potted herbs and vegetables dot the fire escape of Steve Kellyís
home in Baltimore.
anywhere from six to nine types of peppers, ranging from red and
yellow to cayenne and banana. His herbs include basil, tarragon,
chives, rosemary and thyme.
And then thereís
the mint. Kelly grows three kinds: orange mint, spearmint and
peppermint. He uses them in tea, water and the occasional "adult
beverage," he said.
[herbs] in almost everything I make," Kelly said. "Scrambled
eggs and even my hash browns have herbs in them. ... Itís a lot
cheaper and easier than going to the grocery store to buy them."
Plus, they taste
much fresher than anything store-bought, he said.
city, urban gardeners like Kelly are turning to pots, rooftops, raised
soil beds and even abandoned lots to grow their own food.
urban gardens offer several benefits, including providing fresh,
readily available food, increasing the beauty and value of the
surrounding neighborhood and increasing physical activity for the
But they also
come with challenges like contaminated soil and home-damaging pests
that can affect the gardenís overall success and even gardenersí
gardeners are bright and they care about these issues," said
Brent Kim, program officer for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable
Future, an academic center examining the relationships among food,
diet, environment and public health. "But there are some best
practices that they donít know about and should know about."
Among them is
using soil from trusted sources, building raised beds or container
gardens, preventing garden dirt from entering the home and peeling
root crops and removing outer leaves of leafy vegetables before eating
is the process of growing plants in a city environment for private
use. It differs from urban farming, which the Farm Alliance of
Baltimore City defines as farms that are production-oriented and
growing food for others, whether for sale or for donation.
gardening and farming are not new to the city, interest in both has
increased throughout the past five years, said Maya Kosok, coordinator
of the urban farmer advocacy group. In that time, several farms and
gardens have launched, including Exeter Gardens, a community garden
and former abandoned lot in the cityís Jonestown neighborhood.
thereís been an interest in knowing where your food comes
from," Kosok said. About 15 percent of the worldís food is
grown in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first step
in planning a healthy urban garden is testing the soil, Kim said.
eat without soil," he said. "Itís the foundation of our
soil is ideal, Kim said. But major cities like Baltimore have a
history of industry, busy roads and illegal dumping, all of which
create contamination, he said. Recent Baltimore City soil studies
found heavy metals like lead, cadmium and chromium. These metals can
and do affect peopleís health if ingested, Kim said.
are exposed inadvertently, whether by swallowing soil left on
vegetables, inhaling contaminated dust or through direct skin contact,
Kim said. Kids are especially at risk because they often put their
hands in their mouths after playing in the soil, he said. Even low
levels of lead exposure can harm a childís mental development over
In some cases,
contaminants can enter the plantís tissue, and washing or peeling
wonít help, Kim said. Studies show lead enters root vegetables more
often than fruits like tomatoes. But the chance of contaminants
affecting the plant itself depends on the contaminant present,
contaminant levels, the type of plant and which part of the plant
people eat, he said.
reasons, I would probably avoid growing root veggies in soils with
elevated lead levels," Kim said.
bigger concern is around people accidentally ingesting contaminated
soil, he said.
labs across the Mid Atlantic provide basic soil tests, which look for
metals like lead and nutrients like phosphorus, for $10 to $15.
levels are too high, Kim suggests adding organic matter like compost.
Compost binds to heavy metals like lead, reducing the amount that can
get into a gardenerís body.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
is to use uncontaminated soil from a trusted source, such as a nursery
or organic compost provider, Kosok said.
fire-escape garden in the city, Kelly bought soil made specifically
for pots with built-in water reservoirs from an online gardening
supply company. Gardeners at Exeter Gardens used soil from outside the
city for their eight raised and four ground-level beds.
the soil in this area is known to be contaminated, and even trying to
plant in-ground would require lots of testing," said Nick West, a
social studies teacher at City Springs Elementary/Middle School, who
works with nearly 100 City Springs sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders
in the garden.
in-ground or raised beds should also explore the siteís history, Kim
said. Basic soil tests donít reveal every possible contaminant. For
example, a vacant lot could have previously housed a dry cleaning
business. As a result, carcinogenic cleaning solvents may have leached
into the soil, he said.
almost like a bit of detective work," Kim said. "If you know
what happened there before, it might give you a clue as to what might
be in your soil."
The Center for a
Livable Future provides an interactive map where city residents can
search for community garden, school garden and urban farm locations,
as well as current and prior hazardous waste sites identified by the
Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of the
chemicals that were banned several decades ago can still persist in
our soil and in our food," Kim said.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
experts recommend keeping some distance between in-ground or raised
bed gardens and the home.
require lots of moist soil ó an attractant for termites, said Molly
Keck, an integrated pest management specialist at Texas A&M
Universityís Research and Extension Center. They wonít eat your
growing fruits and vegetables, but they will enjoy the gardenís soil
conditions, she said.
there], itís just a hop, skip and a jump into the house," she
While planting a
successful garden using pots, lots or even rooftops can be hard work,
itís important to remember the benefits of growing your own fruits
and vegetables in a city environment, Kim said.
gardens are associated with higher property values, and they bring a
community together," he said.
provide green space, which can help keep the city cool in summer and
encourage people, especially children, to spend time outside, he said.
West agrees, and
said his students visit Exeter Gardens twice a week and sometimes on
weekends to weed, water, sow seeds and enjoy the fresh food.
This spring, the
garden has produced kale, lettuce, carrots, radishes and peas.
watching a student taste a fresh item for the first time," West
said. "Anybody who knows the difference between a fresh sugar
snap pea and shelled and canned peas understands."
STORY CAN END HERE)
Tips for growing
food in urban settings
your soil and now you are ready to start planting your urban garden.
But before you get your hands dirty, check out the following expert
ó Build plots
away from roads and railways. This reduces windblown contamination
from busy streets, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable
Future. (See more soil-safety info from the center here.)
ó Start small.
Thirty tomato plants may sound appealing now, but when they all grow
at the same time, gardeners may have a hard time keeping up, said
JoAnn Trach Tongson, an associate principal with Mahan Rykiel
Associates, a Baltimore-based landscape design firm. Consider the
amount of watering, weeding, pest management and harvesting required,
she said. "You can always add on to your successful gardening
attempts by going vertical, asking a neighbor if you can land share,
rent a community garden spot," she said.
ó Check wood
in raised beds. Pressure-treated wood timbers can add toxins to the
soil, said Joe Burkhardt, associate principal with Mahan Rykiel
Associates. Use simple wood timbers. Or, if using pressure-treated
wood, also use metal flashing to separate soil from the wood, he said.
ó Wear gloves
and wash hands. Do this every time you work in the soil and before you
eat, Kim said.
track dirt inside. "Exposure to lead could be a result of someone
tracking it into the house with their boots after gardening in
contaminated soil," Kim said. Take your shoes off before entering
ó Wash produce
before eating or storing. The main way people are exposed to
contaminated soil is by unknowingly eating it, Kim said. Wash all
vegetables, and peel root crops and remove outer layers of leafy
vegetables before eating, he said. This can remove surface
ó Used sealed
containers for compost. "Gardeners really want food scraps and
other organic matter, but working in a city environment is
tricky," Burkhardt said. Placing compost materials in a sealed
container that can be rotated keeps rodents out and the compost
churned so it can decompose, he said.
ó Remember to
water. Urban gardens need lots of water. Consider using rain barrels
to collect rain water, which can then be applied to plants.