Project digs deep for information on backyard gardens

Saanich and Oak Bay residents can have their soil tested for free

Royal Roads University students Shawna Cheyne

A local project will allow Saanich residents to get the dirt on what’s in their backyard.

The Healing City Soils Project is offering free soil testing for homes in Saanich and Oak Bay. Students from Royal Roads’ Environmental Science Program will be testing this spring for heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium at residential gardens and boulevards in Saanich and Oak Bay.

“Urban food production is increasing and municipalities are encouraging residents to grow their own food and become more self-sufficient,” said Marika Smith, executive director of theGreater Victoria Compost Education Centre.

For the past 25 years the centre has been teaching Capital Region residents about organic gardening and how to grow their own vegetables, compost and build up their soil.

“We wanted to delve more into the soil science aspect of things and look at historical land use.”

The Healing City Soils Project is a partnership between the Victoria Compost Education Centre and Royal Roads University created to address soil health concerns in urban areas. The project started last year with Royal Roads students testing homes in Victoria and Esquimalt for heavy metals.

“Without wanting to scare people, it’s to give people a better idea of the health of their soil before they start growing their own food,” said Smith. “Soil testing from a certified lab is really expensive and it’s not accessible to everybody. That was sort of the main reason we started doing this.”

The group then put together an online, open-access map showing the sites that had been tested (without providing specific addresses).

“People can look at it at anytime and [see areas] where there might be some concern about soil contamination,” said Smith.

None of the areas tested last year revealed any serious health risks, but Smith said about 10 to 15 per cent of the properties were found to have some concerns with the soil.

“As predicted, the areas that had more historical industrial use or were right by a main street had the higher levels,” she said. “All of those people can still garden safely, they just need to follow some guidelines.”

That leads to the second part of the project, with the centre offering free workshops on how to remediate your soil.

“Sometimes, if it’s really contaminated, you need to not garden there or use raised beds,” said Smith.

Residents of Saanich and Oak Bay can apply online to have their soil tested by filling out an application. The application and the map can be found at, under the Healing City Soils tab. Applications are due by March 1.

“We need about 60 Saanich residents and 40 from Oak Bay to get an accurate representation on the map,” said Smith, adding residents will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.


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