Land Access & Soil Quality

So you want to dig up your yard to grow food. Good healthy soil should have plenty of organic matter, a mix of sand, clay and compost.

Those things give the soil the ability to hold water during dry periods, but not get bogged down by too much rain during wet ones. It needs to have the right balance of nutrients for the type of plants you want to grow. It should be free of contaminants.

Soil Quality Back to Top

Before You Dig

Except for calling 811 first, the following guidelines are not required for gardeners growing for their own consumption, however, they are still HIGHLY recommended to avoid any unknown contaminants your soil may hold.

First, the law requires that you call 811 or "Iowa One Call" before digging in your yard, just to make sure that infrastructure such as sewer pipes or electrical conduits are not beneath the surface of your selected site.

Second, check what was on the land before you; was there a garage that was torn down and so your soil may contain heavy metals or petroleum residues? Ask your landlord, or review the chain of title for the property. If you find something concerning, have the area where you want to garden tested for contaminants. That may require testing by a commercial lab. (see Resources and Learning Examples below, for more information)

At minimum, you may want to know whether your soil is alkaline or acidic. Some plants do better in one type over the other. (Strawberries do well in more acidic soil)

Your soil may be missing nutrients as well. Soil Nutrient tests for garden plots can be purchased online, as well as at many home & gardening stores such as Home Depot, KMart, Lowes, Menards, and Walmart. Or call your neighborhood hardware store to see if they carry test kits, and support a local business. Either way, it’s recommended to do research on test kits before you purchase, to ensure reliability. (see Resources and Learning Examples below, for more information)

10 Best Practices for Healthy Gardening   Source

  1. Use clean soil and compost. If you are concerned about contamination in your garden soil, consider having it tested by a State-certified laboratory.
  2. Use raised beds. Build beds deep enough for the roots of your crops, and maintain them by adding compost often.
  3. Avoid treated wood. Railroad ties, telephone poles, pressure-treated wood and some painted wood contain chemicals that can get into soil.
  4. Maintain soil nutrients and pH. Healthy garden soils have a good nutrient balance and a pH near neutral (6.5 – 7).
  5. Cover (or mulch) soil. Use compost, straw or bark mulch in garden beds, and stones or wood chips in paths and non-growing areas. This helps reduce soil splash, dust and tracking of soil home.
  6. Keep an eye on children. Make sure children do not eat soil or put dirty toys or other objects in their mouths. Young children can be more sensitive to certain chemicals in soil, such as lead.
  7. Leave the soil in the garden. Avoid bringing garden soil into your home. Remove soil from garden tools and harvested vegetables while at the garden, and change your shoes before going indoors.
  8. Wash your hands. Wash up after gardening, and have children who play or work in the garden do the same. Consider wearing gloves, and remember to remove them when leaving the garden.
  9. Wash and/or peel produce. Wash vegetables thoroughly – especially leafy and root crops, which are more likely to have soil on them. Consider peeling if appropriate.
  10. Put a barrier under play areas. Separate children’s play areas from underlying soil with landscape fabric or other durable material. Put clean play materials such as sand or wood chips on top. Check the barrier over time to be sure the underlying soil isn’t mixing with play materials.

Land Access Back to Top

Possible Types of Urban Farming

Ground-Level Farms

In-Ground Farming

If you’ve done some research and are certain your plot has never been the site of an industrial or hazardous use, an unauthorized illegal dumping site or some other potentially contaminating practice, you might be able to simply cultivate directing into the ground. At minimum, you will likely want to test for nutrient and pH levels, but if it had never been built upon or dug up, it's probably okay to start creating a garden in that spot.

  • Working a quality compost into the soil will improve its make up. Grass clippings from your lawn (provided you don’t use any chemical sprays for weeds or pests) can be a free and easy way to add nitrogen, and mulch for weed control and maintaining moisture.
  • Make note of how much sun is available to the plot throughout the growing season. Most plants prefer 6-8 hours of sunlight for best production. Many will tolerate less, but may not be as productive.
  • Do you have a reliable source of water? In Iowa, the climate trend is for heavy, wet springs followed by hot, dry summers. Keeping an eye on the soil’s moisture level is important to your success as a garden farmer, and you will probably need to water your garden during the heat of June, July and August, maybe longer.
Raised Bed Method

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has adopted a Best Practice Method, known as the “Raised Bed Method,” for dealing with soil safety issues in urban environments. A raised bed is a contained volume of clean, imported soil built atop a geotextile barrier (a type of synthetic landscape fabric with limited permeability) to cover the ground surface. This barrier allows for water drainage but prevents root uptake from the contaminated soil below. This method has a proven track record of safely and effectively minimizing exposure to contaminated soil.

If you know the soil has been contaminated, it may be best to not grow under-ground and/or root crops such as carrots, potatoes, beets, etc., as they are more likely than above-ground fruits and veggies to take up the contaminants into their flesh.

Rooftop Farms

Freight Car Farms

  • Will need to be considered, create guidelines, building standards, add to code

Indoor Farming

Types/methods for indoor farming:
  • Hydroponics
  • Aquaculture
  • AquaPonics
    • See information compiled by Dan Burden, AgMRC Content Specialist and D. Allen Pattillo, Department of Natural Resources Ecology & Management, Iowa State University; North Central Regional Aquaculture Center (NRAC)
  • Green Houses
  • High Tunnels

See Vaage, Andrea & Taylor, Gary JD, AICP, Municipal Zoning for Local Foods in Iowa, ISU Extension for descriptions and zoning suggestion for these areas.

Composting Back to Top

Composting is one way to improve your soil and depending on the amount of space you have available, can be easily done. It can also be a great way to prevent unnecessary food waste from going to the Landfill.

The main issues you’ll want to be aware of are:

  • Heat: is the compost in a sunny spot, does it generate enough heat to kill harmful bacteria?
  • Composition: does it contain a good mix of brown, green and black material?
  • Air: Can you turn it regularly to ensure air circulation?
  • Nuisance: Does it smell? - If you’ve got the balance right on the top three items, smell shouldn’t be a problem.

There are all kinds of composting bins available in the market, but they aren’t necessary if you’re willing to put in the work of turning, and sifting your soil in a corner of your yard (preferably away from any public sidewalks to reduce eyesore and/or exposure to smells.)

Current Regulations  as of August 2021 Back to Top

Sec. 134-3.7.1. — Community and Urban Gardens

Areas that are managed and maintained by an individual or a group of individuals to grow and harvest food crops or non-food crops (e.g., flowers). A community garden area may be divided into separate garden plots for cultivation by one or more individuals or may be farmed collectively by members of the group. Community gardens are subject to the following supplemental use regulations:
  1. Unless permitted in the subject zoning district or approved as a conditional use, on-site sales of community garden products or other items is prohibited.
  2. All equipment must be stored in a completely enclosed building.
  3. The community garden site must be designed and maintained to prevent any chemical pesticide, fertilizer or other garden waste from draining onto the adjacent properties.
  4. On-site trash, recycle containers must be located and maintained as far as practicable from residential household units located on other lots.
  5. A sign must be posted on the subject property identifying the name and phone number of the property owner of the owner’s agent. The sign must be at least four and no more than six square feet in area and be posted so that it is legible form the public right-of-way.
  6. The property must be maintained free of tall weeds and debris. Dead garden plants must be regularly removed.
  7. The perimeter of all community and urban gardens must be fenced.
  8. Gardens that are accessory to a household living use are exempt from this section.
  9. Any animal husbandry shall be in compliance with Chapter 18 of this code.

Sec. 134-3.7.2. — Crop Production

An area managed and maintained by an individual, group, or business entity to grow crops

Sec. 134-3.7.3. — Nursery or Truck Farm

The propagation and growing of trees and food or non-food crops for wholesale or retail sale and distribution. Does not include on-site retail sales unless such sales are otherwise allowed in the subject zoning district. Typical uses include plant nurseries, the growing of vegetable and non-food crops primarily for local wholesale and retail sales.

Learning Resources Back to Top

Soil Quality

For PH identification, you can do this simple at-home test:
The Pantry pH Test for Soil Acidity or Alkalinity
  1. Place 2 tablespoons of soil in a bowl and add ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, you have alkaline soil.
  2. Place 2 tablespoons of soil in a bowl and moisten it with distilled water. Add ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, you have acidic soil.
Sources and Impacts of Contaminants: Testing, Remediation and Best Management Practices:

Iowa labs where you can ship soil to be tested:

VAS Labs
1532 DeWitt St.
PO Box 247
Ellsworth, IA 50075-0247
(515) 836-4444
Frotier Labs Inc.
3031 Hwy 122 E
Clear Lake, IA 50428
(641) 357-7645
Waypoint Analytical Iowa, Inc.
111 Linn St.
Atlantic, IA 50022
(901) 213-2400
Soil nutrient testing:


For constructing and managing compost piles, see:

You can also find good, reliable information on all kinds of composting, including home composting, small scale composting, composting for schools and other institutions, and vermiculture (worm farming) see:

Opportunities  Land Access Back to Top