Carrot toppingUrban gardening’s great. The 0.03 Mile Diet is the ultimate in eating locally and seasonally. It can provide valuable perspective for how much water, fertile land, and labor go into growing our food—after taking up gardening, I can’t toss wilted veggies without serious guilt pangs. The popularity of pea patching is growing rapidly: the number of American households tending their own produce increased  nearly 20 percent over the past year. Locally, Seattle Tilth had its biggest annual sale ever this month, selling almost 60,000 edible plants to backyard farmers. Besides, it’s gotta be cool if the Obamas are doing it.

But there’s a hitch. That raised bed along your house or parking strip could be tainted with years of flaked-off house paint and other urban pollutants. The New York Times this week provided cautionary tales about gardens with unsafe lead levels.

Don’t hang up your trowel and rubber clogs just yet, though. You can have your carrots and eat them too.

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  • There are all sorts of labs that do soil testing, including looking at the levels of lead, arsenic, petroleum products, plus all the happy stuff like nitrogen and nutrient levels.

    The cheapest option appears to be from the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension Soil Testing. They charge $9 for a basic battery of tests including pH, lime, nutrients, and toxic elements.

    Local options for Washington include Analytical Resources. In Oregon try Wy’east Environmental Sciences (503-231-9320), or A&L Western Laboratories, and also see the Oregon Tilth site for more information.

    The sampling for contaminants is easy to do. Seattle Tilth recommends:

    • Scoop out 10 vertical slices from the top 2 inches of soil
    • Place in a plastic bag or bucket and mix to create your “average” soil
    • Take one cup from the mix and allow it to dry
    • Put the sample in a Ziploc, label it, and send to a lab

    Check with the Tilth sites for what to do if the levels are high—you’ll probably have to remove and replace some of the soil. And you can read about my adventures as a novice gardener in this series of articles I wrote while at the Seattle P-I.

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    Carrot-topping kids photo courtesy of Flickr usertcd123usaunder the Creative Commons license.