Healing City Soils (HCS) is a collaborative program between the Compost Education Centre, Danielle Stevenson, and Royal Roads University. HCS aims to provide accessible education about soil health to all communities on Southern Vancouver Island. At this time, we are not taking on new applicants. Please keep an eye on this page, or subscribe to our newsletter The Latest Dirt to find out when applications open up.

Healing City Soils:  The Ground Beneath Our Feet

In 2020 Executive Director Alexis Hogan and Healing City Soils (HCS) program creator and technical advisor Danielle Stevenson broadened the scope of the CEC’s Healing City Soils program to include a pilot: DIY remediation of heavy metals in backyard gardens.

Healing City Soils is a program of CEC that offers free heavy metal soil testing for gardeners or people who want to grow food through a collaboration with Royal Roads University Bachelor of Environmental Science Program (RRU).  Following the free testing, the CEC provides free follow up workshops on how to reduce risk of exposure to heavy metal contaminants and soils and how to interpret participants lab results.  Because of COVID, CEC was not able to collaborate with RRU in 2020 or 2021 for the safety of the students, whose work on HCS often happens in a laboratory and in the field.  This fallow period of the program allowed Stevenson and Hogan, with support from 2019 RRU student team member Martyna Tomczynski, to begin work addressing the removal of low-to-moderate levels of heavy metal contamination in backyards, community gardens and traditional food and medicine harvesting sites.  The goal of this pilot is to develop plain language resources and skill building workshops to support community member’s DIY phyto (plant) and myco (fungi) remediation of heavy metals in low-to-moderately contaminated soils.


In working on how to safely remove heavy metals from soil, using native and non-native plants, fungi (phyto and myco-remediation) and compost, the CEC developed a partnership with the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Foundation who have been actively restoring the first village site of the W̱SÁNEĆ people, SṈIDȻEȽ. In the early 1900s settlers turned SṈIDȻEȽ into the site of a Portland cement factory which contaminated the land and waters.  Although remediation has occurred in the seabed at SṈIDȻEȽ, contamination still exists in the soil in the form of elevated levels of heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic.  As the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ team is actively working with soil while restoring the ecosystem with native plants and working to remove invasive species, which have overrun the culturally significant area, remediation of the soil is an incredibly important aspect of this cultural community resiliency project. 

The HCS team has also partnered with a past HCS participant, a Capital Regional District homeowner, whose soil tests yielded high levels of lead contamination in their back yard.  Furthermore, the CEC’s Demonstration Site also has lead contamination from an old mechanic’s shop, which used to exist close to our office and teaching gardens. 

At these three locations, the HCS team—along with support from former CEC Education Coordinator Chris Dufour and two youth volunteers from the Artemis Place Cultivating Reciprocity program—installed three remediation test plots in the spring of 2021.  The plots were planted with varying combinations of native plants and one common food plant [coastal sage (culturally significant medicine), woolly sunflower (native pollinator), stinging nettle (medicine and food) and lettuce], and common soil amendments: compost and the mycelial inoculant arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF).  The hypothesis is that these native plants along with help from compost and AMF will be able to remove toxic heavy metals from the soil ̶ contributing to research about native plants in the role of phytoremediation, while simultaneously encouraging communities to garden with native plants for their multiplicity of environmental benefits. We included lettuce in this study to get a sense of how much metal is absorbed or adsorbed into plant bodies, which might be later ingested by those who grow foods as common as lettuce in their home or community gardens.

This work will be long term as we assess and reassess the development of the DIY remediation pilot, its supporting resources, and together their efficacy as a model intended to be shared with our communities.  


Project Background

Healing City Soils (HCS) is a partnership between the Compost Education Centre, mycologist, applied environmental scientist and HCS Program Creator, Danielle Stevenson, environmental analytical chemist, Professor Matt Dodd, and Royal Roads University Bachelors of Environmental Science Program.

HCS is about getting to know the soil beneath our feet, and building community around healing it.  Learning about the soil where we live also means honoring that the South Island is comprised of the traditional territories of the Lkwungen speaking peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the SENĆOŦEN speaking communities of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation, as well as the T’Souke and Scia’new First Nations.  At the CEC we seek to respect, honor and continually grow our own understandings of Indigenous rights and history, and to fulfill our responsibilities as settlers, who live and work directly with the land and its complex, vital ecologies and our diverse, evolving communities*.

Ensuring that soil is healthy is the first step to any agriculture project; from backyard growing to community and boulevard gardening. Urban and even rural soils can sometimes contain heavy metals and other contaminants as a result of our industrial past and present.  Potentially toxic soils can be a concern for food gardens as the contaminants may be taken up into or onto our veggies and fruits. Soil testing can be expensive, and results, often heavy with scientific language, can be complex, confusing or disheartening.  Any of these things can create barriers to getting more folks growing their own food and understanding why the health of their soil is vital to local ecosystems, our communities’ well-being, and to mitigating the effects of climate change.

The goal of Healing City Soils is to analyze the health of the region’s soils and create a virtual soil map of the Capital Regional District highlighting areas where heavy metals may need to be addressed before growing food. This map is paired with factsheets and workshops to empower people with the knowledge and skills to grow food safely or to heal the soil with compost, plants and mushrooms.

*Here are just three examples of many where you can learn more about First Nations communities where you live, see: The First Peoples Cultural Council Language Map of BCNative Land or visit First Nations Land Rights and Environmentalism in BC.

Finn, Jordi, Katie, RRU Professor Matt Dodd, Martyna, Kathleen, Healing City Soils Program Lead, Technical Advisor & Soil Toxicologist Danielle Stevenson, HCS Program Coordinator & CEC Executive Director Alexis Hogan


Free Soil Tests and Soil Quality Mapping

Through partnership with the Royal Roads University BSc. in Environmental Science Program and funding from the Royal Roads University Foundation, free soil testing for heavy metals is available to residents of the Capital Regional District (CRD).  Applications are open to those who are growing food, or are interested in starting food gardens or food forests on boulevards, in community plots, teaching gardens, school gardens or in their front or backyard.

From 2016-2019 we were able to offer more than 500 free soil tests for heavy metals. Soil test results from the first four phases of the project are now uploaded onto the Victoria Soil Quality interactive online map, hosted here on our website. This open-access map provides community members with a picture of soil health throughout the CRD.

On January 25th, 2020, we opened applications and began offering free soil tests to residents of the Capital Regional District, unfortunately these applications were closed due to COVID-19 precautions in April of 2020.  Typically, results of these tests are given back to participants in the late summer or early fall and will be added to the soil health quality map. Participants are chosen based on the discretion of the student teams from RRU and the project coordinator, both of which are guided by the student team’s yearly project objectives. All information is confidential and no addresses are shown on the map.

Professor Dodd shows RRU BSc Environmental Science student, Kathleen, how to sample dandelion roots for contaminant bioavailability testing.


Factsheets and Workshops

A key piece of this project is raising awareness; sharing information to inspire safe and healthy food production here in the city; and empowering people with the necessary skills to build the health of their soil if contaminants are found. We have released factsheets with information specific to Victoria about:

Soil Contamination: Getting to know your soil (including how to understand a soil test)

Best Practices for Healthy Urban Gardens: Backyard best practices: how to work with plants, mushrooms, and compost to reduce your risk of contaminant exposure.

Bioremediation for Urban Gardeners : An introduction to learning about the relationships between native and non-native plants and mycelia and how they are used in remediation processes involving low-to-moderate levels of heavy metal contamination.

Already had your soil tested? Send us your soil test results:

If you’ve already had your soil tested, please send us the results to office@compost.bc.ca so we can include them in this research.

For more information:
Contact Alexis Hogan: info@compost.bc.ca

Thank you to our project partners at Royal Roads University, and Danielle Stevenson of DIY FUNGI.

Project funded through the Victoria Foundation