Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Contamination Closes Community Garden In Montreal News Staff
Updated: Sun. Aug. 20 2006 10:48 PM ET

Harvest time this year is anything but satisfying for a group of Montreal gardeners who found out their vegetables are contaminated and won't be ending up on their dinner tables.

After countless hours toiling in the hot sun this summer, gardeners at the Baldwin Public Garden at Rachel and Fullum Streets in the heart of Montreal have been told that the fruit of their labour has to be tossed in the trash.

The community gardeners have found out the hard way that growing your own food in a big city means you have to ensure that environmental pollution doesn't make it onto your plate.

The public garden has been helping feed families for 22 years. Now, tests have discovered lead and arsenic in the vegetables. That's five to 10 times the levels found in store-bought produce.

Decades ago, the garden site was a former quarry that was pressed into service as a garbage dump, and one tested the soil when it became a garden.

City officials issued a statement telling residents who have already eaten produce from the garden not to worry, saying that the lead levels were not high enough to cause anyone to get sick.

But the news is depressing.

"After three months hard work, they tell us we can't eat them," Maryse Tessier told CTV News.

Twenty-two years ago, soil composition wasn't a preoccupation the way it is now, said city official Michel Tanguay.

The city doubts the contamination is a threat to human health, but said it's shutting down the garden as a precaution. The garden's 45 plots have been closed down since Aug. 14.

Montreal has 97 public gardens and at least five others are built on former dump sites. The city's now awaiting test results for those.

Ismael Hautecoeur, project coordinator for a rooftop garden that supplies a local charity, hopes the news won't discourage other urban gardeners. With a little creativity, he said, there's no shortage of safe places to grow your own food.

"What we are doing is actually taking one step in the direction of a cleaner city," Hautecoeur told CTV News, "because the more green you bring into the city, the cleaner it will be."

The key is to know something about where you're planting, and if you have concerns, get the soil tested.

"Just a little bit of background researching on who's owned the land and what it's been used for in the past," suggested Sarah Wakefield from the Centre for Urban Health Initiatives at the University of Toronto. "So, you can have a sense of how safe it may be."

It is not uncommon for urban community gardens to be established over former dump sites.

According to the McGill School of Environment, testing soil for contamination can range from $10 to $850 per sample depending on how comprehensive a test is ordered.

Several samples from more than one area of the site need to be tested to provide an accurate assessment of contamination, the school said on its website.

In Lincoln and Boston, Massachusetts, the website said, gardens were recuperated by bringing in sufficient soil and compost to provide a barrier between contaminated soil and soil feeding growing produce.

Installing raised beds is a cheaper alternative tried in other cities, the website said, and allows gardening to continue without interruption.

With a report by CTV's Jed Kahane in Montreal

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August 22, 2006

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture