Going back to Our Roots: Growing better Health in Our Own Soil

What is the urban farming “trend” all about in our city?

Urban farming is not exactly a trend, Chicago actually began in the 1850’s as a hub for agriculture, raising everything from common vegetables and grains to livestock and dairy cows. In 1893, The World’s Columbian Exposition hosted various agricultural pavilions and in 1900, the International Livestock Exposition to promote urban agriculture and animal breeding on an annual basis until 1975. (1) These successful markets and expositions were commonplace on our city streets and fed our citizens locally raised vegetables, grains, meats and dairy products.

In more recent years, this way of life has been pushed to surrounding suburbs and small towns further away in Illinois. The flavors of local produce is replaced with convenience foods, as our present lifestyles are filled with more options, activities, entertainment and responsibilities than ever before. Sadly, less time is left at the end of the day for growing, harvesting and preparing nutrient dense, balanced meals for our friends and families.


Health benefits of urban farming:

While it is unrealistic to create a homestead that raises cows, sheep, chickens and goats in the tiny, often shared backyard of an average Chicago apartment complex, there are ways that you can begin growing your own crops on a small scale. Doing so can provide a convenient source of herbs and some fruits and vegetables in a proximity closer than your nearest grocery store. Growing your own will add variety and nutrient rich ingredients to your meals, often at a reduced cost to grocery store organic produce. There is nothing better than the flavor of in-season fruits and veggies that the produce from grocery stores sometimes lacks if the produce is not in season or has traveled a great distance. Growing your own plants can also instill discipline, as plants do require some routine care. The good news is that plants are easier to take care of than pets, so this could be the perfect project for a child, providing them with new responsibilities and bonding time with parents if the activity is done together. Growing your own plants can promote food security in areas that do not have a grocery store nearby. Furthermore, I find gardening in all forms to be a great form of exercise, stress relief and a way to meet others, as there is usually extra to share with friends and neighbors. Urban growing has promoted a better sense of community within my neighborhood and can do the same in yours.


Soil contamination in Chicago:

Lead contamination in Chicago soil is a common concern. Lead contamination of soil is usually due to lead-based paint chips from old buildings mixing with the soil or lead residue left from auto emissions. Studies conducted in urban areas have shown that lead levels in soil are highest around building foundations and within a few feet of busy streets (3,4). Even small amounts of lead can cause damage in the brain of a child and trigger learning disabilities and aggression later in life (2).

While that sounds frightening, keep in mind that most exposure to soil lead is through direct ingestion of contaminated soil or dust residue. Plants do not accumulate or absorb lead from soil in general, but if soils test high for lead, it is possible that the plant will take up some lead (2). Studies have shown that lead does not readily accumulate in the fruiting parts of vegetable and fruit crops, such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, strawberries, and apples. If lead is indeed present in the plant, higher concentrations are more likely to be found in leafy vegetables such as lettuce, kale and spinach and on the surface of root crops such as carrots and beets (5). As a point of reference, it has been considered safe by the University of Minnesota’s extension office to use produce grown in soils with total lead levels are less than 300 parts per million (2).

If you choose to grow your food producing plants directly in Chicago soil, it is best to keep your garden away from busy streets, intersections and roundabouts. You can also purchase a soil test kit here to test your soil for lead contamination. (https://certifiedkit.com/product-category/home-testing-kits/lead-testing-kits/)


How can you begin growing your own plants in a small space?

There are plenty of ways to grow your own plants if you do not have a plot of land or if your soil is contaminated with lead. Here are a few ideas:

Container gardens: Nearly anything can serve as a container for a plant as long as it has good drainage and can be placed in an area that receives sunlight. If you have existing containers that usually hold flowers, consider planning vegetables instead, or perhaps colorful Swiss chard, red-leaf kale and sprawling tomato vines. Flowers are indeed beautiful, but less useful of your limited space and do not generally contribute nutrient dense ingredients to your meals.


Raised beds: These bed walls can be built with a number of materials and then filled with compost.


Upside down tomatoes with slow water-release milk jugs: If you have only a patio or porch, don’t count yourself out just yet! These planters allow you to plant tomatoes upside down and hang them from a support post. I save an old milk jug and puncture a hole in the bottom with a small nail and then fill it with water on hot summer days. This serves as a slow-release watering system for my upside down tomatoes. It provides a steady stream of moisture for the plants on hot days when the container would otherwise dry out.


Vertical beds: Perfect for apartments or homes with very little ground space to set a container, or to take advantage of unused vertical space.


Herbs: Do well in deep pots with drainage. I built this container from cedar and attached them to my back porch railing (with permission from my landlord of course).

Pvc pipe planters: PVC and other similar materials can be found from Menards, Home Depot or a reclaimed building supply outlet such as the Restore. These can be filled with dirt and filled with shallow root plants such as lettuce and spinach.

Edible landscapes:

*read more about this plant sphere here: http://www.theplaidzebra.com/ikea-garden-sphere-free-plans-for-a-sustainable-garden/

What kinds of plants do well in a container?

Not every plant enjoys the container life. Annual plants (those which must be planted every season, like tomatoes, lettuces, peppers and cucumbers or squash) and herbs generally can thrive in containers. Perennial plants (such as strawberries, blueberry bushes, orange and lemon trees), corn and root vegetables do not generally do as well in containers for a gardener that is just starting out. There are certain plants that have been bred for containers, so these are an exception to the rule. If you are new to growing your own produce, stick with the easier annuals such as Sungold or cherry tomatoes and herbs for your first year so that your efforts are more likely to produce a harvest that you are happy about and inspires you to do it again next year. Remember that any pot can be used as a container, but it must have good drainage. You can create drainage by adding holes to the bottom of your chosen vessel using a nail and hammer, drill or even an Exacto knife.


Seed & Plant resources

  • Baker Creek Seed Catalogue (rareseeds.com)
  • Territorial seed company
  • City Escape on Lake street
  • Gesethemines (Roger’s park)
  • Christy Webber


Recipe: Back Porch Harvest Flatbread

Yield: 4 flat breads (use one with suggested toppings and

freeze the remaining three for another use)



The Dough:


1 ½ cups warm water

½ tsp. active dry yeast

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups white wheat flour

1 tsp. salt

2 tablespoons olive oilSuccess!

Ingredients have been added to your Grocery List and the recipe has been saved.

View List


Mix water and yeast in a large bowl and let stand 5 minutes to proof. Gradually pour in the 2 cups of white wheat flour and stir to incorporate. Mix for about 1 minute to form a sponge. Let stand, covered, for at least 1 hour.

Put sponge in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook, add the salt and oil, then add the all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to form a dough. Remove from bowl and knead. Place in a clean oiled bowl and let rise, slowly, about 2 1/2 hours. Divide dough into 4 balls, let rise again for 1/2 hour, and then roll out one portion. Wrap the other 3 portions individually and freeze for a later use.

After you have rolled out the dough, place your dough on a perforated pan or a heated pizza stone. Dock the dough by making small holes in the dough with a fork. Brush on a bit of olive oil and bake at 400 degrees for 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and add your toppings. Return to the oven and bake at 450 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating once during baking.

Ingredient combinations: try to use whatever is growing in your garden, most vegetables go great on a flatbread with herbs!

Sungold tomatoes + arugula + fresh mozzarella cheese + marinara sauce + fresh sausage

Zucchini (green or yellow, sliced thin) + feta cheese + fresh oregano, basil & parsley + fresh sausage + Italian dressing spread over crust

Cherry tomatoes + kale, torn small + goat cheese + herbed olive oil spread on crust + thinly sliced white onion



(1) Agriculture. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2017, from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/30.html

(2) Lead in the home garden and urban soil environment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2017, from http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/soils/lead-in-home-garden/

(3) Rolfe, G.L., A. Haney, and K.A. Reinbold. 1977. Environmental contamination by lead and other heavy metals. Vol.2. Ecosystem Analysis. Institute for Environmental Studies. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 112pp.

(4) Singer, M.J. and L. Hanson. 1969. Lead accumulation in soils near highways in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Soil Science Society of America Proceedings 33:152-153.

(5) Carrington, C.D. and P.M. Bolger. 1992. An assessment of the hazards of lead in food. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 16:265-272.

(6) What is Urban Farming? (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2017, from http://www.greensgrow.org/urban-farm/what-is-urban-farming/


Written By Renea Lyles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s