Step one: Soil testing

 Several gardening practices can be used to remediate soils to lower lead contamination. Credit: Center for Urban Health. Several gardening practices can be used to remediate soils to lower lead contamination. Credit: Center for Urban Health.
The first step in planning a community or backyard garden should always be to get the soil tested, getting a read on not only pH and nutrient levels, but possible contaminants like lead and arsenic. “Some cities have public health programs to help residents get their gardens tested for low or no cost, but it’s kind of hit or miss,” says Gabriel Filippelli, a biogeochemist at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Some cities such as Philadelphia have also held one-day “soil kitchen” workshops where people can bring in samples of soil for immediate testing with an X-ray fluorescence instrument. 
Even if no specialized program exists in your city, sending a few samples of soil — Filippelli recommends taking at least three from different parts of the property — to a university or private testing company usually costs about $50 and takes only a couple of weeks. 
In the coming years, soil tests should get even cheaper and faster, says Carl Rosen, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota. “We’re always working on developing more meaningful tests that aren’t too expensive.” 
“The bottom line is: Get tested,” he says. “You won’t know if you’re at risk unless you test your soil.” 

Mary Caperton Morton

Mary Caperton Morton

Morton ( is a freelance science and travel writer based in Big Sky, Mont., and an EARTH roving correspondent.  

Sunday, October 11, 2015 - 06:00

Did you know ...

The digital edition of EARTH Magazine is a free subscription for members of AGI's Member Societies.  Find out more!

EARTH only uses professional science journalists and scientists to author our content?  In this era of fake news and click-bait, EARTH offers factual and researched journalism. But EARTH is a non-profit magazine, and at least 10 times more people read EARTH than pay for it. As advertising revenues across the media decline, we need your help to ensure that we can continue bringing you the reliable and well-written coverage of earth science you know and love. Our goal is not only to inform our readers, but to inform decision makers across the economic and political spectrum about the science of our planet. So, we need your help. By becoming a subscriber or making a tax-deductible contribution to support EARTH, you can fund our writers and help make sure the world knows about our planet.

Make a contribution