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How urban agriculture is taking root and transforming lives

When nothing grew, soil became prime suspect

After five weeks, the plants in our raised bed have barely grown. /Seeding Chicago

After five weeks, the plants in our raised bed have barely grown. /Seeding Chicago

Part 1

Installing a new raised bed always raises a gardener’s expectations and hopes for a productive season of vegetable growing. The fresh, woodsy scent of the cedar boards to build the bed, the earthy smell of fresh compost to fill it made me giddy with gardening glee on the June 1 morning that we unpacked our raised bed kit.

After we put down the weed blocker fabric on the old soil and assembled the bed, the truck from McAdam Landscaping arrived with our new soil— 1.5 cubic yards of topsoil and compost. Good stuff, I thought, because I’d specifically requested and was assured the compost we were getting was organic and chemical free.

It was all part of the plan—to have an organic vegetable garden—after having our soil tested and learning it had medium lead contamination.

The delivery truck dumped the topsoil/compost in the alley, and my neighbor and I filled the bed with it, mixing it evenly across the bed. We then planted several healthy tomato plants that I’d started from seed in late February. I’d nurtured those babies, given them lots of good light and hardened them off with care. They were ready to be on their own. Into the new bed they went, along with the peppers, basil, cucumbers, parsley and several lettuce varieties.

A cucumber, left, and broccoli plant that aren't growing. /Seeding Chicago

A cucumber, left, and broccoli plant that aren’t growing. /Seeding Chicago

After a week in a backyard location that had always gotten lots of sun, the plants looked liked they were settling in, but they weren’t looking as happy as they should have been. They must still be adjusting, I thought. Then a week later, they still didn’t seem too happy—nor were they growing—although plants in another garden I keep were showing noticeable growth after about two weeks in their bed.

This cherry tomato plant is starting to fruit. /Seeding Chicago

This cherry tomato plant is starting to fruit. /Seeding Chicago

By week three and after several days of good hard rain that was making plants in my other garden grow like mad, the plants in my condo bed were about the size they were when first planted.

But this was fresh compost, a natural fertilizer, I reasoned, based on what I’d been learning about growing food.

So I decided—reluctantly—to apply store-bought but organic fertilizer around the plants. That should get them going.

But none got bigger. Not even weeds were coming up in this soil.

Ding, ding. Something was wrong. Why were my plants of similar origin growing and thriving with the same sun and watering conditions in another bed but not this one?

It had to be the soil. Could the compost have herbicide residue? “Herbicides—weed killers that remain active even after going through a composting process—means the compost could contain chemicals harmful to plants, according to an article I recently read in Organic Gardening magazine.

So, I called McAdam to let them know about the situation. The owner told me that fresh compost could still be decomposing and the first-year yield from the garden might be low. But, he did say he would come out to see what was going on.

And later that day, he paid a visit. He maintained that the compost from his company wasn’t the problem. It’s made onsite, was at least six months old and came from untreated organic matter.

He looked at the stunted plants and advised that I apply a fertilizer. After some repeated mentions of “nitrogen,” he further advised cultivating the soil. It needs some “air in oxygen in there,” he said.

The next day in an email, he wrote, “I have a Bat Guano fertilizer at the garden center that is 10% nitrogen and another fertilizer that is 15% nitrogen though this is not organic.”

Now mind you, I put three tomato plants in the soil (with the lead in it) outside of the bed, and they’re growing like weeds—all without fertilizer.

In the meantime, McAdam has shared the laboratory test results of its compost sample. I plan to compare those to my own test results.

The answer, my friends, is in that soil. And, I plan to get to the root of this problem.

Stay tuned.


  1. I cannot believe this!! This is an outrage! I sure hope you get to the bottom of this as it would benefit all of us.

  2. I had a similar experience with plants that did not grow. One year I was in a rental house and planted a vegetable garden; only the plants in one area actually grew and produced vegies and fruit. At the end of the growing season, the upstairs tenant told me that a neighbor had used an herbicide in the yard next to mine. Obviously the wind had blown a lot of it into my yard, preventing healthy growth. I wished he would have told me that before I planted!

  3. Did you ever get to the bottom
    Of the problem? Was it the herbicide?

    • Not sure whether it was herbicide, but nothing grew that first year (2013). Last year, I added premium compost and the growth was much better.

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