What the Soil Types in Boston Mean for Local Produce
By Natalie Greenberg
Dirt is the stuff you wipe off your feet when you come into the house. But soil? It’s magic. It makes the world grow into vibrant greens, reds, yellows, pinks, purples, and whites.
Locally grown foods in Boston depend on rich, productive soil. Bringing locally grown fruits and vegetables to your dinner table is good for the economy — and your taste buds — and it lessens the number of miles fresh foods must travel to get to that table.
Whether you grow your own or buy locally grown produce, growing the green all starts with the right kind of soil.
Boston Basin Soils
You’ll find three types of soil in the Boston Basin:
- Udorthents-Urban Land. This is the type of soil under most of Boston, and it’s not very good. “Udorthent” means the original native soil has been removed or buried and replaced by a mixture of dug-up rubble, refuse, channel dredgings.
- Canton-Charlton-Hollis. Found on uplands and high hills in Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Roslindale. Canton soils are well-drained and loamy — good planting material.
- Newport-Urban Land. Most steep hillsides of the Boston Basin contain well-draining Newport soils, including in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury.
The University of Massachusetts recommends testing your soil before you begin planting. For a few dollars, the extension service will even send you a test kit and run the results for you. They’ll also send you a list of recommendations for amendments you may need along with crops that will fair well in your soil.
On the 14-point scale, anything less than 7 is acidic, the 7.0 range is neutral and higher than 7 is alkaline. Plants have different pH and nutritional needs. For example, blueberries thrive in 4.5 to 5.5 acidic soil. Vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, and spinach prefer a pH of 6.0-7.5. Most New England soils are naturally acidic. Adding lime will keep them in the range of 6.5 to 6.8 for most vegetables.
Healthy soil controls rainfall, irrigation, and runoff. It sustains animal and plant life, filters pollutants, promotes microbes and minerals, and provides structural support. Soil cycles nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The right kind of soil for Boston’s produce depends on the growing location.
Soil health matters, not only for gardens and flowerbeds, but for grass, too. A lack of oxygen in the soil can lead to diseases in the turf. Organic matter is decomposed remains of plants, mosses, leaves, trees, and stems. It holds soil particles together so they can allow air and water to move through. Decomposed vegetation keeps moisture in and absorbs nutrients to feed the growing veggies in your Boston garden. Growing grass, fruits and vegetables in organic soil is a sure-fire way to guarantee healthy sod and an abundant harvest.
Organic gardening plays an important role in sequestering carbon, filtering the air and influencing the microclimate of a region. Carbon sequestration is the process of drawing carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it. The process is a bit scientific, but basically, during photosynthesis, plants break down carbon dioxide into oxygen. Oxygen molecules are released into the atmosphere. Blended with water, carbon converts into sugars that feed the plants by seeping into the soil. Deep soil carbon storage eventually creates a spongy organic material called humus, made up of decayed plant debris – leaves, twigs, nuts, and the like. Stored carbon and humus development fortify topsoil. This process stabilizes into the ground, allowing nutrients to feed the land for hundreds of years.
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. It’s about replacing resources, eliminating waste, and supporting the community. Enriched soil provides nutrients for greens — peppers, broccoli, zucchini, celery, cucumbers, and spinach. Red, orange, and yellow fruits and veggies like tomatoes, beets, radishes, strawberries, cantaloupe, corn, pumpkins, squash, and carrots attract buyers at farmers’ markets. Add some white and purple to the rainbow with onions, eggplant, cauliflower, and potatoes.
While soil types for growing produce in Boston vary, the main points of gardening are simple. Flowers, grass, fruits, and vegetables need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. To determine if your garden is getting enough light, draw an hourly diagram, and mark off which areas have direct sunlight, partial shade, and full shade. Gardens facing south receive the most sunshine. Like field gardens, veggies in containers need well-draining soil, and organic matter like bark chips, peat moss, and compost. Add perlite and vermiculite to absorb water and aerate the soil.
When you visit local produce stands and farmers markets, you’re investing in the community. Locally grown and sustainably produced items decrease the number of “food miles” between consumers, suppliers, and restaurants. Hometown restaurants, businesses, and community members depend on people like you!
Natalie Greenberg is a gardening and landscaping writer, and an outdoorswoman extraordinaire. She’s hosted everything from weddings to proms on her 5-acre farm. She also hosts her annual family reunion, firing up the grill and cooking her homegrown fruits and vegetables for 60 plus people every year.