Soil contamination is more common than you think

Starting a new garden? How to Test Your Soil for Lead

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Starting a new garden comes with such a sense of excitement. It can brighten up the landscape, promote a healthier lifestyle, and become a lifelong hobby! But before you hit your local nursery, you might want to consider the soil contaminants. It's always a good idea to check if the soil on your property might contain harmful chemicals like lead. What do you do if you suspect your soil may be contaminated? And how do you check? We've got you covered!

How lead can get into your soil

Lead can occur in soil naturally around a rate between 10-50 mg/kg, but because of past reliance on leaded products, contaminated sites may have lead levels anywhere from 150 mg/kg to 10,000 mg/kg (1). Although the widespread use of lead had been phased out over the years, lead does not break down over time so it's still the most common type of soil contaminant in urban areas (2).

The main ways lead can contaminate your soil is through lead paint or leaded gasoline. Until the 1970s, lead paint was commonplace indoors and outdoors in both residents and commercial properties. It was basically everywhere! As paint ages, it can flake off and leave behind tiny debris that can integrate into soil. Car exhaust from leaded gasoline could have also contaminated soil with lead, especially if the soil was located next to a particularly busy road (2). Even though lead gasoline was phased out in the 1980s, lead can still be present in the soil.

While lead does not bioaccumulate in plants, it does hold very tightly onto clay or organic matter and, unless disturbed, is found in the top 1-2 inches of soil (2). This means that produce that grows lower to the ground, like root vegetables or leafy greens, might be covered in lead-contaminated soil.

How you can test your soil

Even though it's a little more time consuming, testing your soil is definitely worth it for the peace of mind. Although you can buy soil testing kits at a home improvement store, they don't test for heavy metals. To test for lead and other heavy metals, you'll have to send your soil to a laboratory for more extensive testing. Luckily there are many laboratories that offer easy testing, like this one available to purchase on Amazon The EPA has also put together a list of labs for their National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program that offer lead testing. You can also check with local universities or labs to see if they offer heavy metal soil testing- some good options include Perry Laboratory,Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment at UMass Amherst, or the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory. Tests usually cost between $15-100 and offer a detailed look at your soil and any contaminants.

Any result that shows lead above 150 mg/kg means you have high levels of lead in your soil and you should take action before planting and new plants. One of the easiest solutions is to switch to only gardening in raised garden beds with soil you bought at a nursery. If you'd prefer to plant in the ground and are able to, you should remove the top 4 inches of soil (just to be on the safe side) and replace it with store bought soil. It's also a good idea to only plant ornamental plants instead of edible produce.

There are also a lot of small, easy changes you can make if you suspect your soil might have high levels of lead. Thoroughly washing and peeling produce before eating it is a great way to limit your exposure. Since lead doesn't bioaccumulate in plants, getting as much soil off of your produce as possible will make it a lot harder to come into contact with lead. Always make sure to wash your hands and remove your shoes before entering your house. This is especially important for kids playing in soil, since their little bodies are more susceptible to lead poisoning but they also love putting their hands in their mouths and rolling around in the dirt!

Citations

  1. https://www.soils.org/about-soils/contaminants/lead/
  2. https://extension.psu.edu/lead-in-residential-soils-sources-testing-and-reducing-exposure
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Simple Homemade and Store Bought Organic Fertilizers

How to fertilize your garden without synthetic fertilizers

Spring is just around the corner and that means it's finally time to start planting that garden you have been thinking about all winter! One of the first things you might be thinking of is sprinkling some fertilizer on your seeds and starters to get a bumper crop or some extra large blooms. A lot of people think using synthetic fertilizers is the easiest choice to help your garden thrive, but in reality it's just a quick fix that will cause a lot of long term damage to your garden and the environment. Instead of using harsh chemicals on your beautiful garden, you should make the switch to organic fertilizers! Not only are organic fertilizers better for the environment and human health, you can also use a lot of the food scraps and things you have in your home to fertilize your garden. Super cost effective and so easy!

Why we shouldn't use synthetic fertilizers

When it comes to talking about synthetic fertilizers, it's best to start with what they are and what they are made of. Synthetic fertilizers are man-made products made from byproducts of the petroleum industry. Some examples of these fertilizers are Ammonium nitrate, Ammonium phosphate, superphosphate, and so many other variations (2). Because these fertilizers are made from petroleum products it means they are super energy intensive to produce and require the burning of fossil fuels to extract the specific chemicals. So basically fertilizers = fossil fuels = climate change! Eeek! (1).

In terms of fertilizing the plants and soil, synthetic fertilizers give the plants food in a readily available form, however, plants consume this food very rapidly and that means the fertilizer needs to be reapplied over and over again (3). The reason this type of fertilizer needs to be constantly reapplied is because they do absolutely nothing to improve the quality and health of the soil. Synthetic fertilizers provide nutrients for the plants but include no organic matter or nutrients that are required by the microorganisms in the soil to remain healthy. Moreover, synthetic fertilizers are known for killing microorganisms as soon as it's applied. These organisms are highly important because they break down organic matter and make the nutrients available for the plants to take up and grow (2). Without these important soil organisms, nothing would be able to grow and our soil would become unusable.

While synthetic fertilizers are extremely damaging to the biodiversity of our soil, they are also extremely toxic when they enter our waterways and drinking water. Because these chemical fertilizers need to be reapplied so often that means there is an excess quantity of them that can runoff when the plants are watered or it rains.This fertilizer runoff contributes to a process called eutrophication, which results in dead zones in bodies of water, because there is not enough oxygen available for the plants and animals living there. (5). Not only is this super dangerous for aquatic wildlife, this can also affect us. When waterways are polluted like this it's not safe for us to play or swim in and eventually these chemical nutrients can leach into the groundwater and cause serious health effects like gastric cancer, hypertension, and possible developmental issues in children (4).

As you can see using synthetic fertilizers isn't a great idea. They are super dangerous for the health of our environment and us. Thankfully there is an alternative that doesn't have so many nasty effects. That alternative is organic fertilizers!

Why organic alternatives are better

Like we mentioned before, in order to have a healthy garden and environment we need to have soil that's full of nutrients and microorganisms. This is where organic fertilizers shine. Organic fertilizers don't contain just nutrients, they contain organic matter that feeds the microorganisms and breaks down into nutrients over time. If you switch to organic fertilizers, not only would you be reducing your impact on the environment, you could also be growing organic fruits and vegetables at home in your own garden., Who doesn't want that?! Plus it's so simple. You can buy some organic fertilizers at the store or DIY some from food scraps you have at home.

Organic fertilizers you might have at home

Organic fertilizers come in a variety of different forms. Anywhere from food scraps from your fridge to bat guano extract. Most of the time there is no need to head to the store and buy a big bag of organic fertilizer. Instead, you could try using some things you already have at home. Check out some of the items we found that are great fertilizers for your gardens!

  • Food scraps and compost: We all have food scraps from fruits and veggies we don't eat or the food went bad before we could eat it. Food scraps or a homemade compost is a great organic fertilizer that would add a ton of nutrients to your garden! You can even add broken down cardboard in there. If you're thinking about starting a compost check out this article! (6)
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves: Coffee grounds and tea leaves are great additions to your garden soil, however, because they can often be very acidic you want to use them sparingly and on plants that love acidic soil (6). Some plants that grow best in acidic soil are azaleas, rhododendrons, and blueberries.
  • Grass clippings and tree leaves: If you don't know what to do with all of the leaves you raked in your yard or all the grass clippings from your lawn, why don't you put them in your garden! Both of these items have super high levels of nitrogen and potassium that plants love (6).
  • Banana Peels: We all know bananas are a great source of potassium and that's true for our soil too! Dry your banana peels out and sprinkle them over your garden (6).
  • Seaweed: Seaweed is packed with tons of nutrients like potassium, nitrogen, phosphate, and magnesium. You can use it in its dried form or get a liquid form from your local garden center! (8)
  • Eggshells: I think we have all joked about eating some extra calcium in the morning when we accidentally get an eggshell in our breakfast. But instead of just throwing them away like you normally would, sprinkle them in your garden for some added calcium. Calcium is an important nutrient that helps plants absorb nutrients better (6).
  • Aquarium water (not salt water): If you have a fresh water fish tank and are looking for a way to dispose of your water, look no further. Aquarium water has a lot of nutrients that are beneficial for plants and a lot of the fish excrement is just extra nutrients for the soil! (7)
  • Fireplace ash: Fireplace ash is often used when the soil is too acidic. Ash has a higher pH, meaning it's more basic which will make the soil less acidic if added. Make sure you use this ash sparingly as too much is not so great for the plants. (7)

Organic Fertilizers you can buy

We also wanted to include some organic fertilizers that you can buy at a store. This is probably necessary if you have a huge space you want to fertilize. Some items we recommend to add to your soil that you can buy at many garden supply centers or nurseries are bone meal, worm castings, fish meal, compost, and animal manure. There are even companies where you can get compost (possibly for free) when you give them your food scraps. All of these products are super concentrated fertilizers that will help improve the quality of your soil. Some brands of organic fertilizer we recommend are: biolink, Dr.Earth, Jobe's Organics, and Down to Earth. If for some reason you can't find any of these brands in your nurseries or stores, it's best to contact your local nurseries and they usually have great recommendations for fertilizers they use and sell!


Sources

  1. https://www.bloombergquint.com/onweb/synthetic-fertilizer-ammonium-nitrate-makes-climate-change-worse#:~:text=After%20farmers%20apply%20these%20synthetic,or%20N2O%2C%20a%20greenhouse%20gas.&text=N2O%20has%20a%20far%20greater,more%20by%20weight%20as%20CO2.
  2. https://www.enviroingenuity.com/articles/synthetic-vs-organic-fertilizers.html#:~:text=Organic%20Fertilizers%20are%20materials%20derived%20from%20plant%20and%20animal%20parts%20or%20residues.&text=Synthetic%20Fertilizers%20are%20%E2%80%9CMan%20made,Plants%20require%2013%20nutrients.
  3. https://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/heres-scoop-chemical-organic-fertilizers
  4. Majumdar, D., & Gupta, N. (2000). Nitrate pollution of groundwater and associated human health disordersDeepanjan. Indian Journal of Environmental Health, 28-39. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from file:///Users/sophieboisseau/Downloads/Nitrate_pollution_of_groundwater_and_ass.pdf
  5. https://www.organicwithoutboundaries.bio/2018/10/31/synthetic-fertilizers/
  6. https://www.farmersalmanac.com/8-homemade-garden-fertilizers-24258
  7. https://thegrownetwork.com/15-simple-and-inexpensive-homemade-fertilizers/
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