New Garden: Time for a Soil Test!

Next week, I’m moving to a new house where I am excited to get some overgrown seedlings into the ground in my new backyard and garden. I’m thrilled because there are two areas of the yard that have already been prepared for gardening by the previous tenants of the house. Unfortunately, the previous tenants did not do a soil test. Since the house is old, and located in Prince George’s County, I think that it is likely that there is some lead contamination in the soil. I’ve got to get the plants in the ground right away if there is any hope in producing any vegetables this summer. But, I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed that the soil tests come back safe for vegetable-gardening.

In my quest to better understand issues related to lead contamination, I found a couple resources from the University of Maryland’s Home Garden Information Center and University of California’s Extension. Both articles explain that common sources of contamination are:

  • Chipping or peeling paint around older structures
  • Industrial sites
  • Leaded fuels (remember, there was lead in gasoline until 1986)
  • Old lead plumbing pipes

Lead is hazardous, with young children and pregnant women at the greatest risk. Children exposed to lead have lower IQs and may experience permanent learning disabilities and behavioral disorders when compared to children not exposed to lead. But, when asking the question of whether vegetables are safe to eat after being grown in contaminated soil, it seems that there is not a simple answer. First, it depends how much lead is actually in the soil: 

So, I can hope for a low-level of contamination (low number of ppms of lead). Additionally, I can help minimize risk by growing the right kinds of vegetables and fruits and avoiding others. For example, fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are less likely to contain high lead levels compared to leafy vegetables (such as lettuce and spinach) and root vegetables (such as carrots and turnips).

Monitoring the pH and adding organic material to the soil helps manage the amount of lead that might leach into the plants. Therefore, I will be sure to check the results of the soil test for pH and add compost and soil amendments to help further reduce health risks.

Lastly, since contamination adheres to the surface of the plants, I will be sure to wash all vegetables and fruits produced in the garden thoroughly and peel those that need it. It is also important to wash gardening clothes and hands to help minimize ingestion of the soil from getting dirty playing in the garden.

Let’s just keep our fingers crossed for some nice results of that soil test.

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