My City Garden: Boston-area yard-sharing service for urban gardeners


Two words: “Lead contamination”. Cambridge and Boston were the sites of extensive smelting operations (Paul Revere made what?), and that left a TON of lead in the soil. NOTHING grown in local soil should ever be eaten.

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As a one-time Cooperative Extension urban gardening agent, soil lead is indeed a problem, mostly from leaded gasoline and the leaching of lead paint. However, there are many things you can do to reduce lead contamination of vegetables. Adjusting the pH levels in the soil reduces lead take-up, increasing organic content in the soil reduces lead take-up, choosing what to grow can reduce lead ingestion - fruiting crops take up the least amount of lead, leaf crops take up the most.

The Boston area has been dealing with this issue since at least the 1970s and many community garden sites have had clean soil trucked in. Of course, testing your garden soil before planting is advised.

For more information, The Food Project (, a local urban gardening for youth organization, has done studies on lead soils and contamination.

MCG’s website is aware of the lead issue and suggests gardens not be immediately adjacent to houses to reduce paint contamination, recommends soil testing, and suggests planting in a raised bed (filled with clean soil, of course) as a way of dodging the whole problem if the existing soil is unacceptable.

What they don’t answer is how much area, getting how much sunlight, is even worth discussing. The only part of my back yard that gets significant amounts of direct sunlight is the end toward the house. That resulted in my growing tomatoes closer to the house than I would have preferred (and giving up a bit of lawn to do so).

I’ll also note that the topsoil around newer construction/renovation is not always very local in origin.

What I’m saying is the contamination in Cambridge is mostly not from
those sources, but from 19th century and earlier smelting operations. I
have seen a lead contamination map of the boston/cambridge/somerville
area, and it’s pretty bad.

Growing anything for human consumption in that area without having both
the soil and the produce tested for lead is irresponsible. Possibly
illegal if you sell it.

Maybe if you had the topsoil removed, trucked in new soil, that might be
safe. But I would still get it tested.


That’s part of the story, sure. As is lead paint, and ash as well… but it’s hardly the whole story. There is plenty of good land in Boston, though you best do your homework.

Where is this map?

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