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Testing Soil Health in Chicago Urban Gardens

Community Collaborator: Contemporary Farmer


Stephanie Teresi
Stephanie Teresi, Winter 2022 Fellow,  

MS Program., Environmental Science, College of Science and Health

Goals of the Project

This Steans Graduate Fellowship Project was a partnership with Contemporary Farmers Inc. that included engagement at DePaul College Prep in Chicago. David Toledo and his team from Contemporary Farmers Inc. sought an intern with knowledge of soil chemistry to analyze soil health and quality in gardens after applying compost tea. During the summer season and during drought periods, David and his team only used compost tea as a source of watering for the gardens managed by Contemporary Farmer. David had a very successful growing season and believed compost tea was a contributing factor. Contemporary Farmer wanted me to look at the  soils chemistry to analyze and interpret the results to back up these claims. David shared gardens soil tests from two years prior to compost tea being applied.

David and his team sought to understand the role that their compost tea had on soil quality and for the intern to educate them about my findings. We planned to work together to strengthen and develop innovative solutions to improve urban agriculture. The fellowship contributed to my academic and career goals by testing and using my knowledge of soil. By running and interpreting these tests I developed a better understanding of how to analyze soil data. A final goal of the project was to inform DePaul College Prep high school students about the importance of soil science and how it plays a pivotal role in gardening.

Accomplishments of the Project

The fellowship began with a tour of the DePaul College Prep garden, school, and lab and meeting with teachers. Every week Contemporary Farmer staff met to do weekly check-ins to make sure we were all on the same page regarding project goals and outcomes. During these meetings we discussed weekly tasks. I first began by reviewing all previous materials related to the project. To begin my soil analysis, I then met with David to receive two soil samples from two different Contemporary Farmer-supported gardens.

I first oven dried the soils for 24 hours to remove all moisture from the soils at a temperature of 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the soils have been dried, they were ready to be grided and sifted. I removed all debris such as rocks, roots, and twigs from the soil. I used a heavy roller to crush the soil into small pieces. I then used a 2mm sifter to sift through the soil. After this process the soils were ready to be tested.

Tests conducted for the two soil samples included soil salinity (electrical conductivity), aggregate stability (solvita method), pH, Microbiometer, plant available phosphorus, soil nitrate, percent organic matter, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Each test took anywhere from 30 minutes to 48 hours in the lab.  I feel empowered to know that you can solve the mystery of soil quality. Once I had all the data collected from each of these tests, I created a document showing results and providing suggestions based off the findings.  Since I have never worked with garden soils before, suggested averages were much different and harder to find compared to other urban soils.

The next task was to create two documents for Contemporary Farmer Inc.’s partners. The first document was meant to teach gardeners how to collect soil on your own. The document discussed how simple it is to collect soil at home in order to get it ready for testing. The second document was illustrated how to select a site for soil collecting; how to be specific in selecting a site for soil testing.

Impact the project had on issues of social equality and sustainability

It is hard to see the immediate results of my work impacting issues of social equity and sustainability. In the long term, I hope the work shines a light on the importance of soil health in an urban garden. I hope my knowledge and research are able to be taught to the youth. Can compost tea be the solution for a more sustainable future? Can growing food in an urban garden and providing it to the local community help with world hunger? Can educating the public and specifically youth about gardening and soil science change the trajectory of climate change? These are difficult questions to ask but the answers are important. I hope my work was able to contribute in some way to making an impact on creating a more sustainable future.