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Reclaiming a literal dump

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First time post!! Thank you for your interest :) I hope that "soil" was the most relevant subject area.

Here's my situation: partner bought this home, then I got with the partner. Now we take care of the place together. Partner and partner's mom talk about dreams of gardening the property and transforming it to be beautiful. I'm a huge nature nerd and desperately want the opportunity to play with the plants and the animals. We have lived here for a few years now, had been busy doing other grad school/work/life stuff so we only just started the gardening journey last summer.

The house sits on a little under 1/4 acre of land. The thing about this property is... the prior owners used this yard for a dump site. My evidence? Google maps images, neighbor testimonials, and the constant swamp of garbage that floats to the surface of the yard, everywhere, daily. It's a sandy piece of land, coastal, we've got dunes and the beach nearby behind our street, so all kinds of fascinating debris likes to surface to the top of the loose sandy soil, like plastic bits, glass shards, metal, roofing, disintegrating plastic bags, weird fiber poly filling stuffing stuff. I've found shoes (many, many shoes,) the leftover plastic containers from beauty products, a golf ball, plastic forks, metal forks, plastic tubes and metal poles varying from 8 inches to 8 feet in size... ok so you're getting the picture. It's heartbreaking and offensive, and you have to laugh so you don't cry.

It turns out the "contractor" house flipper who sold my boyfriend this place had hauled all the garbage out "that he could". And then trucked in masses of sand and covered the entire lot 6 inches deep. Yes, I agree with you - that guy sucks and some people who love my partner have told him he should have taken legal action. But that's kind of a big fight, we've been having a rough few years anyway, and it's hard to know where to go with that one. You may judge my partner for not knowing better when he encountered this sandy lot that something seemed fishy, but he's a city boy and didn't know better. Anyways, we're here now, so - I want to know, what can I do?

At one point, not long into living here, my partner's mom did a gardening project where she just kept pulling up debris. Filled multiple five-gallon buckets of junk while tilling a 6'x10' patch of space. Last year we set out with contractor bags to go on a treasure hunt. Which quickly ended. Very demotivating, very unfun. Would be good punishment for someone. I don't know what I did to deserve it.

While we've dug up parts of the garden and laid garden beds now (artichokes, herbs, ornamental perennials,) the niggling thought remains in my mind that this stuff isn't so safe. I am passionate about foraging, plant species, herbs, loving weeds, and I want to start to grow food. The guy next door suggested the previous owners leaked- if not dumped - all kinds of car-related fluids, and burned tires (I have a hunch as to where, based on the plant growth pattern, or lack thereof, over the years.) I imagine that some might recommend we hire an excavator and send dumpsters out filled with the topsoil, although at this point I worry nastiness has leached further down anyways. Maybe someone more knowledgeable can tell me about this (has the sand in the soil caught and filtered engine fluid and burn residue and kept it near the surface? How does that all work?)

I feel like I've looked everywhere for other situations where people have run into similar issues - and it's very confusing. Mostly the solution is, "pick up the trash!" Or call the EPA? I don't know. We intend to get the soil tested for heavy metals. I would love any recommendations about how to go about that from others who have also done this. I've seen people on permies referencing fungi that knock out dangerous metals. Where can i learn more about that?

Also (I probably know what you're gonna say, but) Can I eat things that grow here? How much can I eat? There's miner's lettuce everywhere, sheep sorrel, and chickweed which I get a real kick out of. I'm not dead yet, but maybe I'm taking stupid risks with my health to consume anything at all. They're so crunchy and green...

Some days, it's like the sad cat with a rare illness you can't help yourself but adopt from the shelter - even though it's got clear problems, it can be motivating to be looking at this challenge and feel like there's something to learn, something to gain. And other days it feels so out of my reach and out of my control, likely out of our financial ability, that I just think this is a good reason to move on from this property altogether. I'm interested to hear your opinion on this matter.

I think this lot is so interesting in terms of permaculture, right? Because there just is land that has been defiled, all around the world, y'all. That's why so many of us are here and trying to do this permie stuff. Can determined people with the right tools and information reverse this process?

And I also am prepared to build raised beds. That's my favorite, most attainable solution. We've had a landscaper tell us to cover the entire yard in landscape fabric to seal the garbage below. That doesn't seem ethical to me. On the longer term I want to know what else is possible.
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Kathryn, I feel your pain. Pollutants are EVERYWHERE on the planet. You have been "called" to this site. It's your journey and it sounds like you are up to the task of bringing fertility to this desecrated place. I hope that you accept this challenge and heal this land. What a story you will tell in the decades ahead! Like the recovery of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and endless other disrespected places, you have a specific opportunity to improve our unfortunate situation and inspire others to do the same. Thank you for your service!
By the way, over the past 28 years, I have nurtured the health of a similar "dump site." After digging beneath the sand cover, I found the timeline of trash - its beginning and end - as a 2" layer of glass, car parts, medicine vials, carpet scraps, box springs and so forth. The trash gets moved to the latest dump site in a neighboring village, which I imagine, will be a future home site for some future homesteader.
Beneath the contemporary trash, there is another slim layer of clay pot sherds, "worked" obsidian, and turquoise beads. Humans have left their mark for centuries. I have left my mark here too. May our work serve the land rather than defile it.
 
pollinator
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Hi Kathryn, and welcome to permies! I admire your willingness to be a steward of a piece of land with a history of abuse, and think that it was lucky to find you.

If you're able to get a soil test done, by all means do so. The things you are probably most concerned are heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Next you might want to know about persistent organic contaminants like used motor oil, diesel, solvents, paints, etc. Then there are the nasties like asbestos, which could be an issue if the place was used as a dump for old building materals.

As far as remediation goes, there are a few things you can try. Mycoremediation with fungus can clean up organics. Bioaccumulators such as sunflowers will take up heavy metals, but then you need to cut them down and take them "away" once they have stored the toxins they took out of the soil. You can also build raised beds with barriers to prevent plants rooting in the contaminated soil if you really want to grow things but are uncomfortable with what they might absorb.

I'd probably go with a staged approach, depending on what the tests came back with. Raised beds and containers to allow you to start growing, and rotations of wood chips with mushroom slurry followed by crops of sunflowers to be carted off to some place that is set up for that sort of thing. After a rotation, get another round of tests on the soil to see what effects you've made and if you're happy with the results, start planting in it and move your remediation efforts to another part of the section
 
pollinator
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I personally wouldn't be *to* worried. It sounds scary and worrying, but most of the stuff you describe is pretty biologically inert (plastics, glass, metal etc...). They are annoying, but you can just lift them out when you find them. Many other things, like oil based compounds, break down biologically with some fungal species. You can encourage that process by ensuring that the soil has lots of organic material - I'd be looking to import large quantities of woodchips and top mulching the whole area.

Someone above mentioned that the persistent nasties you might be concerned about are heavy metals, which can remain in the soil. I don't think you need to be particularly concerned, as it sounds like you have mostly domestic waste rather than industrial, but a soil test would probably put your mind at rest.

Without seeing the land, my strategy would probably be to hire/borrow/buy a small tiller and use it to turn the top 12" of soil, working section by section of the garden. This will dislodge those hidden nasties so that you can be pretty sure that those sections are clear of shallow debris. Then top dress with woodchips. If you can innoculate those chips with something like King Stropharia that would be even better - they will break the chips down fast and build organic  material in the soil.

Short term; if you want to grow stuff this year while remediation work is happening you could look at containers, or raised beds, with imported soil/potting mix?

 
pollinator
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Lets start with the good news, all pollutants drain out of sandy soil very fast, so you're a lot less likely to have anything nasty left in there than if you were on clay.
Now not knowing your property layout it's a bit hard but 1/4 of an acre isn't much, can you get a tractor in with a deep plough and preferably a rock pick? That would get out all the bits bigger than 4 inches so and turn the soil over so you could find more of the small stuff by hand. Failing that I would build a wooden frame with hardware cloth on it and sieve the area for each bed, horrible tiresome work but it will catch almost everything including weedroots.
As to areas that don't grow well, get a couple of soil tests for pollutants done, do at least one from where you feel is the worst area and also one from an area you feel is best. It will put your mind at ease if nothing else.

 
pollinator
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I think you've gotten some pretty good advice already.  I'm going to offer a bit about how I've tackled a similar situation.  

First, when I was a kid, just about every other home with a bit of acreage had a dump of some sort.  We even "shopped" the one at my great-grandparents when my aunt got tired of all the kids toys and deposited them there.  Unfortunately most of these have been buried with the out of site, out of mind philosophy.  My first husband's father evidently covered one over on the hill behind our house as there's always junk popping through.  My current garden area covers about a ten foot strip of what used to be a gravel drive and unbeknownst to me at the time, also contains what must have been their burn pile at one time because when leveling for the last raised bed I built, I unearthed plenty of charred metal and melted chunks of glass.  

Because of the gravel, raised beds were a must and they've done really well.  Lots of work involved and unconventional ways of filling the beds, but they produced food.  We typically have a mix of clay and loam here, but maybe this would be an option with your sandy soils as well.  
 
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Phil Stevens wrote: Then there are the nasties like asbestos




I'd like to offer  an alternative view point on asbestos. First and foremost it is a mineral based compound that is naturally occurring.  Second, fiberglass has only a slightly lower cancer risk if safety precautions are ignored. The difference between the two and why we can still use fiberglass is that the manufacturers did not lie to consumers and clearly labeled the product.  From that point forward it was just a money game that has gone completely out of ccontrol. Asbestos in the ground is a nonpoint IMO.

Dumping of building materials is a serious concern however,  if there are lead paints present.
 
gardener
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Welcome Kathryn.
You already have good advice here, so I just want to share this with you: my mother in law runs an urban garden on a slice of abandoned land in the biggest city in South America. It sits under high voltage wires, and my husband who grew up around the corner tells me people have used it as a dump ever since he can remember (he's 50).
Last time I went to visit she took me to help. It is full of rubble, tiles, glass, bricks, metal, toys, plastic, and everything else you could possibly imagine. Still, she and another dozen people plant and harvest everything from pineapples to lettuce there, and really have focused on trees. Dozens and dozens of bananas, guavas, citrus, and plenty of others. They pull out what trash they can but basically they just avoid root crops (they plant them in raised beds elsewhere) and dig carefully when planting other things.
Good luck bringing productivity back to your land!
 
Phil Stevens
pollinator
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Ben, your points on asbestos contamination are totally in line with my thinking. It's amazing the level of unproductive economic activity that has been created by people freaking out over the stuff. But in a situation with sandy soil that's easily disturbed and windy (like next to a beach) I'd still feel better if there was a layer of topsoil and plants keeping it from being liberated.

Something else I wonder about, if a test result came back with measurable amounts: Once you know there's a problem, you are legally obligated in many places to disclose it to the likes of future buyers, local authorities, and insurance companies. I would look for a test that did not include that particular substance in this case.
 
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