Thursday, February 9, 2012


So, we figured out the source of lead: The soil in the backyard. Based on our research, this seemed like a pretty unlikely possibility, just because the back of our house was added on post-1978 (so no external lead paint) and there is a concrete patio separating the end of the house from the beginning of the garden anyway. This, plus the internet telling us that lead paint is by far the most common source of lead exposure, had us convinced that we would find lead inside the house, but not outside. Of course, we still submitted soil samples to a local laboratory for analysis.

Things didn't turn out as we had expected. A lead abatement expert actually said our interior paint is in pretty good condition, and found only a few areas of flaking paint. He suggested another coat of paint on our interior woodwork, but found nothing to cause alarm or suggest obvious lead exposure.

Then our soil tests came back pretty high for lead.

Well, fuck. I guess that pretty much resolves that.

Why is there lead in our soil? Good question! We have no idea. Our property has been occupied for 120 years. While our neighborhood has always been residential, there was a lot of open space between homes until World War II and we don't know how our patch of it was used. As a city, Oakland has always been a factory/industrial town and there are, sadly, plenty of contaminated sites around town.

Really, it could have been anything - an old can of paint left out to rust, a car parked there in the leaded gas days, or leaded gas poured out or leaked on the soil. Basically, your guess is as good as mine. We don't know. No one knows. It just sucks.

There are different ways to deal with lead in the soil, some more radical and invasive than others.

But with Joe's elevated blood levels and my pregnancy, we just wanted to the do the job right: We are removing the top 10 inches of topsoil in our backyard, hauling it away, and replacing it with clean topsoil.

We found some (really great) workers who were experienced with this sort of thing and could do it right away. (One good thing about this economy, it turns out, is that it's really easy to find guys who are excited to work for eleven hours straight to completely overhaul your back yard, with two days notice. I sure hope they're home enjoying a beer right now - or sleeping! - they seriously earned it.)

Yeah, it's totally insane. And not cheap. But I want my child to be able to play in the backyard, push his trucks through the dirt, and not worry about him occasionally putting dirty fingers in his mouth (even after all this, I'm still a believer in the hygiene hypothesis). I want to be able to grow food back there and not worry about eating it. I just want to do the job right and worry less, period. My sanity: it's pretty important to me.

Meanwhile, dear readers, meet Joe's new favorite thing in the universe: The Bobcat.

Backyard soil removal.
After hauling so much dirt out, it's impossible to see where the yard ends and the patio/driveway begins.

Joe had a lot of fun watching the Bobcat go up and down the side yard from our laundry room and living room windows (needless to say, he was not allowed outside during this process; the workers kept the soil wet to reduce dust and we kept the windows and doors shut).

Bobcat driving by window.
Carrying out brush (a.k.a. our garden) from our garden.

By the time these guys finished removing all of the topsoil in the backyard, it was dark, so I don't have a photo of project where it stands now.

In the next few days, we'll be getting our giant delivery of topsoil and starting the job of filling up the hole out there.

The guys also demolished and removed the shed in the back of the garden and removed the tangle of blackberries and prickly pear that used to take up all of the space to the right of the shed, giving us another six feet of garden. 

And we removed all but the two biggest, healthiest, and nicest trees. None of the smaller trees were nice enough to keep or healthy enough to survive the loss of a foot of topsoil and associated root systems. (You'd never believe it from reading this blog, but I actually really like trees! Some of my best friends are trees, really! But yeah, okay, I admit, I didn't shed too many tears over our mangy lot.) We're really starting from scratch here. Two nice healthy trees - it's almost like a normal backyard now instead of a stunted orchard.

I'll say this: It looks huge without the shed. And strange. And empty. If we just filled it up with lawn (a most unlikely decision!), you could play catch out there. It's crazy.

So. Wow. I sure didn't expect to start my spring garden with such a clean slate! I'm trying to look at the bright side: The potential is limitless right now. I've never started a garden from nothing before. It's going to be a ton of work really fun! With quite a bit more sun back there, a few additional feet of garden, and ... er ... nothing whatsoever to plan around, we can really do whatever we want with the area.

When life gives you lead, er, lemons ...

So, uh, Meg, can you come down here and help me with the design? I hear you have a new edible landscape business in the works and all?

(Meg, you should know I'm totally and completely broke now. Yeah, sorry about that.)

Lest you think we're eating only ramen now, however, my brother Harpal cheered me and my pregnant appetite up today with some absolutely scrumptious Sriracha egg salad. If you know my brother at all, you know that Sriracha is his topping of choice, for everything from pizza to macaroni and cheese. Yeah, he puts it on Asian food, but that's so predictable. Sriracha egg salad, on the other hand, is anything but predictable.

Luckily, he took pity on his wimpy sister and used only one tablespoon of Sriracha for this recipe (I actually could have handled a bit more heat, but I appreciated his light touch).

Sriracha egg salad sandwich.
I'm no food photographer, that's for sure.

So we made egg-salad-with-a-bit-of-a-kick sandwiches, sat by the window, and watched the Bobcat drive by.

P.S. My blood test came back completely clean, no lead. And baby is doing great.


  1. Well I love the positive focus of the title: bobcat. I hope that speaks for your general state of mind now! I'm so very glad the problem wasn't inside your house, no matter how crappy the soil thing is.
    I think the blank slate has lots of exciting potential! Maybe you could just throw a heap of flower seeds our there to start with and have a flower carpet in spring?
    Mmm... Sriracha... it's our favourite way to turn 'kid friendly meals' into 'adult food' in an instant!

  2. You know I would LOVE to come down! =) I, of course, have ideas and am happy to help from up here though! I am just happy you all are ok and that you were able to get it removed. Rebuilding can happen over time and can be quite inexpensive. Blank slates are awesome!

  3. Glad everything is turning out ok in the end. Whew! As for your new garden..the possibilities are endless, how exciting! If you ever need some herb/veggie seeds let me know :)

  4. Wow! What a week it's been for you! But I'm so glad to hear that your blood test came back clean (apparently, you haven't been eating too much backyard dirt) and I'm glad they found the source of the lead. Who would have thought it's be outside?
    Here's to getting it all cleaned up...a nice fresh start for spring!


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