The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils, part 1: What are toxic heavy metals, and where do they come from?

The popularity of home gardens is exploding as we wait out the COVID pandemic

So many of us are growing our own vegetables – either as experienced home gardeners or as COVID19-isolated novices. There is a lot of effort in figuring out garden beds, vegetable choices, and growing medium – but one of the issues rarely considered is whether there are heavy metals present in the local soil and/or growing medium. We can’t see heavy metals, or smell them, so we need to have a way of assessing their presence before we plant edibles.

In the next few months, I’ll tackle the complicated science behind this invisible threat. Today, let’s look at the heavy metals that are commonly found in garden soils and where they might come from.

What heavy metals do gardeners need to monitor in their soils?

Heavy metals are exactly that – they are dense elements that have certain chemical properties that define them as metals. In fact, most known elements are considered to be heavy metals. Fortunately, there are only a handful of heavy metals that are commonly found in residential soils. Some of these heavy metals are necessary for life – iron, manganese, and zinc, for example – but others have no known biological function. Arsenic and lead, for instance, can interfere with enzymatic activity and effectively poison biochemical pathways. There is no “safe” level of heavy metals that are not essential nutrients.

Here’s a table of the most common toxic heavy metals that might be found in your soil, and possible anthropogenic sources:

Heavy metal Sources of contamination
Aluminum* Smelting
Arsenic Pesticides, smelting, treated timbers (old)
Cadmium Paint
Chromium Fly ash, metals industry, paint, leather tanning, treated timbers (old)
Lead Gasoline (leaded), paint, pesticides, plumbing, smelting, solder
Nickel Plumbing, smelting

*Aluminum is a light metal, not a heavy metal, but has similar biochemical poisoning activity as toxic heavy metals

Some of these sources of contamination are not relevant to where I live – why do I need to test my soil?

Gardeners may be tempted to look at the chart above and feel relieved, because pesticides and paint no longer contain heavy metals, they don’t use old treated timbers, and they know that leaded gasoline is a thing of the past. What many don’t consider, however, is that heavy metals are elemental – they don’t break down, though they may change their chemical form. They are a permanent part of soil chemistry unless they are removed by physical or biological means.

The underlying soil in housing developments built on old agricultural land often contains high levels of arsenic – because that was the active ingredient in pesticides many decades ago. If the topsoil was removed during construction, it may have been taken to a commercial soil facility where it would have been used to create landscape fill mixes for new landscapes elsewhere. The same is true for land near older roadways where lead from gasoline was released from vehicles over many decades. Not only are lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals in the soil, they also end up in the air when soil is disturbed by erosion or tilling.

Nearly all soils contain some level of some heavy metals. They are naturally occurring, after all, so their presence is not necessarily from anthropogenic activities. Regardless of the source, it’s important to know whether any of these harmful elements are in your garden soils, especially if you are growing edibles. A soil test is the only way to find out.

Here is a soil test of my own raised bed system. While my nutrient levels are optimum, and lead is very low, the aluminum level is quite high. What should I do?

Why aren’t there guidelines on heavy metal uptake in vegetable gardens?

It would be ideal if there was a list of “safe” and “dangerous” vegetables to plant when heavy metals are present. Unfortunately, real life rarely fits into lists and there are numerous sources of variability. Next month I’ll discuss the complications that arise when we consider plant species, heavy metals, and environmental variables.

Tools, tips, and terrible traditions for raised beds – Part 1

Raised beds a month after planting. Adult beverage not harvested here.

Many of us are sheltering at home during the COVID19 outbreak, and that might mean you’re spending more time in the garden. It certainly seems to be true based on my Facebook feed. And given that even more people are showing interest in growing their own food, I thought some practical posts on raised beds dos and don’ts might be fun. John Porter did a nice review of some of the misperceptions about raised beds last year, and that’s worth reading as well. This week’s post will be on siting and materials needed for building a raised bed. At the end of the post is a list of online resources with more information.

Trees to the south will shade vegetable gardens throughout the growing season.

Location

To grow most vegetables, you need direct sunlight at least six hours per day, and more is better in terms of productivity. That means full, unfiltered sunlight, so that your seeds and plants get the entire light spectrum. You’ll need to take into account seasonal changes, like the sun’s angle and the appearance of deciduous canopies, before choosing your site.  If part of your bed will unavoidably be in the shade, simply choose plants that will tolerate part- or full-shade conditions for that location.

Building materials

Construction of raised beds. Carpenter contracting not available.

We use pressure-treated hemlock and Douglas fir for our beds, which measure 8′ by 22′ (at the outside dimensions.). Modern pressure treatment uses alkaline copper quaternary, which is nothing like the toxic chromium-arsenic cocktail from earlier times. You don’t have to use wood, of course – other materials will work but do educate yourself on any potential leaching issue into the soil.

Underneath the beds is….nothing. If our underlying soil was contaminated with heavy metals or some other material, we would put down a membrane first to keep our raised bed soil separate from the contaminated soil. But we have no issues, so it’s soil next to soil, meaning we have great drainage.

Planting media

Native topsoil stockpiled from construction project.

The best material for your raised bed is actual native topsoil (if you can find it). If you don’t have enough of your own, see if anyone locally is giving away “free dirt.” People who put in decks, ponds, and other hardscape structures often don’t realize their discarded dirt is real topsoil. Do be cautious with this potential windfall. Ask about pesticides or other chemicals that may have been used in the original landscape. And you should do an initial soil test to see your baseline nutrient values. It’s easier to incorporate amendments BEFORE you fill your beds.

There are exceptions to the native topsoil recommendation – for instance, if your soil is contaminated with heavy metals from industry or agriculture, you shouldn’t use it for growing edibles. In this case, you need to use a commercial topsoil, and isolate it from the underlying soil as described earlier. Commercial topsoils can be heavily amended with compost and other organic material, meaning you have much less actual soil and will constantly need to refill your beds as the organic matter decomposes. Try to find a mix with the greatest possible percentage of topsoil.

Read the label! Is there actually soil in potting “soil”?

The worst choice of all are soilless media. This includes nearly all bagged potting “soils” at garden centers. Read the contents panel carefully – does it say the word “soil” anywhere? If it’s all organic material, you are going to have to fill your beds every year. This is both expensive and time consuming. Plus you could very well have excessive levels of some nutrients that will build every year as you add more.

As you make your decision about what to fill your raised beds with, consider what you will be growing, If you are only growing summer crops, it will be easier to amend the bed every year. If you have a winter crop, or perennial herbs, you can’t incorporate more material without destroying the existing rhizosphere and your plants. Perhaps that means you need two raised beds, or at least have a divided system.

Design

A U-shaped or keyhole design.

This part is really up to you! Raised beds should be high enough to work comfortably, big enough to hold what you want to grow, and narrow enough to be able to reach all the way across (for one-sided access) or halfway across (two-sided access).

We wanted a design where we could include a critter fence. Once in a while a deer might wander through our property, and rabbits certainly do. The hardware cloth fence keeps larger animals out and also provides a great trellis for beans and other climbers.

Gated garden and critter fence.

We opted for a U-shaped system, with a gate on one end. The inside edges of the beds are topped with 2×6 boards that can be used as a bench. We did run stabilizing boards between interior and exterior posts. They are buried and don’t really interfere with the plants. (Note to self – next time put those stabilizing boards in BEFORE filling with soil.)

What’s next?

Next time I’ll discuss some of my favorite tools for using in raised beds and possibly other places. And we’ll touch on the importance of soil testing before you add organic matter or other fertilizer to your beds. In the meantime, be sure to check out these resources:

Are raised beds for you? This comprehensive fact sheet goes into more detail. https://pubs.extension.wsu.edu/raised-beds-deciding-if-they-benefit-your-vegetable-garden-home-garden-series

Home vegetable gardens – an overview. https://pubs.extension.wsu.edu/home-vegetable-gardening-in-washington-home-garden-series

How much organic material is too much? Don’t overdo – read this first! https://pubs.extension.wsu.edu/organic-soil-amendments-in-yards-and-gardens-how-much-is-enough-home-garden-series

Eggplants getting their buzz on

eggplantflower

I was checking my eggplants today, and watching the bumble bees getting busy with the large purple flowers. As they flew in, buzzing away, they landed on the flower and kept buzzing — but the note changed, dropping in pitch. The bumble bee hummed away for a while, then flew off to the next flower.

I was watching buzz pollination at work. Egg plants, and a lot of other flowers, don’t leave their pollen hanging out in the open where any ant or fly that happens by could eat it. Rather they wrap them up in little packages that, when vibrated at just the right rate by a buzzing bumble bee, sends the pollen shooting out, so that bumble bees, which pollinate effectively, can access the pollen, but other insects, that would just eat it all, can’t.

In the garden, it isn’t easy to catch a glimpse of the pollen spewing forth, but luckily there are videos. Thank goodness for youtube. Watch it, and next time you are in your garden and hear a bee land in the flower and suddenly change the tone of its buzz, know you are seeing — and hearing — buzz pollination at work.

Are Soaker Hoses Safe?

By Cynthia Lee Riskin

With drought predicted for the west, southwest, and south through June 2015 (National Weather Service March 2015), many conscientious vegetable gardeners will try to conserve water by using soaker-hoses, those bumpy black hoses that weep water onto the soil through tiny pores.

Brussel sprouts and red lettuce
Soaker hoses are made from fine-crumb rubber, usually recycled from vehicle tires. Research strongly establishes that tire particles leach heavy metals, carcinogens, and mutagenics, among other toxins. Yet soaker hoses have not been studied for potentially increasing the toxicity of edible plants. Are they really safe to use safe on our edible plants?

Soil in the City
Urban soils already contain high levels of heavy metals (Murray et al. 2011) from years of household runoffs—chemicals from pesticides, cars, painting, cleaning, and more. Adding soaker hoses made of crumb tires might exacerbate the problem.

Rhubarb
Whether plants take up enough heavy metals to be toxic, however, is a complex equation, depending on a slew of interrelated factors, including:
• Soil pH (Costello 2003) and texture (Singh and Kumar 2006; Murray et al. 2011)
• Temperature (Murray et al. 2011; Lim and Walker 2009)
• The size of the rubber particles (Gaultieri et al. 2004)
• Chemical composition of irrigation water (Singh and Kumar 2006)
Furthermore, the plant species and even the cultivar can affect a plant’s uptake of zinc and other heavy metals (Murray et al. 2009 and 2011).

Growing Healthy Food
If you’re looking for the key to ensuring that your vegetable patch grows healthy food, however, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Too many factors are involved to predict the toxicity of what we grow in our gardens.

A good way to get more information is to contact your local extension agent for a list of laboratories that test soils not only for nutrient composition but for heavy metals. Although this information won’t guarantee you’ll be able to grow heavy-metal-free produce, it’s a step in the right direction while we wait for more research to be done.

vegetables_jpg.jpg
Cindy Riskin is a Master of Environmental Horticulture and freelance journalist raising edible plants, an unkempt ornamental garden, and elderly mutts in Seattle, Washington.

NOTE: This article is excerpted from a longer one soon to appear in Cindy Riskin’s upcoming blog, tentatively named Muddy Fingers Northwest. Please contact Cindy Riskin at cindyri@q.com for an advance copy or the blog’s web address.

REFERENCES
1. Costello, Laurence Raleigh. 2003. Abiotic disorders of landscape plants: A diagnostic guide. Oakland, Calif.: University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources. P. 117.
2. Gualtieri M., M. Andrioletti, C. Vismara, M. Milani, and M. Camatini. 2005. Toxicity of tire debris leachates. Environment International 31 (5): 723–30.
3. Lim, Ly, and Randi Walker. 2009. An assessment of chemical leaching releases to air and temperature at crumb-rubber infilled synthetic turf fields. Albany, N.Y.: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/crumbrubfr.pdf.
4. Murray, H., T.A. Pinchin, and S.M. Macfie. 2011. Compost application affects metal uptake in plants grown in urban garden soils and potential human health risk. Journal of Soils and Sediments 11 (5):815–829.
5. Murray, Hollydawn, Karen Thompson, and Sheila M. Macfie. 2009. Site- and species-specific patterns of metal bioavailability in edible plants. Botany 87:702–711.
6. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. March 19, 2015. U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook. NOAA/National Weather Service National Centers for Environmental Prediction. http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/sdo_summary.html.
7. Singh, S., and M. Kumar. 2006. Heavy metal load of soil, water and vegetables in peri-urban Delhi. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 120 (1-3):1–3.