Soil and Compost forum: Help for a plot with a LOT of rotted wood, glass, and coal

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Name: Meri Taylor
SD (Zone 4a)
God made dirt! Dirt don't hurt!
Jul 22, 2016 8:50 AM CST
I tore down a 112 year old shed that had no foundation. Just wood right on the ground. In its long history of use it housed, coal, corn cobs,and a lot of junk. The soil is very loose and full of the above mentioned. I moved in this past April with a lot of plants both dug up and started from seeds that needed to get in the ground. We have heavy clay here and the existing garden beds were neglected for 25 years so I couldn't plant in them.

I put most every thing in the shed bed. I tested the soil in a couple different spots and no nitrogen or potassium even registered. Not surprising with all the rotted wood in it. The Phosphorus showed as ok. I added blood meal and potash, dug out as much coal and other detritus as I could and planted. When my veggie seeds came up I gave them some Osmocote and a foliar spray with Miracle Gro. When I noticed some of the tomato and pepper leaves turning yellow I added more blood meal then decided to add more potash too.

In recent years I've done all my gardening in raised beds where I had more control over the soil I worked with. I'm an older single woman and don't get around as easily as I used to and this ground level garden is hard on me. I laid down soaker hoses and covered the bed with straw to help cut down the time I need to spend watering or on my knees.

My question?

Is there anything else I should've done? Or still need to do?

How often should I add blood meal or potash?

The plants are growing but quite a few of them seem stunted. Beans that haven't climbed yet while others across the garden are 5' tall. Giant sunflowers still under 4' tall. Peppers under 2'. Then I have the 6' tomatos and the squash climbing up and over my cattle panel arch and the Hyssop going crazy! So its not the whole garden. I see it as spots that didn't get enough of whatever I laid down. Or some plants like the soil the way it is.

I'm looking for some one to tell me if I'm doing it right and what I should do to make it better? I don't compost as I'm alone and don't feel up to it. But I want a healthy garden!
Name: Cindy
Hobart, IN zone 5
aka CindyMzone5
Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
Jul 22, 2016 9:33 AM CST
Meri - quite a feat to tear down that shed. Kudos to you! In all honesty, it's a guess at this time as to what the soil needs. Can you get a soil test done? Perhaps there are other contaminants in the soil that have gone unnoticed? If there was coal stored there, could there be excess potassium in the soil? What might some of the other "junk" stored in the shed consist of? I think too many questions remain to be able to recommend specific amendments.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
Jul 22, 2016 8:21 PM CST
When in doubt, add compost!

If you have more patience than upper-body strength, maybe the neglected garden beds could be resurrected with a few years of leaving a cover crop on them, and using the green growth to mulch or make compost for your shed-bed. "Lasagna-style" gardeners would lay down some cardboard first, to help suppress grass and weeds, and cover the cardboard with compost.

I found mixed advice online about coal possibly contaminating soil. I didn't find any source that seemed really knowledgeable, except for some people who said it hadn't killed THEM yet.

But one of those people said she had a "lots of pieces" from lead batteries in her soil , so she put her garden "where there were fewer pieces" of lead. I guess the lead hasn't KILLED her yet, but ask people in Flint MI what they think about that!

MAYBE some organization would do free soil tests when testing only for contamination.

But if you plan to sell your yard anytime soon, bear in mind that all states I've lived in REQUIRE that you disclose any such thing that you know to all potential buyers. Results like that might be almost trivial, or far below federal standards for toxicity, but it's a conversation you might not want to have with buyers who only hear the word "lead" or "arsenic" , and don't make a big distinction between "parts per million" and "parts per trillion".

Name: Meri Taylor
SD (Zone 4a)
God made dirt! Dirt don't hurt!
Jul 25, 2016 9:49 AM CST
Thank You!
Name: stone
near Macon Georgia (USA) (Zone 8a)
Plant Identifier Garden Sages
Jul 28, 2016 3:37 PM CST
Personally, I would be hesitant to grow food in that space.
Coal is toxic. the plants absorb the toxicity from the soil and concentrate it.
Maybe read up on phytoremediation.
And... there's no telling what chemicals have been stored in the shed over the years.
definitely would grow my food elsewhere.
Name: J.R. Baca
Pueblo West Co. ( High Dessert (Zone 6a)
Aug 4, 2016 7:38 PM CST
While I agree with all of the above, I think to address your initial concern you should at least try to dig down in a select spot just to see if there is a floor or if that clay you spoke of has been hard packed to act as one. In my experience most of the problems friends and acquaintances ask me about are due to material, such as scrap brick, extra concrete and even insulation dumped and buried during the build. Plants initially take off then weaken and die.

I can understand the feeling of exasperation and the prospective exhaustion of having ANOTHER garden duty, but, a compost pile can be built and ignored for a long time and the end product would be a boon. But in any case its good to be out and active, bringing life to an area that had none! Kudos!

Minnesota (Zone 3b)
Aug 9, 2016 12:42 PM CST
How much coal and glass?

Way back in 1963 when my father cut down our barn, and I do mean barn with haymow and door to put bales up in, in my area of town there were seven such barns turned into garages, they shoveled the dirt out to put in a cement floor and put the dirt into the garden.
One are of the barn was a coal bin; to this day I occasionally till up a chunk of coal.
Dad put manure in the garden every seven to ten years but the garden has always produced well, especially potatoes and roses.

I still turn up glass every now and then but have been working the garden barefoot for twenty years with no problems.
Kids marbles are another item I find more than rarely in both of my gardens and they are fifty miles apart.
Name: Elaine
South Sarasota, Florida (Zone 9b)
The one constant in life is change
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Aug 9, 2016 1:26 PM CST
When I was a kid, my dad used to pour or spray used oil on our gravel driveway to keep the dust down in the summertime. It was great and killed the weeds, too . ... . yeah, UH Oh! Sadly, until about the last 20 or 30 years people really just didn't think about soil contamination, and the resulting water contamination that comes along with it. My dad was a doctor with 4 kids of his own, and our cabin (where the said driveway is) was on the shore of a beautiful pristine lake.

So a shed that is 112 years old could have had oil spilled or poured on the dirt floor, along with any number of other contaminants that we wouldn't dream of either using or pouring on the ground nowadays. Especially on clay soil that doesn't drain well, and has been covered by the shed for all these years, all that stuff could still be hanging around. As someone already said, I'd hesitate to grow any vegetables in that area. Keep it for your ornamentals.

If you want quick, efficient raised beds have you looked at using Earth Boxes? I have enormous oak trees on all 4 corners of our property and have discovered in the past 5 years that the oak trees have roots underneath just about every inch of soil in the yard. So my wonderful 3ft.X 12ft. raised bed in the middle of the sunniest part of the yard is now completely overrun with oak tree roots and won't grow much of anything until I can hire someone with a strong back to dig it out completely, sift the soil and re-fill it with compost.

So, well I have been lured to the Dark Side and now grow all my veggies in Earth Boxes supported above the ground by cinder blocks. They're extremely water efficient and productive, and since I put in an automatic micro-irrigation system for them I can even go out of town and not worry. Once I've planted them and started the automatic system all I have to do is make sure there is enough water - increase as the weather warms - and wait to harvest. Not as much bending over to prepare them, no weeding, and harvesting at eye level are all huge bonuses.

"Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." –Winston Churchill
Name: Ken
East S.F. Bay Area (Zone 9a)
Region: California
Sep 13, 2016 12:17 PM CST

I have one question, maybe I'm reading your initial post wrong. The general soil on the property is heavy clay to the point where planting in it is currently impractical, but the soil under the shed is loose? Is it loose because of all the extra materials ground into it over all those years?

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