivating and affirming life bearing abilities. (First Sunday of each month)

• Healing Circles — weekly percussion circles that teach team work and cooperation through musical entrainment. (Sundays)

• Medicine making workshops. (Quarterly)

• Earth Day seed starting workshops free to the community. Each person leaves with plant starts. (April)

• Annual Plant Sale — local gardeners, schools, block associations pickup plants for their gardens.

• Foods of the diaspora – a culinary festival celebrating the foods and music of the African diaspora, attracts hundreds of people into the garden space. (June)

Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work

photo by Jack Kittredge
Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work at the festival’s arts and crafts table

• Southern food festival — community gathers on lawn to celebrate Southern culture and blues band performs good old bayou blues classics to heal the broken hearted. (September)

• Labor Day Spirits come out to mambo — Afro Caribbean cuisine and west African drum and dance class is emphasized in market. Intergenerational conga line, costumes and youth carnival. Masquerade history demystified. (Labor Day)

• Bread baking classes — community gathers around Cobb oven in 3-week bread making series to mill vegetable and seed flours as a healthy alternative to wheat flour overconsumption. (October)

• Life and Death celebration — community gathers to remember Death traditions and to cultivate ancestral bonds through deep reflections, art and music. (Late October)

• Farmy Folks soiree — large hyperlocal dinner, demonstrating nourishing traditions to acknowledge the work and dedication of our supporters. Visioning with stakeholders and sharing lessons from the season. Failures alongside successes and aspirations. (Late November)

Of course the Community Garden and Market also run many education programs appropriate to raising food in the city.

Hattie Carthan

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Hattie Carthan, founder of the Garden

“We have some composting systems behind the chicken coop,” Yonnette points out. “When the market is open we are also taking in compost from within a quarter mile radius. When people come to pick up their CSA basket of food, if they can’t compost in the home they can freeze the waste and bring it back here. We turn it over and it goes back to the soil. That is part of the theme on the dead – decaying and changing form.”

“Shortly we will be doing a vermicomposting workshop,” she continues. “Our compost is a mixture of animal manure, worm doo and plant matter. Our animals are hormone free and are cared for with herbal medicines, so we don’t worry about chemicals and drugs in the manure.”

Another practical program centers around the ‘Herban Farm and Apothecary’ that Fleming organized in 2011 on a neglected urban lot nearby. She studied plants and cell medicine for 10 years at the College for Indigenous Medicine and is a fan of their enormous restorative powers.

“A lot of things don’t grow here,” she admits, “but what does grow here we use a lot of. The reality is that people don’t even know the plants that grow here most. They are so busy weeding out what grows here they don’t know what it is. Yeah, so we run medicinal plant walks. Plants are outside of the codified system. We help to break that down.”

The herbal apothecary is loaded with freshly harvested medicinal herbs, herbal cosmetics and healing products crafted by Yonnette, who offers apothecary healing services such as Chakra rebalancing, energy healing, sound healing, aura cleansing, and reiki sessions. Groups focusing on dietary methods, percussion, plant dreams, sacred design, clearing land trauma, sacred mandelas and labyrinths are also available.

A number of young people have been engaged at the sites through Americorps or other programs. They do a variety of jobs, including running educational programs, and have expressed an interest in getting more involved in food and farming. African American-owned farms in the US have been on a historical decline for many years, but Yon would like to counteract that reality by finding ways to make black ownership easier. To this end she has helped create the Farm School, a training program of the Just Food program to promote learning about different kinds of farming and how to get access to land.

There is also a tiny tots program, including their own curriculum in the garden in the back in which 2-year olds participate. They have a pizza garden and had a program on smoothies and how you make them. The chickens are there, and a little cow that you can move back and forth to make compost.

Youthful community members learn about the food system at regular educational sessions.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Youthful community members learn about the food system at regular educational sessions.

As an example of an educational program, while I was there Jeneé Granum presented a demo on how to make pumpkin fritters drawn from the recipe in Caribbean Vegan, by Taymer Mason. You cut a pumpkin or squash into sections, grate the meat into a bowl, add flour, a tablespoon of brown sugar or agave or honey, corn starch, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. After mixing the dry ingredients together, you add ¼ cup of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and mix the batter with the pumpkin meat. You pick out a tablespoon of fritter and deep fry or bake it, dust with sugar and then eat. The fritters Jeneé made were delicious!

Another delicious product of the Garden is figs. They have about 7 trees, which were producing delicious ripe figs when I visited. Apparently the effect of the subway line warming the soil is adequate to protect the roots and enable this treat to survive Brooklyn’s cold winters.

Obviously no activity like this can exist without financial backing. But Yonnette does not take a traditional approach to fund raising.

“We generally don’t do a lot of writing for grants from foundations,” she relates. “We don’t want to fit into small boxes and talk about ourselves as lacking or needing. The only money we are interested in is social justice money, for things like food sovereignty work. We have been here for forty years, so everyone has to support it! It takes a village to support the farm and the market!

“We must be very creative,” she continues, “to be able to support all this. In order for us to move or tweak the food system ultra creativity, connectivity and collectivity is called for. Any way that you can be creative to bring people along is going to be the way we have to do it. We have run plant exhibitions in our greenhouse where we create an ambience, a giant art exhibit. This is creativity. Once you bring that, then that same community comes back and supports you. The bread-baking class is a whole community of bakers. The composters are a whole different one. You have the bee people. The butterfly people. You have programs for them, you sell food at them. The bread-baking workshop was $40 and you go home with a loaf of bread. The same workshop is offered for $300 elsewhere, so ours is a bargain. I think it is amazing. You have egg people who love the chickens. We charge $6 a dozen for the eggs. That is the market price. If someone is ill and walks in here I will do the work with the herbs on them. It brings about a community. That is a market. Then with the sweat equity the city also has to support it. They didn’t build this for me, we built it ourselves. Our councilperson comes to our markets, as do our senators and legislators. We get public money for the youth, for instance. They learn and earn. And they certainly aren’t getting much money from selling collard greens!”

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming The Community Market began in 2009 as the revitalization of an abandoned lot being used as a dumping groundI met a young black woman named Myles, new to the neighborhood as she just arrived four weeks ago, handing out flyers about the November 11th Farmy folks Soiree, which charges $50 for a Hyperlocal, Organic dinner, and $30 for a Wine and ferment bar. She was also promoting a Healing and Volunteer Appreciation Dinner on Nov. 19th. She explained how they try to make the classes self-supporting by charging reasonable fees and making sure people get something for their money.

“We have a lot of classes here,” she says, “to educate people about how to make things. We had one on bread-making last week where you go home with a loaf. Generally, if you take a class you get a token worth a few dollars on items you can buy here.”

A young white man named Mike Swigert had been in the community for several years. He is particularly interested in the political dimension of the work there.

“There is obviously money required to keep all this going,” he agrees. “We do fundraising events, workshops, we are always having cultural programs with music and food. And youth corps members are getting paid. This is supported by a lot of earned income – selling at the farmer’s market, a ton of volunteer work, we do get support from the city council, from foundations, particularly the Noyes Foundation for capital improvements. We had a workshop on compost a few weeks ago, and another one on the food system and looking at that with a racial justice, economic justice lens.”

The produce and processed items sold at the farmers market raise some funds, obviously. But most of that is paid for by the market, either to folks who raise it in the Community Garden or to Pennsylvania farmers.

“You ask where our food comes from,” explains Yonnette. “Let me tell you how it goes from Friday. I invite community gardeners who could submit a crop plan and have me check their soil to make sure they are not using chemicals, and they can bring food on Fridays. I pay them and sell their food. We have about 8 community gardens that do that for us and we aggregate their food to sell it. Staples of squash, rutabagas, sweet potatoes – we’ll never be able to do those on urban land – those come from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.

“Also,” she continues, “at the farm there is a working apothecary where we farm the herbs and together with my team we move the herbs and medicine into the apothecary. When we sell the herbs and medicine – massage oils, teas, butters, berries, barks, twigs – that helps to take care of the farm. Those herbs are things that people have used for resilience through the course of history – not just African-Americans but all people. Herbs like plantain for example, Europeans depended on that in the landscape. When we teach we aren’t separating out anything. We believe that all things are African!”

The role of African Americans in the Garden, Market, Farm, etc. is important to the members. Even Mike, a white gentrifier, feels this is important.

“This over here,” he says, “is a community garden and those are all individuals gardening here. The entirety of the other site (Herban Farm) is maintained as a community project. It is infused with a spiritual energy – it’s an African indigenous, woman-led, people-of-color project.

“The neighborhood is changing now,” he continues. “It has been predominantly African American and low income. But there is tremendous gentrification now. You can see the public housing here and the yuppie coffee shops over here. There is lots of change. The idea of this project is that the community garden has lots of long time members who are African American from the South and have been in Brooklyn for awhile but come from rural backgrounds. Yon led a project a few years ago which captured their story from the context of a community garden which is really cool. People have individual plots but it is a collective endeavor. I like being a part of that. I’m from Washington D. C. and am obviously one of the people who is “gentrifying” the neighborhood. But it has been really wonderful for me to come here and connect with what is going on. We have had some wonderful sessions here on Race and Equity, Access, and Power. I attended one right after the Charlottesville killing. We had people from 12 years old to 70 come out for that. A lot of people have been volunteering here over the years, contributing to the agriculture. I come every week and water a number of beds. I have a little garden plot in my backyard but I contribute as a community member to this project too.”

The role of African Americans in the leadership of the Garden, Market and Farm is central to Yonnette.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming Recycling waste, be it manure, garden clippings, or neighborhood kitchen waste is an fundamental principle for the Garden, as well as an important source of fertility.

photo courtesy Yonnette Fleming
Recycling waste, be it manure, garden clippings, or neighborhood kitchen waste is an fundamental principle for the Garden, as well as an important source of fertility.

‘The project here is an African-American led one,” she asserts. “It always has been for the 40 years it has existed. The older garden ran a kind of sterile narrative about who they were as though all things were equal. They did that for a long time. It’s a traditional community garden where everybody gets a plot. It is like everybody is there, we are all here, there is no racial justice narrative going. But when gentrification came on the community they got to the level that they realized the sterile narrative, although it seems like a friendly thing to do, is not how you cultivate community. We are a diverse community, naturally, and there are various power structures. Everything is different for everyone. So in 2009 we began to clearly say that we are a people-of-color led project. That our work with the youth is on youth of color, to heal and repair themselves. Everything that we do has that sort of narrative.

“Our community is being gentrified currently,” she continues. “This is one of the last African American gardens left standing with African American leadership. That is a fact. How the leadership is dealing with that are internal strategies, some are ones I can share. One idea is adding a voluntary component to our membership so there is not a right-of-way into the garden. It serves as a speed bump. We ask for a year of voluntary help before you actually join the garden. When I added that to our bylaws (smiles) that was the winner! Many community gardeners come to meet me and the one thing they want is to keep it the way it is, how to keep the place African American, how to stack it without, yeah… We have a few whites who have earned membership now.”

Fleming’s concern with African American control may seem discriminatory to outsiders, but she feels that keeping her community in charge of the Garden they created is vital.

“It is important for historically oppressed communities” she states, “to have resources for healing and rights to land and territory. Every community needs resources and space for the production of fresh, clean, nutrient dense foods and to recognize the central role of land in culture, society and healing. Our gardens and farms are not just food production mills but serve as places that humanize and cultivate diversity.”

To that end, she argues, it is important to stress the strengths and assets of your community, not its weaknesses and needs.

“The work of community building and reconnecting to land,” she says, “like every process, begins with a desire to want something better for one’s community. Assessing the assets of one’s community is essential. Instead of using a needs-based only frame, every community should be able to map its assets and create change through establishing common ground and democracy. Engaging and educating using popular education pedagogy helps us recognize each other’s function in community. Music and Art defies the trappings of language and are important to our collective healing.”

Also important to community education about what needs to be done, Yonnette suggests, is a recognition of the problems they face and an appreciation of the traditions they come from.

“People need to have a race/class analysis,” she says, “when they are trying to be a part of creating a more equitable and sustainable future. The food system is so bad in so many ways – unhealthy food, people profit from it who are far away from producing it, lots of waste, issues of race and equity… The kinds of classes we run help you understand all that and create alternative ways of farming – local, organic, collective.

In keeping with the fall festival, this demonstration showed how to make pumpkin fritters.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Veronica (dressed for the Day of the Dead) tends Jasper as he finishes his art work at the festival’s arts and crafts table

“At the farm,” she continues, “we raise a consciousness of deep reverence for the Earth and respect feminine based leadership and values. We center black women’s knowledge and radically lift up the work of women around us. We redefine our relationships to the land; healing creatively with the land; ancestral honoring/remembering and community self-esteem, determination and liberation. We describe our Farm as a healing place. Our Farm has a wild patch where we bury our wounds, sing ancestral songs and recall stories of our environmental icons like Hattie Carthan who way back in the 70s, thought she was working to save a tree and in so doing created the backbone of this community.”

I asked several people at the Garden/Market/Farm how they would like to see the programs grow in the future.

Veronica Crevino, a volunteer staffer, mentioned their desire to function throughout the year.

“This area,” she said, “is open July through Thanksgiving. We’d like to go year round. Right now we own four generators, is how we get our power. We want to get permanent power through a meter. We are drawing up plans right now for electricity to be installed for the market area. That would enable us to be here year-round. It will mean lots more refrigeration and food preservation. Come back and see us in 3 years!”

One other consequence of year-round operation would be that the market could attract upstate farmers with winter crops, root vegetables, and preserved food. It would be an opportunity for them to reach a large urban market and a chance for the market to earn significant stall fees.

Yon is currently planning on building a classroom and herbal preservation structure on the farm and will be launching an indegogo campaign to raise funds for it. Large teach-ins and herbalism intensive courses are among the programs which would be taught there.

Another goal Yon has is to install a solar electrical tree at the farm. Also to have a rainwater barrel system there and a pump to activate it so the water can be brought anywhere for use.

Mike works with the food justice program which takes care of policy and makes sure things are running correctly. Fleming envisions him coordinating letter writing and door-knocking campaigns generating support for the program. That could pay off in several ways:

Longer leases – not the 3-year type currently used for the market, but more like the 40 years, which the Community Garden has. That would enable significant investment in the sites.

EBT support – the city requires every single community-based market to have an EBT operator. If that could be changed, or a system set up to pay for such an operator, then SNAP benefits and other such programs would be easy to use and the vendors could all function easier.

School programs – Yonnette would love not to have to chase down the schools for teacher awareness. The children are already coming to the site for services and teachers would benefit from such exposure themselves.

Health programs – Yon would like to have health professionals come at least one day a month to the farm. Her dad did that in Guyana. He had every public service program bring people to help on the farm – ministries of education, health, timber…

“I think what we want to do,” she says, “is build up this project here, and the other herbal one, in terms of growing more, developing enterprises to use it and benefit people. We want to get people to build their skills while increasing community economic activity. It is great to grow your own food in your backyard or a plot here, but also help us build the community and cooperative economics.”

Providence’s “Sidewalk Ends Farm” Brings Back Urban Soil

Farmer Tess Brown-Lavoie talks about compost and soil remediation at a CRAFT workshop. Attendees enjoyed a tour of the ‘greens factory’ and learned how to grow a never-ending supply of salad and arugula through biointensive production and succession planting.

Farmer Tess Brown-Lavoie talks about compost and soil remediation at a CRAFT workshop. Attendees enjoyed a tour of the ‘greens factory’ and learned how to grow a never-ending
supply of salad and arugula through biointensive production and succession planting.

Three young women turned their love of gardening into a thriving farm business. After college Fay Strongin, and sisters Laura Brown-Lavoie and Tess Brown-Lavoie, did not seek desk jobs but instead decided to start farming on an abandoned lot just minutes from busy downtown Providence, in Rhode Island.

The future farmers searched every side street in ever-increasing circles, seeking an open lot. They researched lot ownerships at city hall and reached out to landowners. “It took a lot of detective work and repeated efforts to connect with the owner of the abandoned lot on Harrison Street that became Sidewalk Ends Farm,” Tess said. The three sought a written multiyear lease, but faced communication challenges with the landowner. The farm team eventually secured verbal permission from the lot owner to farm the land for a year.

Harrison Street neighbors said there had been a rundown house at number 47 until it was torn down in the 1970s. Invasive vines and brush had completely taken over the lot. As the team began clearing away the brush, they found building debris, concrete and rubble in the cellar hole. Like many abandoned lots, this one had become the neighborhood’s dumping ground. The farmers found bottles and broken glass near every fence line.

Ever the optimist, Laura was confident the neighbors would stop dumping trash over the fence once they saw the land producing food.

City Farming Concerns

Tess Brown-Lavoie, Fay Strongin and Laura Brown-Lavoie at  Sidewalk Ends Farm in Providence, RI with their latest salad plantings

Tess Brown-Lavoie, Fay Strongin and Laura Brown-Lavoie at
Sidewalk Ends Farm in Providence, RI with their latest salad plantings

Suspecting the Harrison Street lot soils might contain toxins, heavy metals or lead, the farmers conducted thorough soil tests before beginning site preparations in September 2011. The front of their chosen lot had building debris from the original house — including lead paint chips. To mitigate risks, Tess said the team shoveled and carried all the “OK” topsoil from the back of the property to cap or cover the tainted soil at the front. Soil test results after moving the soil were in the acceptable range for growing food and raising animals.

As an added protection, the farm team installed thick layers of bedding over a liner before setting up a brightly colored chicken pen near the front fence for everyone to see. When refreshed, the used bedding helps feed the active compost pile. The chickens enjoy eating excess farm vegetables.

A series of raised beds were constructed from gleaned lumber and wood scraps, used pallets and other recycled materials. These beds were filled with 8” – 10” of fresh soil and rich compost before planting with shallow-rooted annual herbs. The farm’s Portable Wash Station doubles as a CSA pick-up station. It is located near the front fence and water supply. The lot front also contains a fire circle and woodchip-covered gathering area.

To protect nearby children from possible soil-born lead dust, woodchips cover all soil surfaces in the lot front.

Some deep-rooted crops accumulate minerals from well below the soil surface and can offer excellent nutrition. If grown in tainted soils, however, they can accumulate toxins. To minimize risks, Sidewalk Ends Farm grows shallow-rooted, short-season crops like salad greens and annual herbs.

Compost & Organic Matter

The first fall the three farmers splurged on truckloads of high quality compost from Smithfield Peat <www.smithfieldpeat.com>. Additional material was gathered and added all winter long (leaves, coffee grounds, etc.) and blended with a broad fork in the spring before the seeds and transplants went in. Since then, the farmers have produced and used their own compost from a variety of local inputs. Farmers collect food scraps from their CSA customers, local restaurants and coffee shops.

Taking advantage of urban closeness, these farmers encourage their neighbors to add to the farm’s active compost pile. Fun, informative signs help remind families how to compost. Fay said: “Composting helped us connect with our neighbors even more than growing food.” The neighbors now have an excuse to visit the farm regularly. Their random evening visits minimize potential theft. Neighbors are happy to reduce their trash hauling needs and to see their kitchen scraps recycled into next year’s salads.

“The farm neighbors get composting. We have a network of fertility,” said Tess when she described a recent bike trip where a driver pulled over and tossed her banana peel into Tess’s bike cart of food waste.

Fay is very enthusiastic about her farm-made compost. She said, “Compost is the key to our soil fertility because the only time this land is fallow is when it is frozen!”

Old carpet squares and flattened cardboard boxes marked paths at first. Now shredded leaves and burlap coffee sacks gleaned from a nearby café keep weeds down between rows of salad greens at the back of the lot.

The farmers repeat their soil tests annually and are happy to report the organic matter keeps rising. Sidewalk Ends Farm’s lead and heavy metals levels continue dropping towards undetectable levels.

Organics & Carbon Footprint

The Cranston Armory Farmers Market at the corner of Parade and Hudson Streets is just two blocks away from Sidewalk Ends Farm. CSA members pick up their shares at the farm. The farmers use bikes with trailers to deliver produce or collect food waste.

Adding organic matter increases carbon in the soil. Biking and selling locally has decreased food transportation miles and further lowering carbon dioxide emissions while increasing local food security.

Water Challenges

When the house at 47 Harrison Street was demolished in the 1970s, city water pipes were disconnected. Hooking up city water without a building proved too challenging, so the Sidewalk Ends Farm crew developed a creative solution with their neighbors. Hoses connected to neighboring buildings provide irrigation and wash water in return for a weekly CSA share (spring – fall) and a weekly loaf of fresh bread (winter months).

Urban Setting

No one says it is too quiet or boring at Sidewalk Ends Farm. Regular drive-by and open window “concerts” keep things lively. The herbs, flowers and greens seem to thrive with neighborhood music.

The farmers named their chickens for their favorite musicians, radio hosts and writers: Aretha, Berry, Goodman & Gonzales and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Sidewalk Ends Farm has brought back 1950s-style neighborhood closeness. People routinely lean over the fence and chat with their neighborhood farmers and each other. The chickens are very social and they love attention from visitors.

Land Security

In 2013, the three farmers used online crowd sourcing to raise just about enough money to buy the property when it came up for a tax auction. The landowner came in at the last possible minute and paid the back taxes owed. The farmers continue their negotiations with the landowner. For now, they have an agreement to farm there next year. A lot of effort has gone into making this site viable and safe to farm. Should these farmers have to move, the safe, fertile soil would remain.

Planning well, the farmers planted herbs and flowers in portable, repurposed containers like milk crates, 5-gallon pails and olive drums. Perennials and deep-rooted herbs thrive in these tall containers with site-made compost and have no risk of absorbing possible soil contaminants.

Goals & Results

To keep this farm viable, every inch of growing space needs to deliver two to three crops per year. The back lot uses bio-intensive planting patterns of tight, staggered rows to increase outputs in small spaces. As soon as a crop is harvested, any crop residue is quickly moved to the active compost pile. That same day, 1” to 2” of finished compost is spread and forked into the bed to provide organic matter and fertility. New seeds or transplants are then installed. Soils do not sit bare and exposed to wind or erosion.

Since 2011 Sidewalk Ends Farm has supplied greens and produce to a 20-member CSA and restaurants through the Little City Growers Co-Op <www.farmfresh.org/food/member.php?fn=272>. Their CSA shares are comparable to half shares from other farms; this fits the needs of city dwellers with their small kitchens, refrigerators and families.


The workshop was followed by a Young Farmer Nights  potluck supper and storytelling around a fire.

The workshop was followed by a Young Farmer Nights 
potluck supper and storytelling around a fire.

Sidewalk Ends Farm covered or capped their urban soils with fertile compost and clean soils. By selecting shallow-rooted crops, they grow safe, healthy foods for themselves and their CSA customers. By placing a liner under their chicken pen, they protect the chickens from scratching too deep.

Larger farms may not have the financial resources to move or replace soils on a big scale. Another soil treatment option is to use accumulator plants for phytoremediation. Growing specific plants on tainted land can help cleanse soils for future agricultural use. Various plants and microorganisms can degrade, tie up or even remove toxins from the soil.

Some plants can accumulate heavy metals like arsenic (sunflower and Chinese brake fern), cadmium (willow), common salt (sugar beet and barley) and radioactive elements (sunflowers). Other transgenic plants and microorganisms target mercury, selenium, petroleum and PCBs.

High levels of soil organic matter help tie up many heavy metals, making them unavailable to plants, preventing leaching and reducing toxic dust.

Toxic dust becomes airborne when soils are disturbed during removal and hauling. Bare infertile subsoil remains. Onsite treatment significantly reduces costs and the carbon footprint of hauling contaminated soils to hazardous waste facilities. In situ treatment significantly reduces exposure risks to neighboring children. Phytoremediation and urban agriculture can also prevent toxins from blowing or leaching onto surrounding properties or into ground water aquifers.

Plant Selection

According to “The Use of Plants for the Removal of Toxic Metals from Contaminated Soil” by Mitch Lasat, root exudates and symbiotic microorganisms help plant roots tolerate and absorb metals. Soil toxicity levels will affect typical plant biomass. High biomass crops create higher disposal costs. Lasat recommended site managers select plants with root system depths that match the depth of soil contamination.

Lasat reported that some species of maize tolerate and absorb high levels of Cadmium (Cd) but cannot tolerate high levels of Zinc (Zn). Maize and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) show some promise for extracting Lead (Pb) from soils when synthetic chelates are applied after normal biomass levels are reached. According to Lasat, moderate Lead accumulators include Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), nodding thistle (Carduus nutans) and hemp dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).

Lasat suggested acidic soils allow greater metals uptake. Caution is required as soluble lead can quickly leach below root zones. After plants remove sufficient metals, lime can be applied in preparation for new plantings. Early lime applications could tie up remaining metals and prevent further phytoremediation. Lasat reported that phosphorus could increase biomass but inhibit metals uptake, particularly lead.

Phytoremediation crops should be rotated and planted with modest spacing for highest effectiveness, according to Lasat.

If plants are grown directly in known toxic soils, the plants should not be eaten. After the plants have absorbed or tied up toxins, the plant biomass should be removed to a hazardous waste facility.

Lasat reported that some or all of the cost of hauling away toxic biomass might be recouped by recovering certain valuable metals like Copper, Nickel and Zinc. These metals may be captured (at licensed “phyto mining” facilities) through burning the biomass.

Some phytoremediation projects may take as long as 15 years to clean up soil. So far, most studies have been short term. Lasat recommended additional research be conducted on spacing, soil fertility amendments and metals recovery processes and opportunities.

To learn more about Sidewalk Ends Farm, see their Facebook page <www.facebook.com/pages/Sidewalk-Ends-Farm/213101742058011> or Sidewalk Ends Farm <www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=3209> website. To arrange a visit to Sidewalk Ends Farm at 47 Harrison St, Providence, RI, email <laura.brown.lavoie@gmail.com> or call 617-817-6598.



Lead in Urban Soils

Lead is a widespread problem in America’s urban areas. Years of driving with leaded gasoline, using lead paint on our houses, and running our water through pipes joined with lead solder have seriously contaminated our soils.

Background concentrations of lead in agricultural soils average 10 parts per million. In urban soils, however, lead levels typically are much higher. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that some 21 million pre-1940s homes contain lead paint. When 125 inner city gardens were tested in Boston in 2000, 82% of them had lead levels above the reportable limit of 400 parts per million (ppm). We have banned leaded gas and lead in paint, but the element does not migrate easily nor is it taken up in plants or degraded by biological activity.

In Syracuse, New York soil sampling conducted by university researchers found high levels of lead and arsenic in five out of six community gardens in low-income and minority neighborhoods where residents grew much of their own fresh vegetables dfuring the summer months. The gardens were located on plots where abandoned homes had been razed. Lead paint from the demolished hhouses dontaminated the soil, and lead-rich exhaust from passing traffic built u in the soil over decades.

Where to Look for Lead

Visual assessments of painted structures help to identify areas around the property that are high risk for causing lead poisoning, but they cannot be used to confirm lead contamination of soil. You can look for deteriorated paint on all painted building components, especially any exterior walls, windows, or trim damaged from a roof or plumbing leak. Also look on surfaces that experience friction or impact like doors, windows, floors, and trim areas. In addition, look for chipped paint on the yard around the house. The next step will be to check if there are areas of bare soil or thin grass that are greater than 9 square feet. The special risk areas for soil are drip lines – within 2 feet of the house, play areas, gardens (in native soil) and uncovered walkways.

If the house/structure was built before 1978, and you see deteriorated paint or there is bare soil or thin grass in special risk areas, you should test your soil for lead. Testing is especially important if there are children under the age of six living in the house and if there is or will be a garden in native soil.

Soil Testing

Suggested Sampling Materials:

  • Gloves
  • 1-quart Ziploc-style bags (one per composite sample, usually 1-4 per yard)
  • Permanent marker (to mark bag)
  • Record Sheet, Map Sheet (see samples Appendix B and C)
  • Auger, shovel, trowel or similar tool
  • Rag or paper towels
  • If windy/risk of creating dust: Respirator (3M / HEPA filter)

Sampling Procedure:

Step 1 – Identify Potential Risk Areas

With input from resident and/or owner, identify areas that are most likely to be a risk based on the following high risk factors:

  1. High use, especially by children (play areas, gardens, walkways)
  2. Bare soil
  3. Proximity to house (especially the “drip zone” within 3 feet of the house, aka “drip line”)
  4. Visible chipping paint or known former structures

Choose the areas to be tested and mark them on a Map (optional), drawn in the context of the property, streets, and compass heading (mark North on the map). Give each area a sample name/number (ex. #1 = Drip line).

Step 2 – Collect Composite Samples

Within each possible risk area chosen, collect 6-8 samples (evenly spread out in the area) in this way:

  1. Make a hole with auger, shovel, trowel or similar tool. The hole should be thin and approximately 6 inches deep. Take some soil from each depth of the hole either by scraping the tool along the side of the hole, or poking out a column of soil from the core if using a bulb tool or something similar. Mark each hole with an “X” on the Map Sheet. Wear gloves and, if windy, respirator to prevent inhaling dust.
  2. Put all 6-8 soil samples in one bag, avoiding insects and large pieces of debris such as sticks, stones, bark, etc. Total soil should be approximately one cup. Wipe off sampling tool between composite sample sets (not individual samples).
  3. Label bag with sample name/number, address of site, name of organization and date.

DEPTH ANALYSIS: A useful tool to find out lead concentrations at different depths: take a separate sample from 2-4 different depths (for example: 1 inch deep, then 3 inches deep, then 6 inches deep).

Step 3 – Document Area. Complete the map and record sheet, making sure sample names/numbers match up and marking important structures, notes and other relevant details such as type of siding, use of spaces, etc.

Post-Sampling Procedure:

Each lab requires different sample preparation and bag labeling. For labs that require dry samples, dry them by placing soil in sun on a piece of dark flexible material or newspaper in an area with little or no wind. Return to bag when dry, being careful not to mix up the samples. Debris can be removed at this stage as well. Send samples, with a list of samples, to soil testing lab. You may want to retain a “copy” of each sample in case of a lab or mail error.

Where can you send your soil samples?

One recommended lab for quick turn-around and inexpensive testing, useful if just the lead concentration is needed, is Environmental Health Services Lab: http://www.leadlab.com/

If you need more information about the soil composition in addition to the lead concentration you can contact your local extension service. One such recommended lab is University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab: http://www.umass.edu/soiltest/

Interpreting the Soil Test

Look for the “total concentration” or “total estimated lead” or similar number on the lab report. Results are measured in µg/g or mcg/g or most commonly: Parts Per Million: PPM.

0-400 PPM Recommended options:

The EPA deems these levels safe for gardening and play. At levels of 200 and above, some groups advise using compost amendment and/or phytoremediation.

400-2000 PPM Recommended options:

–Build raised beds or containers gardens for immediate gardening


–Compost amendment (in addition to diluting toxic concentrations, studies have shown high phosphorus compost amendment reduces bio-availability of lead)

–Cover with 6 inches of clean soil, then stabilize or create a barrier using the following: perennial plants, wood chips, landscaping fabric, crushed stone, patio, stepping stones, etc.

2000+ PPM Recommended options:

Immediate Steps:

  • Get children who have come in contact with infected area tested (blood lead level tests done at most doctor’s offices and health clinics).
  • Block off or cover area.

Long-term Solutions:

–Some groups recommend permanent coverings (see above) for this level.

–Build raised beds or container gardens for immediate gardening

–Some groups recommend excavation or burying on site with proper safety precautions. This can be very costly, especially for disposal, and safety precautions are extensive.



  • As densely as possible, plant hyper-accumulators, such as scented geraniums (others include mustard greens, Indian mustard, sunflowers, collards or spinach), to accumulate lead into the roots, stems and leaves of the plant. After the growing season, safely dispose of the plants (if you put into the municipal waste stream, ensure that your area has good lead protections on incinerators, landfills, etc.) Note: this technique is very slow, and depending on the lead concentrations and soil conditions remediation can take several growing seasons. It is advisable to combine these phytoextraction techniques with other lead-safe landscaping techniques in most cases.
  • Stabilize the soil by planting plants that grow soil-retaining root systems such as shrubs or ground-covers to reduce foot-traffic access and dust-creation. This process is call “biostabilization.”

Advantages of Phytoremediation:

  • Inexpensive
  • Does not disrupt ecosystems
  • Low-tech, accessible
  • Metals can be reclaimed

Disadvantages of Phytoremediation:

  • Remediation is confined to depth of roots
  • Leaching into groundwater is not prevented
  • Time consuming (studies suggest 300 ppm can be removed in 7 to 10 years)

Compost and Soil Amendments

  • Add 6-12 inches compost to your garden to dilute and bind up the lead.
  • You can reduce the amount of lead that is available to be absorbed into people’s bodies by adding phosphorus to the soil (in the form of rock phosphate) forming pyromorphite crystals.
  • Some cities and towns have free or inexpensive municipal composting programs.

Other Landscaping Techniques

Capping with clean soil: Add 6-12 inches of clean screened loam on top of contaminated areas, then stabilize the new soil. Stabilization techniques include bio-stabilization (lawns, perennial garden beds, bushes, spreading ground covers such as pachysandra) or installing a hardscape (patios, walkways, crushed stone / peastone beds with sturdy edging).

Drainage: All our suggested hardscaping techniques are water permeable (as opposed to paving, for example) but most require drainage to be taken into account, especially when capping with clean soil is used, as to not have the capped soil wash away. Lawns that are the low-points of the yard often require a buried drainage pipe (also called French Drain) which is installed by digging a trench with at least a 1% slope, lining it with landscaping fabric, installing a drain pipe (ideally a 4 inch rigid plastic perforated drain pipe, flexible corrugated pipe can be used but is harder to clean out), then surrounded by crushed stone, and covering with landscaping fabric to divert water from undesired areas (like towards foundations or low lawns).

Edging: usually the most challenging aspect of hardscaping work, especially in the case of lead-safe landscaping where disturbance of native soil must be minimized. Some digging to set edging (blocks, plastic edging, rot-resistant lumber) is often unavoidable, but the more you can use existing edges or build up clean soil to retain hardscaping base or material the better. For all projects that include digging, remember to call dig safe (dial 811), use respirators (3M HEPA filter), coveralls, boot coverings, and other dust prevention such as tarps and wetting soil before displacement.

Rain gardens: also a great design element that address drainage and flooding issues. More info on Rain Gardens here: http://www.raingardennetwork.com/build.htm

Raised Beds and Containers: See below on how to make raised garden beds. Container gardens are also a good immediate option for gardeners wanting to safely grow within one season. Get creative with your containers! Recycled bathtubs, bins, mini swimming pools make great container garden receptacle, as long as they have a way to drain excess water.

Construction Guide for Raised Beds

raised bedWant to grow this season and worried about your soil being contaminated or not good enough quality? You can make a raised garden bed for about $100 and fill it with fresh compost!

Materials Needed:

Wood: 4x4s in 3ft lengths or longer (our most common combinations: for 10ftx4ft bed that is approximately 1ft deep, we use six 10ft and three 8ft – cut in half – 4×4 timbers). Make sure to get naturally rot-resistant (black locust is great, cedar works) or alternatively pressure treated wood (ideally sodium silicate), especially avoiding those that contain Arsenic (most often in the form of Chromated Copper Arsenate – CCA) as you don’t want to be putting toxins near your food crops! Some use 2×6 inch boards, but we’ve found that, though less expensive, they have half the life span.

  • Spikes: These are 6inch long nails. 30 spikes needed for each one foot deep bed. You can also use 6 inch screws such as “timberlocks” with a strong power drill or using pre-drilled holes in the timbers.

Compost: (soil made from composted organic matter such as yard waste) Make your own from food/yard waste, purchase, or look for free or inexpensive municipal composting programs.

Landscaping Fabric: To create a barrier under the bed so that water can go through but the plant’s roots cannot. One small roll will be plenty, most hardware stores carry this.

Tools: Four-to-six pound sledge hammer for spikes, shovels for soil, scissors or utility knife to cut the landscaping fabric, gloves, eye protection and a circular saw if you need to cut the timbers to length.

Step-by-step Instructions:

  • Find a flat place that gets lots of sun. Gather materials (see above). Cut lumber and landscaping fabric to desired lengths.
  • Pin the landscaping fabric on the ground with fabric staples, then place the first level of boards on top in the shape and location desired. Notice how each piece of wood is touching the end of only one other piece (i.e. you do not want the end pieces touching the ends of both side pieces, etc.)
  • Hammer the spikes into the ends of the wood horizontally – connecting them to the other pieces in the rectangle – and four spikes into the ground to hold the fabric bed in place. For hills, it is recommended to use re-bar that go through pre-drilled holes in wood and are pounded into the ground at least 1 foot deep.
  • Lay the second layer remembering to rotate the wood so that no connection is directly above the one below it (see image above).
  • Hammer the second layer vertically down into the first layer with spikes every 2-3 feet. Some horizontal spikes into the ends of the timbers are useful to keep tight corners.
  • Repeat with a third layer, remember to rotate the layout again.
  • Fill the bed with soil.
  • Plant your organic vegetables!


You can excavate very small gardens with extremely high levels of lead by replacing the top three feet of contaminated soil with compost and clean soil. Due to the high costs and intense labor of the excavation process, the opportunity to use this technique is very limited.