Concerned about my soil

freshfruitApril 8, 2010

I am finding various items in my garden soil that cause me concern about contamination. A glass shard, crushed Coke can, pieces of plastic, and metal wiring are among the foreign items I found last summer. I'm not sure if it came from the topsoil or the mushroom compost that our landscaper used to fill in the bed. My plan is to remove the soil and put in new. I cannot locate certified organic soil in our area, but I have found places that offer screened topsoil.

Does anyone have a recommendation on how far down to dig to remove the current soil? I have small children, and we eat a mostly veggie diet, so I want to make sure it is completely safe.

Any thoughts about purchasing screened topsoil?

Anyone used sweet peet to amend the soil? I don't have a compost pile yet so I am probably going to need something.


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Dan Staley

How far down to dig depends upon the builder and how far down they threw their trash when building your house. Impossible to say.

Very common in subdivisions. For many years.

So let us say around the foundation and out maybe two feet you need to go down if you're lucky 18" to ensure the gum wrappers, sunflower seeds, coke cans, tar paper, shingles, stucco, mortar, concrete spillage and overate, electrical wire, plastic, shoes, and old nails/wire/screws are removed. Then farther out into the yard if you're luck only down a foot or so to ensure the scrape doesn't have any Red Bull cans, wire, nails, screws, concrete forms, concrete overpour, hydraulic oil, brake fluid, air filter, tires, etc.

Then you can replace with screened topsoil that may have old rope, nails, plastic, metal, burlap that's been whoknowswhere, hydraulic fluid and other debris that made it through the screen and then you're good if you can live with that debris present, and knowing the source plant material likely wasn't organic in the first place and from unknowable origin, and you're good to go.


    Bookmark   April 8, 2010 at 2:42PM
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Thanks, Dan. So would you recommend pulling up the garbage as I continue to work the existing soil with compost? Sounds like the alternative of pulling up the soil and replacing still may not alleviate my concerns....

    Bookmark   April 8, 2010 at 3:16PM
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Dan Staley

Yes, fresh, take it out; when I had the landscape business I'd always pile the junk in one spot and toss that last, just so the client could see what was left behind.

If you are in a subdivision, you are stuck with scraped soil with who-knows-what in it. I would guess, depending upon your soil type (increasing distance with larger soil particles) that you would want to remove maybe 12-18" of soil on all sides of the food garden and replace as well if you are that concerned about it. The soil and critters in it should take care of it eventually. And non-organic soil isn't a show-stopper, as soil critters take care of most of that for you - that's one of the functions of soil, after all.


    Bookmark   April 8, 2010 at 3:57PM
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Are both of you serious?? Why in the world would you remove perfectly good soil unless you have real concerns about obvious chemical contaminates, like gasoline, oil, battery acid, lead, etc. Refuse - broken glass, old nails, bits of paper, soda cans - are not dangerous enough to warrant going through the expense of removing and replacing soil. Just sift through the material as you prepare your planting beds and take out the garbage and dispose of it properly.

And you are never going to find 'certified organic" soil - it doesn't exist or no one is going to the trouble and expense to have it certified. It is hard enough to find certified organic compost. Soil products - unless they have been amended with fertilizers or other additives - are by definition considered organic or naturally derived products. If you must, construct raised beds and fill with an appropriate imported soil mix but going to the huge expense and effort of removing and replacing a large quantity of soil is unnecessary.

I firmly believe you are overreacting to what is an extremely common situation with many urban and suburban properties. Improve your soil as necessary with organic matter/compost and plant away. If you have real concerns about toxins, contaminates or heavy metals, go ahead and have your soil tested for these but concerns about a bit of garbage or debris found in the soil is taking it too far.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2010 at 7:24PM
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What gardengal48 said. There is always refuse to be found in the soil near a house foundation. Little pieces of metal and plastic can be picked out when they appear. Small chunks of mortar and concrete can be ignored, unless you are trying to grow something that needs a pH below 7. If the soil smells like fuel oil, or you have reason to think that some foreign liquid was disposed on the ground, like battery acid, then that is another matter entirely, and the soil will have to be remediated or dug out and replaced.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2010 at 11:38PM
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zeuspaul(9b SoCal)

I buy certified organic compost/mulch and it contains plastic, batteries, foil and other bits of trash.


    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 1:28AM
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All soil is organic. As a general rule spending money on something labeled "topsoil" is usually a waste since you will get what ever whoever is selling wants to deliver to you. Seldom does the soil you have actually need something called "topsoil" but what it will need is organic matter to make what you have into a good, healthy soil. Even if you actually got what many people think they are getting when purchasing "topsoil", a Loam, there is so little of that that you won't.
Spend your money on things like compost, leaf mold, or any other organic matter you can get to mix in with the mineral portion of soil you already have.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 7:45AM
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Dan Staley

The (prolix) attempt was made to frame how much work and cost it would be to replace soil that everyone has, the purchased soil is questionable in itself , then point out that soil cleans bad stuff naturally. So much for the kinder, gentler Dan typing during breaks in project deadlines! ;o)

Perhaps the OP was overreacting, perhaps they are hard-core and serious about it, due to kid allergies or something - we have no information to conclude anything.

Nonetheless, I was at an elementary school yesterday teaching some great kids how to plant trees, and the teachers were talking about spring fever and antsy kids/parents/coworkers. Perhaps some folks are going cold turkey on coffee during the onset of spring fever as well.


    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 10:41AM
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Soil building is so simple from the stated facts of this basic perceived problem. Here are the steps to a beautiful garden while working with the soil you have in place. To go out and purchase soil is a craps shoot. You might be better off just working with what you have been given.

When working the patch surely remove debris when you find it. I am still following this advise after thirty years of gardening in the same patch. The last treasure was a 1940's ink bottle that was a common school desk use item. Not to many years ago we found a glass insulator.

Think in terms of adding lots of manure, three or four inches if possible, leaves and a cover crop every fall for the first three years. Think in terms of adding a bit more manure in the very early spring. The poorer your soil the better the use of Mycorrhizae will help you build the patch. Use low number organic fertilizer like 4-2-4. Add one of the trace mineral products: Green Sand, granite dust, lime or Ironite. Shoot for a PH of 6.5 to 7.0. Lots of good gardens grow nicely with a PH between 5.5 and 6.5. Don't get to wizzed up with numbers. You will get to the right place if you continue building as suggested.

I cringe when I see compost advertised for sale. I feel it is better to go into soil building and avoid compost you do not know and can only know what someone tells you anyway. One exception......a local nursery well trusted can usually be trusted to have what they advertise. If there is a garden club in your village join it and ask for help and opinion on sources in your community. Mushroom waste is a good additive. It is often called compost which it certainly is not. It is most often over half rotted sawdust and half decomposed horse manure.

Allmost anyone can be a soil builder supreme doing just these few simple steps. I started out thirty years ago on this property. At that time two five gallon buckets full of manure was all I could haul in the trunk of the car. We found plastic bag liners for the buckets. No car stinch! Then one day the lady with the horse stable sent her husband to my patch with a huge truck load. That was the begining of some serious soil building. What triggered that was an apple pie my wife made for them. It is important to work on realtionships.

I hope this gives you a little different perspective. I have practiced what I preach. Lot of poopers. LOL

    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 11:40AM
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If your situation allows, it may be easier to add raised beds over your current soil than to replace (or sift through) the soil you already have.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 6:31PM
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I'm restoring mine from I don't know what, 2 bad years, did lasagna style on it over the winter, but not by the book. I added 50 bags of leaves, peelings, lots of coffee grounds, tea bags, and guinea pig poop and litter. No manure, yet, I added sulfur to the first half of a 40x40 and on my way with 2 small compost piles, and I plan to make one pile every 2 weeks, planning to use one in about 2 weeks.

I don't think getting rid of your soil is going to fix things because anything laying under it is going to absorb infecting your new soil.

I'm no nothing compared to a landscaper though, but it sounds to the extreme. Most people don't mess with their soil and just add raised beds using a barrier in the bottom. You will need to water more frequently with raised beds, but they say they start growing earlier in the season.

Container gardening is expensive, but effective until you have your garden amendments in and completed.

If I were you, like I did this year, planning to do worse next year, I would put 5 feet high 5 feet wide compost piles covering the whole garden area, cover them with a tarp, maybe a hay tarp to let it breath, work the piles once a week taking the outside of the pile and trading places with the inside of the pile keeping it moist. It would take all year almost to do this unless you are adamant about turning every week and keeping it moist. You don't have to cover your pile, but it may blow all over the place. Always poke holes down horizontally and vertically in your piles because they need air to work correctly.

I am in a situation where I have no organic matter, silt soil, and it won't hold water as well, needs aeration excessively, so regardless of garbage, it's just worthless unless I build it up. I'm not buying a foot of compost to cover over a 40x40 area. It may be cheap, but not if you cover deeply and over a large area.

Good luck on yours, but I wouldn't buy dirt unless I want to avoid digging holes in my yard for houseplants for repotting.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2010 at 3:06PM
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