Community Soil Screening at the Farm

Public Soil Screening at Downing Park Urban Farm

Partnership with Urban Soils Institute brings testing technology and consultation

The Farm’s Field Day on Saturday, September 24 focused on soil health and featured a partnership with The New York City Urban Soils Institute (USI). Residents were invited to bring soil samples from their own yards and gardens to be tested for heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. USI Director Tatiana Morin brought a handheld XRF spectrometer which directed energy in x-ray form to the soil causing certain elements to fluoresce in the sample and the relative abundances to be detected.  The free event, organized by Downing Park Urban Farm, helped generate awareness about urban soil health, how to deal with contamination, and ways to practice sustainable agricultural methods. 

As Morin and team member Anna Paltseva tested samples, recorded results, and discussed findings with residents, Lab Manager George Lozefski set up a table filled with samples to demonstrate the textures and grain sizes of different soil types. He combined water to create a “sandy loam,” a consistency of sand, silt, and clay that is ideal for farming.  He also explained “water infiltration rates” which is how much water and how quickly water moves through different soil types. One resident who had brought a sample talked about her experience gardening in different soil types when she moved to a new house. The ideal soil texture needed varies depending on what gardeners want to grow. Different plants thrive in different soil conditions, so it is important to understand what type of soil is present in your garden. Improvement to the soil structure can be made through the addition of a good compost. Another key ingredient to success is feeding the biology of your soil. This is where the secret lies in keeping your plants thriving and disease-free.

 The NYC Urban Soils Institute is a Partnership of Brooklyn College, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, NYC Soil & Water Conservation District and The Gaia Institute. The team’s focus is on testing, researching, and characterizing the nature and properties of urban soils.  USI's work is particularly relevant today as more and more people are moving into urban areas and will have to deal with the issues that urban soils present. Lozefski said that historically there has been lots of focus on farm soils but not necessarily urban soils. “If you have a garden in your yard you want to know if contaminants can end up in your vegetables,” he said. “We’ll talk about how to remediate contamination.”

Also present was Joseph Heller, a Resource Conservationist based in the USDA’s Middletown office. Heller’s office provides technical and financial assistance for farmers. “We’re here to help landowners have quality soil and effective irrigation, start soil health practices such as cover crops that reduce erosion, and we provide assistance for high tunnel systems to extend the growing season,” he said. The growing demand for local produce and regional foods has brought more inquiries from citizens and organizations with community gardens and urban farms. “We support the use of this tool,” he explained about the spectrometer. “We would like to use it wherever it’s needed, in cities like Poughkeepsie, Port Jervis, and Yonkers.”

For more information or to contact the NYC Urban Soil Institute about screening your garden soils, visit the NYC USI online at


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Upcoming Field Day to Focus on Urban Soils

Field Day at Downing Park Urban Farm to Focus on Urban Soils

Public encouraged to bring soil samples for free testing

The upcoming Field Day at Downing Park Urban Farm will focus on urban soils and a partnership between the farm and the New York City Urban Soils Institute (USI). The farm is open during the regularly-scheduled Field Day on Saturday, September 24 from 10am-noon and the community is welcome to tour the site and learn about its features and history. Tatiana Morin, Director of the USI, will be on site offering free examination of soil samples brought by residents. Her agency’s goal is to advance the scientific understanding of urban soils and promote conservation and sustainable use.

Downing Park Urban Farm, on the corner of South Street and Carpenter Avenue in Newburgh, was formerly a space for replacement stock used to maintain the gardens of the adjacent Downing Park. The facility was maintained by the City and employed about 30 workers. Until the middle of the century, varieties including irises, tulips, serviceberry, American hazelnut, and coffee trees were grown and stored here. “It was a highly choreographed horticultural operation—and also expensive” said farm manager Marcel Barrick who oversees the site and is involved in its restoration. “Workers would take the bulbs out in fall, winter them up here, and replace them in spring. Trees and shrubs were grown and stored here, too.”

The site of the farm has features that are not uncommon in other urban soils. Some of the elevated sections of the property rest on a hardpan, a hardened and impermeable layer that impedes root growth as well as the movement of water and gasses. Hardpans can be a natural feature but are not desirable on land intended for farming. Barrick explained the hardpan was discovered early in the renovation when after rain storms he noticed water squishing out of the hill along Carpenter Avenue. He said a coal-fueled glass greenhouse sat near the center of the property until it was dismantled. The site has varying levels of coal ash piles, known as slag, from the greenhouse’s furnace. Tests on this site revealed heavy metals such as zinc, lead and arsenic. “It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “The main contamination is at the greenhouse site.” 

In the past, cement sidewalks helped workers move carts around the property but these were removed during renovation, exposing heavily compacted ground. In parts of the hardpan Barrick planted tillage radish, also known as daikon radish, a breed developed to produce a large taproot that penetrates compacted soil. As this variety grows it pushes large thick roots down into ground then dies in winter creating a void, giving the roots of crops planted in later seasons a head start. The large taproot also helps with nutrient retention. The thick roots absorb and retain nutrients that would otherwise be lost when the field is unused in winter.  

At the southwest corner of the farm is a debris pile on a steep slope which Barrick suspects is an old dump site for construction and roadwork projects. He cleaned much of the human-transported material including concrete, asphalt chunks, and construction debris. Glass from the old greenhouse turns up periodically on site. “This is the reality of urban soils and the issues faced by agriculture in modern cities,” said Barrick.

Adjacent to the farm’s demonstration garden is one of two storm water management ponds. A berm system directs water from the road away from the sewer and into the 2’ by 2’ pit. Barrick planted tillage radishes in the pit to experiment with getting water down into the soil.

An unusual element found during renovation is a large smooth rock found underground near the South Street entrance.  It took Barrick weeks to extract the rock with a hydraulic jack and hand tools. It hid only about a foot underneath the soil, but its size and texture make it an unusual find at this site. Barrick also found a round glass fragment during his work.

While urban soils present their own unique issues when it comes to farming and food production, researchers worldwide are discovering what works in terms of remediation and conservation. Barrick encourages residents to take advantage of the free opportunity to meet with the Urban Soils Institute during the Field Day event. The USI is a partnership of Brooklyn College, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Science, and the NYC Soil Water Conservation District. Samples are examined with a handheld XRF spectrometer that supplies energy in x-ray form. Elements will fluoresce in a frequency that indicates lead, cadmium, arsenic or other heavy metals.

“We want people to be confident that their soil is sound and that they can grow healthy vegetables,” said Barrick. “If soil is contaminated, we’ll talk about how to get around these issues.”

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