The Soils of Cleveland
So, you’ve finally managed to find a site that’s unleaded. Now what? Let’s face it. The soils in Cleveland are horrible. Where there was once a house, now there’s backfill full of rocks of every imaginable size, plus who knows what else. Your first year farming, expect to spend countless hours de-rocking your plot. The pics below are from sites around town and illustrate this point. Besides rocks, you may also find bricks, sandstone sidewalk pavers, pipes, slag, carpet, wires, plastic toy soldiers, cement foundation, glass bottles from local pharmacies that haven’t existed for decades, sinks, fencing, and etcetera.
Now that you’ve broken your back digging up all this drivel, what are you going to do with it? The two options are to get rid of it or make a giant pile in the back of the property. If you make a pile in the front, a concerned neighbor will probably make a call to the city about how unattractive/nuisance-y your farm property is looking.
Probably, the best option is just to get rid of the pile. Of course, this is easier typed than done when you have thousands of pounds of debris (again, see pics above to quantify thousands of pounds). This is a circumstance where your neighborhood’s CDC can assist the farmer with obtaining a dumpster. This will be the quickest path to getting rid of that ghastly pile. That being said if your CDC is unwilling to help, you’ll be forced to get rid of those rocks little by little. PRO-TIP: Your empty 50 pound bags of fertilizer/amendment/chicken feed are particularly useful for this tedious chore. Farmers have reported having the cops called on them for disposing these rocks in apartment dumpsters. So, be careful in your disposal methods. A third option for some is to build a patio, herb spiral, or firepit.
Now that you’ve removed several cubic yards of junk out of your soil and to the landfill, you are probably left with biologically dead and highly compacted soil. It’s time to amend, amend, amend with as much organic goodness as can be given/carried/hauled/bought and delivered.
Most likely, the first step will be adjusting the pH, AKA the acidity of the soil. The ideal range for pH is around 6.5-7 for most vegetables. This is considered slightly acidic. Most gardening books reference lime to adjust pH; and, it would seem that this works for most of the world as lime brings soil pH levels upwards from really acidic to slightly acidic. However, most soil tests around Cleveland come back with a pH in the alkaline range (any value greater than 7). This requires the soil pH to be adjusted downwards. Sulfur is the best choice/least costly/organic option to bring these levels within range. However, it is slow acting, and it is best to apply several applications over the years versus all at once. Plants do not react well to extreme sulfur or lime applications. In this case, slow and steady definitely wins the race.
Use a Sulfur Calculator to Determine the Amount of Sulfur Needed to Lower pH:
Use a Lime Calculator to Determine the Amount of Lime Needed to Increase pH:
In addition to a high pH, it is very likely that your Cleveland soil test will come back with high levels of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. As a budding urban agriculturist, you may think “Score! Reduced costs on fertilizers!” However, these are biologically dead clay soils. Just because the nutrients are in the soil does not mean they are available to plants. This phenomenon is called immobilization.
So even though these nutrients are in the soil, you will still need to use N-P-K fertilizers during your first couple of years. You will need to continue using fertilizers until enough organics have been introduced to the soil to make the soil biologically active and the P-K are available to plants. This activity is ongoing and is a process that can be formally monitored under a microscope. It’s the work that Cleveland’s Hummingbird Project does in India every year. However, it does not have to be scientifically approached. Just keep adding organics. Think humus, compost and nettle teas, and cover crops to increase soil biology.