Starter Kit: Environmental Best Practices for Chicago Community Gardens

Hundreds of once-vacant lands are being transformed into beautiful and productive urban gardens with the help of community leaders like you. Unfortunately, Chicago’s soil has a checkered past. What is now a lovely community garden may have once been a cold storage plant, a home built with leaded paint, or a gas station with underground storage tanks. Understanding your site’s history will help you take the necessary precautions when developing your garden.

Before breaking ground on any community gardening project, we recommend that community gardeners follow these best practice recommendations.

Before you start…

  • Assume that all urban soils are contaminated to some extent.  A soil test  is a cheap and easy tool that will help you learn more about both soil fertility and contamination levels.  NeighborSpace strongly recommends all gardeners get a soil test before digging into any project.

Building the Garden

Pathways and Gathering Areas

  • “Bare soil areas” are unplanted areas of exposed soil without grass or other ground cover.  Bare soil areas are a particularly risky because they present a chance for direct contact with contaminated soil dust and particles.
  • Cover bare soil areas with a protective layer of mulch 6-12 inches thick.  Gravel or pavers also work. Replenish the cover material annually.
  • Until bare soils areas are covered, restrict access to to these areas by children and pregnant women.
  • When developing kid-friendly areas in the garden, like sand boxes, be sure to use landscape fabric or pre-formed bases that cover any exposed soil.

Ornamental Garden Preparation

  • Cover all bare soil areas with landscape fabric and secure with sod pins.
  • Cover landscape fabric with 12 inches of soil and 6-12 inches of mulch.
  • Renew mulch layer each year.

Edible Gardening Preparation

  • BUILD UP instead of DIGGING DOWN when preparing any edible growing area.
  • Replace all in-ground vegetable beds with raised beds.
  • Build traditional raised beds at least 12” high, constructed with cedar timbers or untreated lumber, add a landscape fabric barrier and and fill with clean soil. Check out the DIY section for raised bed building steps and specs.
  • Amend beds with compost and mulch annually.

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