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Saturday, October 16, 2021

New gardeners: Beware of this invisible soil hazard

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As daylight wanes, and chilly temperatures hint at the winter to come, Indianapolis’ veteran gardeners like Aster Bekele are preparing to put their gardens to bed until spring. The to-do list includes harvesting remaining fruits and vegetables, removing dead and dying plants, covering the soil with mulch, working in new compost and nurturing the greens that thrive in cooler temperatures.

And now, across the country, 18.3 million new gardeners have joined the ranks of veteran gardeners since the pandemic began, according to the National Gardening Association’s 2021 report. Indianapolis’ garden shops have struggled to keep up with the increased demand for seeds and vegetable starts.

Statistics also show that new Indianapolis gardeners are younger and more diverse. They may not know that an invisible hazard may exist in their soil: lead. This heavy metal, which is toxic to humans, is used in industry and was present in paint and gasoline, leading to environmental contamination in many areas.


Aster Bekele, Felege Hiywot founder and executive director of Felege Hiywot Center, shows off a handful of compost, a nutrient-rich soil amendment produced at the center that helps plants grow. (Photo/Angela Herrmann)

For gardeners like Bekele who heads a youth gardening program in Martindale-Brightwood, awareness of soil lead has been a priority — especially because she wants to keep her youth safe to experience the benefits of gardening.

Since 2004, some 2,000 youth have dug in the dirt at Felege Hiywot Center in Martindale-Brightwood, according to Bekele. Her site, located at 16th and Sheldon streets, borders what once was a large concentration of brownfield sites. She learned early that urban soils cannot be assumed safe in Marion County, given the city’s industrial legacy. While the soil around Felege Hiywot Center’s buildings largely tested safe, a triangle-shaped lot three blocks north, owned by the center since 2011, tested high for lead. Remediation of the site consisted of the removal of a foot of soil followed by the planting of an orchard with support from Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

Martindale-Brightwood has been plagued by lead issues in part because of the early 1970s explosion of a former lead smelting plant that literally showered the area with lead. Thanks to community-led efforts, Bekele and others spent countless hours advocating with officials at the city of Indianapolis and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and as a result, many contaminated properties in the area were cleaned up by the mid-2000s. However, throughout Marion County, two additional, more mundane sources of legacy lead persist, chipping paint from older homes and ultra-fine dust from automobile exhaust. While lead was removed from paint by 1970 and automobile gasoline by the mid-1980s, lead remains present in Marion County soils, especially in older parts of Indianapolis and along older roadways.

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Dr. Gabe Filippelli, an IUPUI professor who has conducted extensive research on Indianapolis’ soils, said lead-contaminated dry soil dust or soil residues on vegetables can lead to exposure through ingestion or inhalation, which can be particularly harmful to young children. Filippelli’s research in urban soils has shown lead contamination levels 10 to 100 times what they should be, whereas natural levels of lead range around 20 parts per million.

So, what’s a new gardener to do?

• Test your soil.

Knowledge is power. Not only do you want to know what nutrients are present, you also want assurances that lead levels do not exceed 200 parts per million. Less is better, especially if gardening with children. Given the extensive contamination so close to Felege Hiywot, Bekele has tested, and retested the soil over the years. You can, too, through the Indiana Collaboration for Lead Action and Prevention.

• Create raised beds.

That was Bekele’s strategy at Felege Hiywot. While her team initially brought in soil for raised beds from GreenCycle, they now have a comprehensive composting system to continually build soil health while always keeping the ground covered.

• Know where to plant.

If your house was constructed before 1970, avoid growing food plants under the dripline, that is, the immediate perimeter of your house. Also, if your property is adjacent to an older, busy road, then avoid growing food plants near the road. These areas are best covered with mulch or native wildflowers.

Don’t let lead stop you from gardening. For new gardeners in the city, add one more thing to your end-of-season to-do list: Test your soil now if you haven’t done so already. That will give you time to update your garden plan in time for spring.

Angela Herrmann is program manager at Indiana Collaboration for Lead Action and Prevention at the Center for Urban Health at IUPUI and an advanced master gardener and long-time community gardener with training in urban agriculture and agroecology.

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