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Energy and Environment Cabinet

Division of Compliance Assistance
Safe Urban Gardening

Many people are enjoying the satisfaction and health benefits of growing their own produce. However, some properties may have environmental contamination. Fortunately, the risks can be significantly reduced or eliminated by employing some simple best practices. Here is an overview of some of the best practices, along with references for more detail. Contact us with any questions you have regarding the material.

1.  Be aware of the issue. 

    • Learn the current and previous uses of the property and nearby properties.
    • Interview neighbors and former occupants.
    • Review Sanborn Insurance Maps and other historical documents.
    • Check federal and state environmental databases.
    • Do a visual site inspection.
  • Based on the history of the property, consider sampling the soil. (Note that the usual soil testing is for nutrients, not contaminants. See the references for directions on how to sample for contaminants.)
  • To be extra cautious or if the property’s history raises special concerns, have an environmental professional conduct an environmental site assessment. (An environmental site assessment can also provide some environmental liability protection, if done prior to acquiring the property.)
    • The Kentucky Brownfield Redevelopment Program provides a limited number of free assessments (including soil testing for contaminants) for nonprofits and local governments.
    • If you want to hire a consultant, check the Consultant’s Directory managed by the Kentucky Pollution Prevention Center. (Please note the disclaimer regarding the directory.)

2.   Avoid the most contaminated areas or take extra steps to address them.

  • Plant away from the footprint of older buildings (lead-based paint) and away from heavily traveled roads.
  • Cover pathways with mulch, stones or bricks.
  • Amend soils – add organic material, keeping the pH near neutral.
  • If adding topsoil or fill, make sure it is from an uncontaminated source.
  • Plant mostly produce that is less likely to absorb contaminants.
 
​Most Suitable ​Vegetables, Fruits and Seeds ​Tree
​tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, okra (seed pods only), squash, corn, cucumbers, melons, peas, beans (shelled), onions (bulbs only) ​apple, pear
​Least Suitable ​Green Leafy Vegetables ​Other Vegetables ​Root crops
​lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, beet leaves, cabbage, kale collards ​broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, snow peas ​carrots, potatoes, turnips
 
For more serious contamination:
  • Remediate the contamination or
  • Use raised-bed or container gardening.
3.  Follow some basic practices to reduce the exposure.
  • Wear gloves and wash hands after gardening.
  • Don’t track dirt into the house.
  • Clean all produce.
  • Peel root crops.
  • Remove outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
Safe Urban Gardening References
 
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  

Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO)

Community Gardening on Brownfields Toolbox

University of Louisville, Kentucky Environmental Finance Center

Practice Guides

  • Practice Guide #25, Urban Agriculture and Soil Contamination: An Introduction to Urban Gardening
  • Practice Guide #27, Establishing Urban Agriculture in Your Community: What You Need to Know Before You Get Your Hands Dirty
  • Practice Guide #2, Safe Container Gardening

Cornell University, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences

Hotline

800-926-8111