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