Common garden vegetables like broccoli, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts send their roots as deep as three feet into the soil in search of water and nutrients; the roots of pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes dig even deeper. Mesquite trees have evolved ways for coping with drought, including dropping roots as deep as 160 feet (the deepest ever recorded) into the soil. Roots—even more than hands—can dig down and divulge the stories of the land and soil, revealing things we might already know about our lawns and gardens—and things we don’t.
Because soil becomes a sink for history, often illuminating legacies of environmental pollution, Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta of the University of Arizona finds that farms and gardens are the perfect medium, and gardeners the perfect citizen-scientist partners, for conducting environmental health research.
Ramírez-Andreotta first developed the idea of working with gardeners while she was the research translation coordinator for the UA’s Superfund Research Program. She began working in Dewey-Humboldt, a small town east of Prescott and just north of the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter. During one of the first community meetings hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the town was placed on the National Priorities List in 2008, community members raised questions about the safety of their soil and the food grown in their gardens. Ramírez-Andreotta was eager to answer their questions, but site-specific data was not available. So in 2010, she collected residential soils for greenhouse studies and began recruiting local gardeners to participate in the citizen science project, Gardenroots: The Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona Garden Project.
“I wanted to design a project that listened; that simultaneously addressed and met the needs of the community in a distressed situation while advancing the field of science,” Ramírez-Andreotta said. After two years, Ramírez-Andreotta ended up with about 50 trained participants and 25 submitted kits, collected from home farms and gardens.
Garry Rogers, a retired geographer, owns nearly 20 acres outside of Dewey-Humboldt and, like many in the community, was concerned about the effect of heavy metals leaching into the groundwater or being carried by wind from the tailings pile into nearby gardens. Rogers and the other participants each submitted soil, water, and vegetable or plant samples. Ten months after samples were submitted and analyzed in labs at the UA, the project delivered personalized booklets to each gardener, outlining the results for their garden and included a discussion of their meaning. “It gave us a lot of information so that we could decide what to do,” said Rogers.
Each individual booklet contained both raw, confidential data (like milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of vegetable) and tables outlining the quantity of vegetables participants could consume at various target risk levels.
Few participants said they would completely stop gardening based on the results, but the majority planned to continue gardening with modified gardening practices.
The study revealed that 16 out of 25 irrigation water samples, 13 of which were taken from private wells and three from the public potable water supply system, were above the EPA maximum contaminant level for arsenic. At a results-sharing event, community members using the public water system decided to notify the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), which then issued a notice of violation to the Humboldt water supplier. And, they told their neighbors.
“The ADEQ announced in April 2016 that the Humboldt water system is now in compliance and serving water that meets the drinking water standard,” Ramírez-Andreotta said.
Ramírez-Andreotta is now an assistant professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the UA and has started working with gardeners in Cochise, Apache, and Greenlee counties, the three counties that requested her services.
Ramírez-Andreotta said that gardeners of all varieties want to know more about their soil, regardless of what might be impacting it. She noted, however, that most counties that chose to participate are located near active or legacy resource extraction sites.
In Sierra Vista, Linda Gleason, a long-time gardener, was eager to learn more about the beets, Swiss chard, fennel, tomatoes, peppers, and okra she grows in her vegetable garden. “I want to make sure that I’m growing my vegetables in the best soil possible so they’ve got the nutrients I would like to get out of them,” Gleason said.
Gleason also had some concerns about the history of her land, which once hosted the little-known Hereford Army Airfield. “It’s always been in the back of my mind, wondering if my soil or my water is affected by the fact that there used to be an airport here. Even though it was WWII, I’m sure a lot of that stuff is still in the soil and water,” she said.
In Bisbee, Cado Daily wants information about the rainwater she collects to water her vegetable garden. Having worked with Water Wise, a local nonprofit dedicated to water conservation, since its inception in 1994, Daily uses rainwater for all her gardening needs.
“When Monica came, I thought this is so great, because I’d like to see if using rainwater instead of groundwater produces any difference in terms of what’s in the soil,” Daily said. She said she was concerned that some roofing materials might contaminate the water and, consequently, the soil.
In Double Adobe, between Bisbee and Douglas, Ellie Vaughn was curious about the quality of her raised bed, in part because she and her husband sell their onions to the High Desert Market in Bisbee for three months out of the year. “You may think everything’s good and find out otherwise,” she said. “We’ve been here long enough to know that at one point, when we first moved here, the smelter in Douglas was still going and sometimes the smoke would head our direction.”
Gardenroots’ participants, both those who have conducted citizen-science projects before and those who haven’t, say the project has them thinking about their role, responsibility, and capacity as gardeners in a different way.
“People come together to garden, and gardening has a multitude of positive effects on the environment—it would be so unfortunate for pollution to take that away from us,” Ramírez-Andreotta said. ✜
Visit Gardenroots.arizona.edu for information from other studies, and for details about commissioning Ramírez-Andreotta and her team.
Page Buono is a freelance journalist and MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona.