Nitty Gritty: Detoxing the Soil

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?
— Henry David Thoreau

Time continues to escape us. I had envisioned this blog post being written and published weeks ago, not writing the first sentences.  Life happens and it seems to be happening fast (yes, all you wonderful elders warned us youngin’s on this but yet it’s still a profound thought to us!).  As the fresh fallen snow accumulates on the patio amongst the white Christmas lights, I find myself missing the days of sun-kissed shoulders and muddy knees.  Fall of 2018 I have lovingly named “Clash of the Petals,” because it sounds cuter than “our life threw up flowers, bowls and moving boxes",” though the latter is much more accurate.  Not to mention all the ups and downs of preparing our old house to go on the market, then last week going back and tying up all the lose ends because… IT FINALLY SOLD! YAY!  Super exciting but leaves me kind of sad (and wishing to be a fly-on-the-wall come spring when the new owners are scratching their heads curious as to all the strange “weeds” popping up in those random dirt patches).  Countless blessings have created hurricane of our lives that we are just now able to catch our breaths.  With the dust of the holiday season settling and the fresh New Year, I am sure you all are feeling the same!

A snowy escape in early December at our friend’s  Drift Farm  just outside of Reno. Nothing like wonderful coffee, company and chatting flower dreams!

A snowy escape in early December at our friend’s Drift Farm just outside of Reno. Nothing like wonderful coffee, company and chatting flower dreams!

 

Back when we began addressing our new patch of dirt we were flirting with winter, which sadly was a mere month ago!  Thankfully winter held off for us, we needed that extra time.  Also, now, thankfully winter came because we need the moisture.  Anyways, after our lovely family trip to Oregon for Thanksgiving we came home with a list of realities there to smack us square in our noggins:

 

-  Thanksgiving has come and gone and we are officially and Christmas fun is quickly filling up our calendar!

-   Rototiller- we need it and it needs to be fixed…still

-    Winter is overdue and our garage has quite a stack of bulbs waiting (and not very patiently with those little sprouts!) to be put in the ground

-    Oh yeah, the ground… is still poisoned.

 

Wait, what?  Poisoned? Yup.  Fortunately, not like “enemy of my family salted our ground” kind of stuff but definitely not ideal for growing pretty flowers. 

 

This situation did not come to us as a surprise.  When we were walking the patch of dirt in the middle of summer with NOTHING growing, it was kind of obvious.  When our neighbors were having their yard professionally sprayed with herbicides, we went over and asked them the history of the weed management used on our property… well, we have our work cut out for us.

 

2018 daffy.jpg

After a few minutes of “I knew it!” and distraught as the crates of tulips and narcissi came in then had to be stacked and ignored. I gained composure.  Ok, not really, Graham told me to gain composure.  We sat down and researched.  There had to be a way to fix this and fast.  

If you would rather watch us in action instead of reading my ramblings you can do so here. As always, we try to pair up our video with a blog that dives into more of the nitty-gritty details for those of you who like to be overloaded with information!!

fistfuldirtwide.jpg

 Our Situation:

First thing I did: researched the protocols of weed management and the different types of herbicides or as the professionals call it “weed pesticides” used here in Nevada. Lo and behold, I found their whole manual that is used for the certification!  Woo woo!  See the thing is, you need to know your enemy (yes, the herbicides are my enemy… weeds will be for another day).  I also reached out to our state department of agriculture for some insight if our crazy idea would work, basically crickets but they did send me a link to a fancy fertilizer, which was sweet but not incredibly helpful. 

 

By the end of reading the manual (which would bore the socks off most people) and the little information we did know about our current situation with the soil, I was able to deduct the following:

 

The last treatment was in summer: June/July (according to the neighbor)

 This means we hit the six-month mark where hopefully photodecomposition has been helping us out by breaking down the chemicals.  With the patch being in full sun, this works for our benefit.  Spraying herbicides should be on a schedule of spring and fall (every six months).  

 

They used a mixture of pre-emergent and contact spray that was broad ranged

 As stated before, there is NOTHING germinating out in the patch.  There are all of four rabbit brush out there but they are dead and brown. This tells me, they were hit with a contact (kill on sight) spray and the ground was hit with pre-emergent (suppress germination).  Seeing there’s nothing growing, I don’t think they used herbicides that were biologically specific for broadleaf or grasses, it targeted anything and everything.  

 

Leaching is not a problem

 This is good and bad. The soil is clay and rocky.  The good part of the clay means that because of the lack of drainage, leaching of the herbicides going into the ground water is most likely a none issue.  Which is great for many reasons (who wants herbicides in their well water?) but also great because that means that the herbicide is more of a surface issue and didn’t contaminate too far down.  

 

The soil is dry.

 Once again, good and bad. Good in that the herbicides have been sitting on the surface.  Bad in that watering helps flush the soil out of herbicides.  I would take a gander that the soil being dry is more beneficial to us, the photodecomposition has been able to take place all summer and during this unseasonably warm fall.  The watering helps to flush the chemicals out but really, it has to be watered with the purpose of flushing out and clay soil does the opposite of flushing out, it wants to cling onto things with all its might!   

7.jpg

 The bottom line is this patch of dirt has been most likely getting inundated with herbicides for at least a decade, if not two.  It appears that in one small section there may have been animals (horses or goats) living in the space but that was long ago with only a handful of wooden posts left as part of their story.  Otherwise, this patch was simply an extension of the property that remained unused, which leads to the previous owners taking responsibility of the weed management. The time frame from the previous spraying should show some kind of germination but it’s also been an incredibly dry fall.  Also, since being at this new property we have also observed that like magic the tumbleweeds seems to always tumble past our property and into a certain corner in our neighbor’s property.  A little bizarre but they always blow in the same exact pattern!

The gem of a manual we stumbled upon states that six months is the magic time when soil needs to be treated again, since most of the herbicides used, breakdown in that time due to photodecomposition.  Some chemicals take longer and if build up occurs, the breakdown of the chemicals can take years rather than months.  They do suggest that the professionals spraying the herbicides take the “least aggressive approach,” for a number of environmental reasons and because someday, the desire for growing plants there is a possibility.  Basically: let’s not completely kill the soil with chemicals.  That left me a little more optimistic and hopeful that they used tamer chemicals. 

 

4.jpg

Nonetheless, we’ve decided to go in rather aggressively.  Sure, I could go on the side of “meh, the chemicals are probably broken down.  Let’s just amend and work the soil and get those bulbs in the ground!”  Trust me, that would be a lot quicker!  My instincts and the little knowledge I do have are screaming at me that’s a terrible approach that would not only cost me my investment of the spring bulbs but all my investment for the spring season and beyond.  Many of the flowers I grow are particularly sensitive to herbicides, therefore I risk deformed or aborted flowers.  I also risk the option of direct sowing seeds, which due to some of the seed characteristics or simply to save space, direct spring is a must! 

 Our Options:

What are our options (since we decided that just amending and not doing anything isn’t an option)?

 We came down to three options.  Let’s dissect these options (like we’re in eighth grade all over again working on wicked science fair project):

Option 1: Wait 

The first option of waiting and allowing the passage of time is not my way.  I can be patient but not that patient.  I have a lot of money invested sitting in our garage right now.  Orders I had placed months before moving and purchasing a new home/property was even a hope (let alone a reality).  Plus, those bulbs kick off my selling season, allowing me to begin subscriptions and events come April.  Not to mention, this approach could potentially take YEARS and cost us many seasons.  We are an active flower farm, without flowers or farming, what’s the point in transitioning to a larger property?  Along with the passage of time comes many different permaculture techniques that can be applied such as lasagna (that’s a pretty popular one).  Instead of working in the existing soil I could begin building up the soil with organic matter and nurture beneficial microbes and worms that will digest the toxins.  That would take a TON of material and time, with winter just around the corner it would slow this process down even more.  I respect those who take the time to build up the soil but this approach is not a realistic for an active business at this exact moment, though we will still be introducing beneficial microbes and worms but I need growing space NOW! So…NEXT!

Option 2: Remove contaminated soil/raised beds 

The second option of removing the contaminated soil and replacing it is fairly good option… if I was rich with a fancy tractor.  Really, it’s a solid choice and one many farmers have done.  Within our circumstances, it’s simply out of our budget and abilities.  Not to mention, the top soil is pricey and can come to us contaminated as well (which could cost us much more in the long run, always going back to that long run concept).  With this option, I clump building and growing in raised beds. There are many pros to raised beds but the downsides for our situation are greater.  Raised beds take more space, leaving me with less growing area, it’s a significant investment building the beds and purchasing the soil to fill them. Growing in raised beds is similar to container growing which subjects the plants to greater temperature swings than if they are planted into the earth.  Though this approach is a quicker option than the first one, it is quite expensive. So…NEXT!

Option 3: Absorb toxins 

The third option of absorbing the toxins sounded too good to be true.  What does this mean?  What could absorb toxins?  If you’ve read my blog post Nitty Gritty: Coexisting with Beneficial Pollinators, you would know what a huge fan of activated charcoal I am.  I’m one of those crunchy moms who keeps it on hand for bug bites and if any of my beloved family complains of stomach aches.  Honestly, the stuff just saved Graham and I from an icky stomach virus Emma brought home last month.  Take a few capsules and it will absorb all the ick!  And Voila! Taken enough and soon enough you avoid the pukes.  Heck, I brush my teeth every morning with it. Yes, I brush my teeth with dirt and may be a little whacky but I have white teeth!  I am a huge believer of activated charcoal… to say the least.

 

What exactly is activated charcoal?  Simply put its organic matter, such as wood, coconut or coal, that has been heated (or chemically treated but the kind we’re using has been heat treated) to create a porous structure which creates a large surface area for such little volume allowing the activated charcoal to magically absorb pretty much everything: virus, herbicides, chemicals, toxins.  According to Wikipedia, one gram of activated charcoal has a surface area of 32,000 square feet!  I’m not off my rocker for having such faith in activated charcoal, it’s used in the health industry for absorbing ingested poisons.  Gassy husband?  It’s used for as a remedy for that as well.  Used for filtering water and air, it really is fascinating. When you pay attention, activated charcoal is used in many ways, we just don’t realize it!  

Now the trick with using activated charcoal, it needs water to become officially activated.  Quite a bit of water.  If you don’t drink enough water while taking activated charcoal, it will give you stomach cramps and an awful dry mouth.  Have an itchy bug bite?  Activated charcoal helps but it has to stay moist, once it dries out it’s not doing anything.  I mention this not to give medical advice but rather to outline activated charcoal’s behavior (it is important to understand for applying it to landscape).  Also, activated charcoal is not selective as to what it absorbs.  Have a headache and a stomach ache after some bad sushi? Well, if you took pain reliever and turned around and took activated charcoal in fear of food poisoning, that pain reliever is useless because the pain reliever was just absorbed by the activated charcoal. Now I’m not a doctor, so I highly recommend doing your own research when using it for health reasons in any way, I’m just sharing my experience.

 The Chosen Option

When a Google search revealed university articles stating activated charcoal as a remedy for chemical spills and such in landscapes and agriculture industries, we took quite the sigh of relief.  We found our solution!!

We went into as believers in activated charcoal, it has healed us many times over the years, it makes sense that it can heal the ground too! Of course the companies selling the bulk bags of activated charcoal had their claims of this magic black powder.  If I didn’t already have experience with activated charcoal on a personal level, I would believe their statements too bold.  

While reading through that glorious (and boring) manual I previously mentioned: “Weed Pest Control” manual on the Nevada Department of Agriculture, I got to page 52.  Page 52 covers “pesticide spills” (they refer to the herbicides as pesticides). They go through all the correct ways of handling spills and proper disposal.  When discussing spills, they are meaning on a significant level (like I knocked over my whole container!). At the time of the spill, they instruct absorbing as much as possible with clay/vermiculite/saw dust and removing contaminated soil and placing in a drum labeled “toxic.”  On Page 53 they begin to discuss remedies for small spills: activated charcoal.  They go into pretty good detail of the properties of activated charcoal, how to use it and when it is appropriate as a remedy.  

After reading it, I further deduced we were on the right path. Unfortunately, I do not know the exact concoction of chemicals used.  I do know it was our county who had been handling the weed management on our property and the last treatment was during the summer.  After talking to someone who has sprayed for the county, I have also learned that the most common herbicide used is a generic brand of Roundup, which is glyphosate.  This is fantastic!  Activated charcoal can handle glyphosate.  Along with the glyphosate, I am suspecting they used in conjunction with at least one other herbicide.  Either way, though professionally grade, the herbicides used should be able to be absorbed by the activated charcoal.  This isn’t the case for every type of herbicide used, which ones that it doesn’t work for are listed in the manual but overall, for a majority of herbicides the activated charcoal can absorb them.

 In case you couldn’t tell: we elected to absorb the toxins in the soil with activated charcoal.

As a side note: we are using it with the intent of absorbing remaining herbicides that are potentially in our soil BUT activated charcoal is not selective in what it absorbs. Through reading different articles and other people’s experiences using activated charcoal for agricultural uses I also read testimonials of its use to absorb disease/viruses. If you are battling with chronic plant diseases and viruses, this method may be worth trying for that too! I know if we come across that bridge, we will definitely be giving it a whirl! What does it hurt?

Gathering Supplies Needed to Apply Activated Charcoal: 

First, we ordered an agriculture grade sack of activated charcoal online, which I’ll provide a link to at the end of this post.  Then we needed a much bigger sprayer than my hand pumped one, making it officially time to invest in a backpack sprayer.  Also, there is no irrigation to that back patch yet so we went old school and bought an oscillating sprinkler and the activated charcoal needs water to well, activate! 

What you need: 

Agriculture grade activated charcoal

A scoop (we used a measuring cup) 

5 gallon bucket

Stir stick (like one given out when you purchase paint) 

A scale (optional) 

Large bowl (optional) 

Application Sprayer of your choice

Unloved work clothes and shoes (don’t be like Graham!)

Water

Rototiller or shovel

The Process: 

Step 1: Prep the area that will be detoxed

On a warm fall day, we began watering the first section that we are going to work on detoxing.  We won’t talk about the night I forgot to turn the water off and it turned into an fountain of ice so we bought another sprinkler.  In my defense it happened by 6pm.  Seriously, I forgot for two hours!  Not even overnight!  The look on Graham’s face.... whoops... and moving on...

Step 2: Mixing it up and putting it down! 

 Being against the seasonal clock, it’s time to act fast.  Once the ground is fairly saturated, it’s time to apply the activated charcoal.  The charcoal came with instructions from the manufacturer saying two pounds of activated charcoal to one gallon of water.  

Sludge.... we are making sludge!  

This is the ratio we went with, depending on your needs or brand of activated charcoal your ratios may differ.  For the best accuracy we brought out Graham’s fancy scale he usually uses for bread making.  We measured out the amount of charcoal and added it to premeasured water in the five gallon bucket.  Then stir like a madman.  A lot of stirring. The key when applying the activated charcoal will be constantly mixing the solution up, we don’t want the activated charcoal to settle and separate itself from the water.  

 Applying is pretty straightforward, we applied to the entire area and the black makes it easy to tell where we’ve hit!  Also, there will be looks of confusion headed your way by passerbyers walking their pooches.  You have been warned. 

We want a pretty good coverage and for it to seep down a minimum three inches into the soil.  Take your time during application, go over the same area with a few passes of spray, listen to an awesome podcast and zen out. 

Now, I must admit, I wasn’t sold on the backpack sprayer and the actual application was the most annoying part of the task to me.  The backpack sprayer kept clogging up. The activated charcoal basically becomes muck when using the amounts given by the manufacturer (and I may or may not have used slightly less than they said to use in attempt to avoid clogging!).  We weren’t exactly prepared for this.  Graham kept cleaning the nozzle but I’m not patient like that, I took the thing off and let it do it’s thing.  Which resulted in uneven amount of spraying and in the end, I was FIRED from spraying down the activated charcoal.  In case you didn’t know, even if you own the business and it’s your brain child... you can still get fired. 

Graham probably would have really hated my other idea... I was going to throw the activated charcoal like a puff of cloud and then hit it with the sprinkler.  I probably would have looked like a character from the chim-chiminee scene in Mary Poppins but Graham likes to play by the rules (frustratingly only on the things that I don’t want to).  Really though, I wasn’t a fan of the backpack sprayer for this task.  We have debated whether or not using a finer mesh strainer would help with the clogging issue, I’m skeptical and Graham thinks it’ll change the game! When we get around to spraying again, I will update you on the results of who’s right.  In the end I got the last laugh: Graham may have “fired me” but joke was on him.  Black oozed from the backpack sprayer down his back, luckily it completely came out of his favorite shirt (notice his costume change in the video?)!

5.jpg

 Step 3: Wait and Till

Wait for two hours, making sure to not let the activated charcoal dry out and then till it in the soil with a rototiller or get your workout on and use a shovel!  According to the manufacturer’s website, within two days the soil is detoxed and can be planted in.

 

Since we are not only against the herbicide build up in the soil, but soil that is compacted clay with no moisture and minimal life (if any), we are not going to be ready to plant. Working this soil is going to be much like building the house, it will not happen all at once but in phases. Detoxing the soil was basically demolishing the condemned building and clearing the lot.  Now the real work of resurrecting and building up the soil can begin.  Our goal this fall is to get it “good enough” for the spring bulbs that we have on hand but getting the soil healthy and happy will be an ongoing task.  We will send in for a soil test come spring and cover crop rows we can.  For now the game is going to have to be “good enough,” which is a game we’ve been playing for the last three seasons (either luckily or stupidly take your pick).

 

Though we are not working under ideal circumstances, that is life!  Nothing is really ideal but we get creative, research, get our hands dirty and then reassess.  I’m simply thankful that the damage to the soil over the years is quite easy to reverse. Like anything, with some work and love it’s doable.  We are excited to have completed the first step in turning this dead piece of patch into a thriving flower farm!

 

6.jpg

To see all this in action, be sure to visit our YouTube channel to view the video!  Like what you see and want to support us?  Be sure to subscribe.  Go on the flower growing journey with us.  Our video series is not necessarily a “how-to” series but more of a “how-we-do” crusade.  To go with each video, I will also have a more in depth blog post for those who desire a little bit more of the how-to side.  

Tulipharvest2018.2.jpg

 

If you made it all the way through this post: YOU ARE A CHAMP! Thank you for your support and I really hope this helps you in your quest of growing flowers (or any plants!) and healing your soil. We can’t control everyone else’s actions before, after, or around us but we can definitely to our part to put some love into our own little havens. Even if you aren’t in need of detoxing your soil at the level we are it can still help you in your growing journey, or to keep around for those “oops” moments when you accidentally knock down a bottle of herbicide.

I’m beyond thrilled to have this first step completed, making it that much closer planting time. Our SPRINGing for Flowers bouquet subscription commences in just a few short months. I can’t believe the amount of signups already, this coming spring will be enchanting for sure! Stacks of seedling trays are already piling up in our tiny greenhouse. Be on the look out because soon we’ll be releasing another video and blog series on how to successfully grow a couple of my absolute favorite spring beauties: ranunculus and anemones!

Jessica Tulip.jpg

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed the blog and I am looking forward to handing you some blooms soon.

 

           Jessica


 To help you along the way without having to go down the Google rabbit hole here are some Amazon links to the products we used in the process of detoxing our soil: