Cooking Healthy Soil at Prospect Farm

Working with our hands at the Prospect farm

I was fully ready to post a pie recipe I've been hanging on to in my photo bank today. I can't find that pie, and instead I will treat you to me delightfully disgusting, filthy Sunday of sifting soil, and trench composting at my volunteer run urban farm in Brooklyn! Prospect Farm is 5,000 square feet of my neighbor Tom's land. I have been volunteering with several neighbors to clear and cultivate the land. Or goal is to grow food for our community.

We have one big obstruction, soil! Our soil, like most Brooklyn soil is full of heavy metals. Lead is the biggest problem. Rather than build over the poor soil and pay to truck in soil from some healthy far away place we are trying to remediate our soil with compost. The idea is to bury a layer of compost that breaks down in the soil and lowering the percentage of bad soil with our new good composted soil. We don't know if this works yet, as Oren our master composter says, its all a big science experiment.

The Prospect Farm volunteers have been getting together about once a month to clear and compost in different areas. Today was round 5. We either have big muscles from months of digging, or have become a tight working group. 5 volunteers finished the job incredibly quickly in less than 4 hours. Here's a demo of how we get the job done or if you prefer a recipe for healthy soil:

Step 1
Dig the dirt (which is full of rocks, broken glass and garbage) out of designated area to create a 15-18 inch deep trench. The dirt is shoveled into buckets so it can easily be carried over to the sifters.

Step 2
Buckets of dirt are sifted over screens stapled to wood frames balanced on a wheel barrel. The dirt is pushed through the screen to separate the rocks, broken glass, and garbage from the dirt. The rocks are put into a huge rock pile in the middle of our farm, the dirt is dumped into a mound to be cover the compost trench at the end. We have found all kinds of weird garbage in the dirt. Lots of plastic army men, a jesus statue, and a Twix wrapper from 1992.

The diggers and sifters rely on each other to keep a regular pace. The sifters need the diggers to keep the buckets full, and the diggers rely on the sifters to work fast enough to empty the buckets. Often the diggers are faster then the sifters. We only have one wheel barrel and there are more steps involved in sifting the soil.

Step 3
When the trench is 15-18 inches deep it is layered with compost. The first layer consists of food scraps that neighbors bring to the farm and are collected over a month. The food has begun rotting in bins over the month, and smells putrid. The smell is worse than any normal NYC garbage, and in the worst summer heat has the power to make me gag. Regardless the food scraps will break down to create black rich soil.

Next a carbon layer is added to balance all of the food scraps. We are using shredded copies of the New York Times because the New York Times is printed with eco-friendly soy inks. We have used wood chips in the past.

Followed by a layer of horse manure courtesy of our neighbors at the Kensington Horse Stable.

Step 4
The sifted dirt is piled back on top of the layered compost or as it is sometimes called compost lasagna.
Step 5
The process is done. We tamp the dirt down with our feet. Its squishy but dry, and feels nice to do a jig on. The composted area is covered with plastic to prevent weeds from growing. In 6 weeks the soil will be ok to grow in, and in 6 months to a year fresh new layer of soil will be ready below the old.

So why are we doing all of this labor and mucking with wet rotting food in the middle of summer? The main reason is try to repair all the crap we have done to our soil in NYC. Its our way of saying, "I'm sorry NYC has neglected and dumped on you soil, now please grow some badass tomatoes." The other reason is its FREE FREE FREE! That's right, all of our materials are recycled trash, which technically saves the city hundreds of pounds of crap they don't have to pick up and haul off our pathetic island of humanity. Neighbors donate their food scraps at designated compost collection times on the farm. The shredded newspaper is reused from the final living New York Times delivery customers. The horse manure comes only at the cost of a smelly car trunk. All of our tools belong to the volunteers, and our hands do all the work. Its a pretty neat way to fix our soil. Believe that we will coax some excellent vegetables out of that soil!

Keep up with more happenings or volunteer on the Prospect Farm's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ProspectFarmBK

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