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building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

Posted by hairmetal4ever Z7 MD (My Page) on
Fri, Aug 8, 14 at 10:59

My family and I are strongly considering buying a building lot, most likely in the area around York, PA.

Most of the larger lots we're looking for (5+ acres) are currently active farmland.

What are some things to watch out for? Most of the property will be landscaped in a semi-natural way - some large trees, etc. Some more intense/managed landscape closer to the house and front yard area, and a small area for veggie and fruit growing and maybe some chickens too.

My concerns are hardpan/compaction due to overtillage, high pH due to overliming.

What should I watch out for, and what should I do about it?

Would a one-time once over with a good deep chisel plow (I could probably pay a local farmer to do it) be a good idea to break up any compaction? Doing it maybe in August or so when soil is likely the driest?

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

Is a soil penetrometer worth the $200 investment I've seen (I'm shocked how expensive they are!)

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

i would talk with the county Ag and extensions offices.. for a general overview of the county...

as well as any specific info they may have ...

both should have general information as to soil types.. etc ...

i highly recommend... that you think about a property that has at least one mature tree ... the problem i see with farmland around me.. is that it is flat.. and completely barren of trees ..

trees take a long time to grow.. and large transplants often struggle..

try to find some farmland.. that abuts some woodland ... build on the farm side... but enjoy the wooded side... it is very difficult to build in a wooded area.. as the job itself can severely damage the trees long term health ...


RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

I'd recommend collecting a representative soil sample and taking it to a soil lab for a test. Contact your County Extension office. Get P and K and organic matter and pH at a minimum, micronutrients and other parameters if you can spend a couple more bucks. Then you'll know what you have.

My house was a soybean field and tested VERY low on P, which is a limiting factor in ag so it's often in short supply. Once I added enough P my fruit trees started blooming better. That's the kind of stuff you only learn with a soil test.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

Good points.

Ken - by "large" trees I should have said large GROWING trees but I'd plant small.

A lot of them have SOME trees on the lot, either at one edge or the other.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

You can remedy all but the sorriest of soils. If soil is being farmed,it should be easy enough to amend. My priorities for building lots are in this order, #1 location #2 drainage #3 trees (both,size and type) #4 soil quility. Each are important but location can't be changed,drainage can be expensive or impossible to correct, trees take years to aquire and soil can be brought up to standard in two years without great cost after it is tested as Tox suggests. Other than avoiding ripiarian which might erode when disturbed and barren land,there isn't much to be aware of other than a state Penitentiary next door.
My point is you will never find a place unless you have only one requirment or willing to compermise some.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

Trees I am mixed on. I want SOME trees, but not a completely wooded lot, as that limits my other gardening options (and planting trees *I* want) without removing said trees.

Drainage matters. I don't mine part of the area having poor drainage, I can made a bog or rain garden, or my own cypress swamp if I had that, but I need enough well-drained land for the house and other things I want. Partly depends on the overall size of the lot.

The only soils around here that would be unfixable are some of the scattered "serpentine" soils a bit NE of here - those I want to avoid (even if the serpentine barrens are kinda neat). Which I guess falls into your "barren" land comment.

This post was edited by hairmetal4ever on Fri, Aug 8, 14 at 15:25

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

I suppose it shows how different things are from one area to another. We hit 105F today where I am in Tx. My home is surrounded in large Oak and Pecan which afford shade all day. Mine and other similar shaded homes use about 65% enegry of homes with little or no shade. It also makes outdoor activities possible beneath the trees that would be torture unless there was an awning. Were we judging productivity of possible home sites in my area there are certain plants that indicate poor soil or places which are flooded for long periods during winter and spring. One plant that is common accross Eastern half of country that comes to mind is Honey Locust. In the Blackland Praire of Tx, large stands usualy indicate extremly poor soil. Point is that I probably wouldn't be a good judge of East coast property.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

Penn State does soil testing through the Cooperative Extension Service offices so that would be where to go for soil pH and major nutrients. They may also do other testing for contaminants for higher fees. In addition these simple soil tests may be of some help, although you may not be able to do them until you purchase the property.
1) Soil test for organic matter. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. For example, a good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains’ too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

Some sources of information that may be of some use would be the CES office, the Natural Resources Conservation Service office, and if there is one the county drain commissioner.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

BEFORE you buy the land, see if you can't get a couple of buckets to test.... make sure you wear gloves.... farming isn't what it used to be ;-: we've had to remediate a lot of "farm land" because of the pesticides and "whatnot" that contaminates the soil horizon you're working with with in "out of spec" status. You're local public health department can give you what "out of spec" is... usually in PPM (part per million).

beyond the contamination, PA is acidic soil generally speaking, my sister is in spring city and my mom is in coatesville... york isn't that far.... amish country... very silty rocky stuff in high need of organics. you'll be low on nitrogen unless they have the field on juice (liquid nitrogen or whatever). the soil will be heavy so you'll want to aerate it and fluff it up.... -> pine bark supplementation... plenty of water holding capacity with heavy soil...

hope that helps.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

The public health dept. may or may not do soil testing for pesticides, but in any case it would cost hundreds of dollars to do a complete suite of currently used pesticides, since they would require more than one analytical method to get them all. It is not like a typical $20 soil test.

Anyway, I doubt that ag soil is going to have such levels of pesticides in it that it requires wearing gloves to handle, unless you happen to be in a spot where there was a major spill, which is highly unlikely. I would focus on nutrients, organic matter, pH and soil texture. Just my opinion (as an environmental chemist dealing with soil and groundwater contamination and remediation).

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

we were hired to re-mediate a school site, because of pesticides used for tobacco farming.... in CT... it's not as uncommon as you think. If nothing else, put it on the seller. actually this has happened two or 3 times.

RE: building a landscape on farmland - soil issues?

the value of a penetrometer is a relative issue. I've had one for twenty years, and I've got to tell you, I'd not buy it again. Of all the tools and gadgets I've collected over time, this would the top of the list of under used and therefore overpriced.

But the question is not if I think it's worth the cost. It's if you do, and here's my answer:

You collect data as though you have an obsessive-compulsive hyper-drive to do so. Good data, bad data, incomplete data, it makes no difference to you, you collect it all. And so you spend a couple hundred bucks, and you have a tool that allows you drive people nuts. Contractors, friends, everyone. You will get to prove the significant compaction that occurs due the imprint of a person's foot. (It's closer to the impact of a mid-sized tracked skid steer or small excavator than you might think.) And nothing says significant statistical difference than data that no one knows how to interpret.

I'm also going to guess that you either know things that you aren't sharing, or you are an economist. Example: You know specific soil types in the area, so you are obviously fairly familiar with both the area and subject matter. You also assume a problem to be present, hypothesize a reason for it to be so, and ask how to address the assumed problem, all without proving there is a problem to begin with. Ergo, you must be an economist.

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