Growing some of your own vegetables is a great way to save money and have a more healthy diet. You will be able to avoid some of the dangerous chemicals found on commercial fruits and vegetables.
But how do you know if your soil is clean, fertile, and free from contaminants like lead, heavy metals, petroleum or oil spills, and pesticides? Most potting soils for containers are ‘clean’, but what you may not realize is your garden soil could be polluted. Elevated levels of contaminants in soil can negatively affect plant growth, overall soil health, and ultimately your health and that of your family.
It is very important to find out if contaminants are a problem in areas where children play or in gardens where fruits or vegetables are grown for food.
Here are ten ways to make sure your garden soil is safe for growing crops.
Location, location, location!
Different parts of your yard or acreage may have been compromised with chemicals leaching into the ground. You’re more likely to have unwanted pollutants seeping into your soil near a busy road or an old building which may have been painted with lead paints. Are you near a commercial site that may use chemicals, or have used them in the past? Locate your vegetable garden away from these and other hazards that might contain toxins.
Test your soil
You can’t get rid of harmful chemicals unless you know what they are. Perhaps pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and other poisons were used in the past, such as on an area that was a farm or orchard. Before you plant, collect samples of your soil (how many you need depends on the size of your garden) and have them tested. Your local nursery will probably know where this can be done.
Mulch not only helps conserve water, control weeds and keeps the soil from overheating, but it also breaks down into organic matter over time, restoring some of the essential nutrients your garden plants will need to grow healthy and strong. Don’t till it in – just allow it to decompose naturally. The organic material will eventually bind with harmful materials like lead instead of it binding with your plants.
Plant things that eat the bad stuff
This is a common practice called phytoremediation. Certain plants are able to remove or break down harmful chemicals from the ground when their roots take in water and nutrients from the contaminated soil, sediment, or groundwater. Plants can help clean up contaminants as deep as their roots can reach using natural processes, storing them in their stems or leaves.
For example, mustard and canola will absorb lead and petroleum contaminants from your soil. Don’t eat the plants, just pull them and dispose of them safely. Sunflowers will absorb heavy metals like lead, so intersperse them throughout your garden. Hemp and pigweed have proven to be successful at accumulating contaminants at toxic waste sites. Use the same process for other harmful chemicals.
Avoid using chemicals
It goes without saying that if you don’t want unnatural chemicals in your food, don’t put them on your garden. Natural and safe ways to repel pests and fertilize your garden are readily available, such as insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils and botanical insecticides like pyrethrum. Use natural fertilizers such as manures and fish emulsions whenever possible. Adding chemical fertilizers will replenish only certain nutrients and do nothing for maintaining good, friable soil.
Build raised beds
Toxic chemicals like lead generally leak down into the soil. If you put, fresh, clean soil on top of your old soil, it will remain safe as long as toxic chemicals can’t come in from the sides. Building an elevated bed will take some extra work in the beginning, but it will remain safe throughout the years. Raised beds have many other benefits – less weeding, easier harvesting, and simpler pest control are a few.
Build a compost
It’s fairly simple to do: just throw all your organic waste, like grass clippings, fallen leaves, and kitchen waste, into a compost bin in your yard and turn the contents regularly. Eventually, the contents will break down into fertile organic material that will bind with the harmful chemicals to keep them out of your food. Compost adds to healthy soil structure, and your garden plants will love you for it.
Plant some mushrooms
Did you know that mushrooms have the ability to break down toxic things in our environments, like dirty oil, plastic, and chemicals? This process is called mycoremediation. Mushrooms are decomposers, which means they break down old matter. In addition to turning fallen trees to soil, they may also help break down toxins in your soil. Paul Stamets book, Mycelium Running is the best source of information on this.
Grow certain veggies
Some vegetables are perfectly safe, even if they’re grown in toxic soil. If you find your soil is toxic, and are in the process of cleaning it up, you can still grow above ground veggies, as long as you don’t eat the leaves. That cuts down on the available veggies you can plant. Avoid growing below ground vegetables like carrots, beets, radishes, and potatoes if your soil contains contaminants, or plant them in deep raised beds.
Grow vegetables in containers
If nothing else works and your soil just isn’t safe for growing food, you can always grow fruits and veggies in pots and other small-space containers such as hanging pockets and stacking containers. Choose deep containers for root vegetables like carrots and beets. More shallow and broad containers are suited to leafy greens. And while you’re growing your vegetables in containers, use some of the ideas above to clean up the soil in your yard or garden space.
Whenever you start a new garden plot, test the soil in the area you’ve chosen. Take steps to remove any contaminants that are revealed. If the area is toxic, you should choose a different spot for a food garden. If it’s seriously polluted, consider having the soil removed and replaced with clean topsoil.
By making sure you have healthy garden soil before you plant, you will harvest healthy produce for your family.