How Austin Gardeners Can Unearth the Mysteries of Their Own Backyards

Apr 16, 2015

The City of Austin recently offered free soil testing so people could see what contaminants and nutrients they have in their yards. But, so many people wanted the testing – myself included – that the city was overwhelmed with samples.

The first day of the free service, I got together my tools: a spoon, a flat-bottomed pan for mixing and two zip-lock bags for the samples. With  a little assistance from KUT photographer Ilana Panich-Linsman, I gathered enough soil for a sample.

That weekend the city offered testing aimed at home gardeners, dubbed "The Soil Kitchen." Christine Whitney, a coordinator for the city's Brownfields Revitalization Office, said she didn't know  what soil secrets would be unearthed. 

A program like this in Philadelphia showed about one-third of soil from tested yards had lead at levels that made them unsafe for kids. This was the first time Austin tested residential lots, and Whitney didn't expect anything "too bad" to turn up. 

KUT's Mose Buchele gathers soil from his backyard to test at The Soil Kitchen.
Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

"We don’t actually expect to find something super bad," she said. "We just want to let people know 'OK, your levels are such that you might want to think about adding mulch or doing a raised bed.'”  

Gardening aside, if the land you live on is dangerously contaminated, you should want to know – especially if you have a baby.  Whitney, who normally deals with commercial properties, says there's also a financial element to testing soil.

“If people are acquiring property they need to think about doing an environmental assessment because, once you buy it, you own the environmental liability on that property,” she said.

If a developer uses bank financing, then a test is required, which is not the case if an investor or non-profit is paying in cash. The City of Austin does assessments when it’s building a new development, but has no policy for testing existing city properties.

Austin's first "soil kitchen" proved to be very popular. By the end of the weekend, so many people had dropped off samples that the city was overwhelmed. The City of Austin sent the samples to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension for assistance.

Despite the delay, Whitney said she had some information on my soil when I called her later.  As expected, it contained a little bit of lead, though not much.

“In any neighborhood where there are old homes that have been painted with lead-based paint, there is going to be some lead in the soil,” she said. “It’s not of a level to be concerned.” 

She said contaminants like lead are why it's a good idea to garden in a raised bed. 

None of the samples Whitney saw would require remediation. And, unlike in Philadelphia, none of the them had so much lead they could be dangerous for exposure to the skin.  But for full results the city will have to wait on the lab at Texas A&M, which could take up to a month.