Transforming my ultra-tiny backyard into a garden has been a kind of mental, physical, and spiritual therapy for me during this COVID-19 pandemic. It’s work, even at this scale. But is it healthy? I’m new to Pittsburgh, and unlike my past community gardening experiences at places with better air quality and soil ratings, I now wonder if it’s safe to eat the plants I grow. When I look at the soil, I wonder what more than 150 years of air pollution has done to it. How can I amend past damage, manage the current risks and then eat from it?
I’m not alone in this work. Before I dive in, I want to share a quote by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants:
“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
Professional advice guided my urban garden work. If you are contemplating a similar project, information at the sites listed below will be valuable.
Resources: amending the soil, soil testing, garden planning, and a cool foraging app
Resources: dangers and benefits of urban gardening and foraging
First Step: Soil Test
The work I did to make my soil safe for gardening began with a soil test. A City of Pittsburgh site directed me to a Penn State University Agriculture Extension Office, where for a $9.00 fee, postage to mail a soil sample, and a couple of weeks’ time for testing, I learned that my typical Pittsburgh soil is full of clay and in need of compost and lime.
My front yard faces a busy intersection and contains lead and other contaminants. I decided to try phytostabilization, which is a cheap way to use plants, lime, and compost to both reduce the mobility of heavy metals in the soil and lower the bioavailability of contaminants to the food chain. I wore a mask and gloves when I tilled this soil because contaminants can bind to soil particles and can be inhaled. I mixed some nearby oak leaves into the soil to break up the clay, mixed in some lime, and planted sunflowers. (Any additions of lime should be done according to package directions about how much to use and when to plant.)
Soil conditions in my backyard were better, requiring only lime to adjust the pH and lots and lots of compost. The backyard is where I will grow vegetables. I learned during my research that pH and compost are the key elements to healthy soil. If the air quality fluctuates during the gardening season, I will be fine as long as I wash the produce thoroughly before consuming and wash my hands after gardening. Now, after long days of online meetings, I’m able to retreat to my garden and, in good way, work myself tired. I feel better now. I feel happy.
I confess, I’m a renter, and I’m doing this work (with my landlord’s approval of course) even though I don’t own the property. My homeowner neighbors ask me why I care and put in so much energy and money into something I don’t own. I think it’s an easy answer: I live here for now, and I do this work to improve my quality of life, and because “joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
Asia Ward is CMNH Anthropocene Program Manager and Science Communication Fellow. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.