All Things Sustainable

Q: Would the soil next to the bike path be suitable for growing vegetables?  What contaminants left by the railroad are of concern?  How far away from the tracks would the “fall out” area be?

A: All good questions. Here are a few different ways to think about the issue from our friend Meg Muckenhoupt.

In general, railroads were not good stewards of the land. The Rails to Trails Conservancy ( lists the following possible contaminants often found near railroad beds:

  • Chemically treated railroad ties
  • Oil, gasoline, cleaning solvents, etc.
  • Fossil fuel combustion products
  • Roofing shingles (asbestos)
  • Herbicides
  • Air compressors
  • Transformers and Capacitors
  • Metals

For $10 you can test your soil for heavy metals and some other soil contaminants via the UMass Extension soil-testing lab. It’s the best ten bucks you’ll spend on your garden. The UMass test results also provide recommendations for improving your soil (nutrient and pH adjustments) and protecting crops from contamination.

For peace of mind, you might want to build a raised bed. A raised bed is just a big box filled with soil. They warm up earlier than the ground, they are easier to keep free of weeds than beds at ground level, they are attractive, you can control what soil goes into them, and you can line the bottoms with landscape fabric to keep roots from reaching contaminants in the underlying soil.

That’s what the Food Project does in Boston to keep plants away from lead-contaminated city soils. If you’re not fond of carpentry, there are several local garden businesses to help you out; Rad Urban Farmers and Ben Barkan come to mind.

Meg Muckenhoupt writes about gardens and green spaces at and edits the Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter ( Her most recent book is Boston Gardens and Green Spaces. (

Q: How would you define resilience in the context of developing a long-term plan for Lexington?

A: That’s an excellent question. Let’s take a look at some possible definitions. Ecologists call a system resilient if it is able to resist being pushed past a critical threshold. Business leaders tend to think of resilience as continuity in the face of natural disasters. Psychologists describe resilience as the ability to avoid being permanently damaged by trauma. For Lexington, I’d suggest that resilience means the ability to maintain our core purpose, our quality of life and integrity, while recovering and thriving in a disruptive environment.

Send your sustainability questions to We look forward to hearing from you.


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