Soil Dilemma in Brooklyn

minami(6)April 13, 2014

I just moved to Brooklyn and have a rather large backyard and have begun installing some raised garden bed frames, but have been having trouble finding out where I can find top soil in bulk in the area.

Can anyone recommend me the best and most effective way I can fill the garden beds with soil? Are there some places in the area that delivers soil?

My only problem is that I live in a brownstone where my only access to the backyard is going through the entire apartment, my bedroom, a mud room, and then the backyard, so having a truck unload soil in bulk doesn't seem much of an option. Maybe buying by the bag, which seems like an insane amount of bags considering I have 4 garden beds that are 3 foot by 6 foot and 10 inches high :-/

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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Perhaps they can blow the stuff in.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 2:38AM
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No alley? If not your only choice is lugging soil through the house.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 6:05AM
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May have to do it manually by dumping the soil in the front of the house and then going through with buckets or some other container that will help lessen the amount of dirt that falls into your house/rooms.

At the same time, you won't be planting in just plain top soil. Some of the other things you can add to the soil would be baggable so that will be easier to carry through the house (or also deliverable just like the top soil)

If you have to do it the slow way, I'd recommend working on 1 bed at a time and get something planted in it, and then keep going through the other beds at least every 2-3 weeks and get additional plants in.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 8:29AM
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Ha-- I can just imagine your neighbors reaction to having a pile of soil dumped in front of your house -- which I assume would mostly be the sidewalk??

Is the soil in your yard good -- I mean Brooklyn was never a toxic dump the way Jersey City is.
Here's one idea: (brainstorming here)
you could simply dig up the soil in what will turn out to be your pathways (and plant clover or some other ground cover in the now bare pathways) and fill the beds with your own soil. Then add fewer bags (assuming that's the cleanest way to get it through your bedroom) of stuff to fill them with.

You could throw the sod into one bed that you mulch heavily and leave to rot (for next year) Then dig further down to add soil to the other beds.

You can start composting in one of those closed compost bins, and pick up anything you find on the street that could become compost or mulch (my daughter, in similar NYC area brownstone neighborhood, has found bales of hay for the taking after Holloween!) That way you'll be able to keep the soil level of your beds up, as it tends to sink from year to year.

BTW, things always seem to grow better when bagged or delivered soils are mixed with the native soil anyway, so using your own soil would be a win-win. For raised beds, you'll just want to add some "lightness" to the native soil by adding bagged compost, and later your own compost.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 9:09AM
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I was leaning towards buying the soil by the bag, but it's actually a good idea to have the soil dumped in my front yard - i have a rather large front yard where a truck can technically back up into to dump. and maybe wheel-barrow-ing through the house to haul the dirt to the back!

I do have bagged compost and my own in a bin :)

Elisa - No - the landlord warned me that the soil in Brooklyn has really high lead contents, and that he'd had the soil tested for a previous tenant

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 10:48AM
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Ah -- so the native soil idea is a no go.

Oh well, it was fun brainstorming.
And I'm more used to the brownstones with no front yards and steep steps up.

Do you at least have the "Free Stuff Sundays" culture, where folks put stuff out and others pick it up? Or is that just a Manhattan and Jersey City thing? My daughter has gotten half her furniture that way!

At any rate, happy wheel barrowing :)

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 12:27PM
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Ohh, there's quite a lot of those around here too! Luckily I'm on the ground floor so I don't have to lug the soil up the steps :)

Not sure, I think there's a free section on Craigslist, which I'll definitely check out, thank you!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 12:31PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

I would call around. I can't imagine that the local soil places haven't figured out how to deliver to Brooklyn. There are all sorts of interesting contraptions they can use. Those forklift operators can be like surgeons with those cubic yard hoppers. If you can't get a delivery, you can always rent a pickup truck and get a yard of soil at a time. Then you can park out front (haha yeah i know) and unload into your front yard.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 12:50PM
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SaltiDawg(Z6 MD)

OP: "I have 4 garden beds that are 3 foot by 6 foot and 10 inches high."
That's 7 1/2 Cu Ft per bed... or 30 cubic feet TOTAL.

Just a little over a Cu Yard... no need for "get a yard of soil at a time."

I'd go with bags and put each bag inside a clean trash bag while carrying thru your home.

Lot of work... spread it out over a few days.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 1:02PM
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I was thinking of just getting a cubic yard of soil, only because I'm digging some dirt out as well. Open to buying bags of soil as well from a hardware store. But that's a lot of bags considering the most I've seen sold in 1 bag is 1.5 cubic foot!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 1:08PM
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SaltiDawg(Z6 MD)

20 bags @ 1.5 Cu Ft = 30Cu Ft

You may want to pay a little more and get smaller bags... depending on the moisture in the bagged soil, they can get pretty heavy!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 1:25PM
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Hm, let's say the depth I need (since I'll be digging some dirt out) is 12 inches. I thought that to get cubic feet i had to multiply width depth and length? Not sure if my math is wrong or not but I got 18 cubic feet per each garden bed :-\

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 1:45PM
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All mature plants will have roots deeper than 10 inches.

If there was a soil test ask to see it. That is the starting point. Save yourself a nightmare and say no to the nonsensical raised bed fad.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 8:22PM
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I think I'm going to submit soil samples myself to get tested - but still might go with raised garden beds since there's an insane amount of broken glass and debris from when the building was gutted and renovated (all debris was dumped into the yard, then hauled out after renovation) which I've spent a couple of months clearing out. I still have been finding shards

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 8:29PM
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No wonder it's high lead. (Renovation is often about getting rid of lead paint)

About the lead levels -- plants don't uptake lead very effectively, so if you cover the high lead soil with your new soil, even if their roots go down into in, you shouldn't have any problems with lead in your food. If you think a root crop like carrots has reached the lead soil, just peel them. The biggest problem with exposure is handling the soil, breathing it, and actually eating it (what kids do when they play and then eat without hand washing.) So be careful when working in it! And yes, I'd ask to see the soil test, --even better to retest it yourself, as you say -- so you know what levels you're dealing with. There are some super high levels that nothing should be grown in, but that's (hopefully) unlikely for you.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 9:35PM
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>> OP: "I have 4 garden beds that are 3 foot by 6 foot and 10
>> inches high." That's 7 1/2 Cu Ft per bed... or 30 cubic feet

60, not 30

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 9:40PM
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meh to lead soil, get the test before you do anything, have been gardening here in Brooklyn for last 35 years w/o issue.

This post was edited by MoleX on Sun, Apr 13, 14 at 22:13

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 10:12PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Make the purchased soil go farther by adding in scrap cardboard (ideally on the bottoms of the beds); wetting it well will speed decomposition. You can also mix in such extenders as coffee grounds (often free for the taking at restaurants), grass clippings (provided not sprayed with broadleaf weed killer), and fall leaves (shred them by running over them with the lawnmower a few times).

You can cut back on the amount of soil you plan to purchase, because you don't need to fill the beds all the way to the top this year.

And begin composting. That will help you increase the depth of the beds next year without purchasing more soil.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2014 at 11:24PM
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Why not buy a stout digging fork and fluff up the existing soil and pick the glass and junk out of it? First rake the ground numerous times to get the flakes of paint up from the trash piles. I am a renovator - IME not that much comes off of old painted wood trim and so forth, and what leaches out of old plaster will be primarily calcium carbonate and sulfate.

Only after that take samples for testing so that you aren't getting skewed results from particles that could easily be removed first. Brooklyn has great soil compared to what we deal with out here on this gravel-pile.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 7:00AM
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Having dug bags of glass shards, pottery shards, broken batteries and the like out of my daughter's Jersey City back yard (and then limed it and mulched it heavily to prevent movement of the soil. Her test was 450 ppm), I can imagine what you're up against. And from what you you said, now I know why all that junk was there--from the renovation when they made the inside of the building safe from lead. Sheesh.

You might now be getting way more info than you'd even hoped for, but I'll just share some lead info so that if something similar doesn't come with your test, you've got it. (BTW, the UMass Extension does an excellent soil test for $10.00)

Low: less than 299 ppm
Med: 300 - 999 ppm
High 1000 - 2000 ppm

In low level, if nearing the 300 mark, to further reduce lead availability levels:
add lime to bring ph up to 6.5 to 7.0
add organic matter
discard outer leaves of leafy veggies
peel root crops
wash all produce thoroughly
keep dust to a minimum (mulch, keep moist, etc.)

in Med level: Children and pregnant women should not come in contact with the soil (maintain dense cover).
Do not grow leafy green vegetables or root crops in the soil -- use raised beds.
When growing fruiting crops directly in the soil, stake or use mulch to prevent contact of fruit with the soil.

High -- do not grow food crops, do not allow children access, grow crops in containers or raised beds lined to prevent roots from reaching the soil.

Good luck with it all!
And I hope your soil test comes back in a range where you can feel safe with simple unlined raised beds. :)

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 8:48AM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

450ppm lead? Wowzers!

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 10:54AM
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Was just reading through that - sounds like plants don't actually move lead into their tissues -- the real issue is the worry of eating soil dust. So while raised beds are probably a good idea (to cover up the soil a bit), they probably don't need to be all that deep.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 12:34PM
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OP: "I have 4 garden beds that are 3 foot by 6 foot and 10 inches high."
That's 7 1/2 Cu Ft per bed... or 30 cubic feet TOTAL.
Just a little over a Cu Yard... no need for "get a yard of soil at a time."

Your math is wrong somewhere.

3' x 6' x 10" (.833ft) is 15 cu ft per bed.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 12:38PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Yep I get 60 cu ft total also.

Here in MO we use 260 ppm as safe for "residential" i.e. houses with kids. I would think 10" is enough because as stated earlier the big issue is soil clinging to the plants. Root crops might go deeper but anything growing above ground will be OK. BTW higher numbers (like the 450 mentioned) = incremental increased risk. That means it's not a sharp line that you die if you go over. Same way smoking two packs a day vs. one increases the % chance of health effects. Pb is much more dangerous for kids and fetuses than for adults. Although I don't have a specific number for adult residents, the 260 is based on a child being exposed.

I have not found a lot of research yet on actual uptake into the plant and fruits. As far as I know there are no numbers out there for ppm lead in soil that is safe to garden or grow row crops in. I'm a state regulator overseeing contaminated site cleanup, so I have spent time studying the issue.

This post was edited by toxcrusadr on Mon, Apr 14, 14 at 16:11

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 1:18PM
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I guess the lead abatement was not done correctly, IOW, no tarps on the ground before piling debris. I believe it is supposed to be bagged before removing from the building as well (IME, no one ever does that). However, enforcement on lead abatement of residential buildings is effectively zero.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 1:44PM
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Hey tox -- the numbers I posted are from the UMass extension service, which does the testing and has a detailed flyer about it. Since you haven't found much actual research on the issue (safe lead levels for gardening), how do you figure they came up with these numbers? I think I've seen these #s other places as well -- now I'm wondering how anyone decided upon them.

I know one midwestern state (since I'm from the East Coast, they're all the same to me . . .) puts the "safe for pregnant women and children" level at 100 ppm, and most states have it at 300 ppm. Don't know how anyone came up with those #'s either.

I think a lot of the renovating in JC and NYC was done when awareness was still in its infancy. So, no tarps. Just trying to keep babies from dying from chewing on the window sills.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 3:25PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

It's not that there are no numbers at all, just that they aren't specific to gardening or crops. The way these are calculated is actually different from almost every other environmental toxin. The reason is that you can measure blood lead levels and correlate that to health effects over a period of years. We know how many mg/deciliter of blood is a safe level below which brain development is not affected. In MO we have counties (in the lead belt) where a huge percentage of kids have high blood lead. Guess what, IQ rates are lower along with a host of other statistics.

The model used for these calculations is called IEUBK (I forget what it stands for). States can input their own local data, so if you have more lead input from other sources, the 'allowable' level in soil might be lower. EPA considers 400 safe for residential for Superfund and brownfield site cleanups. MO uses 260. UMass is not out of line with that, they're just making recommendations on how to limit your actual exposure if your levels are high.

Research correlates blood lead levels to levels in soil, and one can assume that there is gardening at some of those homes that make up the thousands of data points collected over the years in lead studies. But there is other exposure, including passive ingestion of dust in the air and on hands. This is why the numbers you find are not specifically for gardening. Such a study could be done, but it would have to involve analyzing the produce for lead once washed, cooked etc., for its particular contribution. If you measure blood lead it includes all the other possible sources.

Actually I wish we could do this for every toxin, so that total dose could be managed, but Pb is the only one being done this way at present.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 4:33PM
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Tox -- Thanks for the explanation.

BTW =-- It's MInnesota that has set the level of safe home soil at 100 ppm

    Bookmark   April 14, 2014 at 5:32PM
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I plan to take a lead-abatement training course soon, as it happens. If I learn something regarding soil levels hasta luegoâ¦

    Bookmark   April 18, 2014 at 7:39AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Regarding the earlier discussion on all the debris in soil and how it got there:

Lead abatement, at least in recent years, has to be done with containment so the dust doesn't get everywhere. If sandblasting it has to be within a containment zone closed off with plastic with HEPA air filtering. Workers inside wear respirators, similar to the way asbestos work is done.

The way most urban soil got contaminated is from other historical sources including:

- Runoff from painted exterior surfaces. Pb is usually high right along next to the house where microscopic bits of paint flake off over time.

- Runoff or flaking from other lead components such as lead flashing or gutters.

- Burning leaded gas, coal, and in a few places, lead smelting (downtown St. Louis used to have a white lead factory - soil is still loaded).

- Prior renovation and abatement like scraping exterior paint without any kid of drop cloth or containment.

Once it gets there, it pretty much stays there and doesn't leach away very well. So, I would not necessarily blame the people who worked in it most recently.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 1:02PM
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