Soil and Rock for Gardens & Landscaping

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Archived Q&A and Reviews



Is the soil safe for gardening?

April 2009

Hi. We rent a house in West Berkeley, and I've not been allowed (by my husband) to plant food crops in our yard ever since I got pregnant and a couple of friends suggested that due to my west Berkeley location, the soil may be contaminated with heavy metals. We have a toddler whom I am still nursing, so the prohibition against eating food from that soil remains. I have bought a few wine barrels and potting soil, but that is an expensive way to garden, and I really just want to put stuff in the ground. Also, my toddler plays in the dirt, and I really don't want to teach her that doing so is ''dangerous.'' So my questions are 1) What is the likelihood of my soil being dangerously contaminated for food consumption or just playing in the dirt, and 2) How can I test it? want to garden

Unluckily, a lot of the soil here does have lead. But I am also not willing to give up all gardening and playing in the dirt. You can have it tested for free by the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (510-567-8282). I am pretty sure the owners need to request it. They check the house and you can request they check the soil. Ingesting high lead soil is NOT good - but you have to decide what level of precaution to take (no playing in the dirt; play, but wash hands, clothes, etc before putting fingers in mouth, eating, etc). Gardening has a few considerations: lead does not get into some parts of the plant (fruit/seed plants like tomatoes, peas, etc are fine - leaf veggies might be more problematic, but I am not sure - root veggies would not be good); amending the soil can reduce the lead level where you are planting; wash before eating with a water/vinegar solution to get the lead/dirt dust off the food. You can do some internet research and find much of this and more. another gardener

We bought an old victorian when our oldest was 6, and before starting construction had the Alameda County Lead Abatement folks come out and do a thorough inspection. They found one area of soil that was extremely contaminated with lead right where a lemon tree was, insisted that we stop drinking any lemonade made from that fruit AND cut the tree down. (It was a strange malformed tree anyway). All the other areas were not bad, but we removed much of that soil. They will give you a kit - here are guidelines. lead free

Yes, you can test your soil through a variety of places. The Berkeley Ecology Center has this list online.

My friends who garden in urban backyards usually garden using raised beds. This gets you above a variety of pests, while allowing you to control what's in the soil. It's a project, but you'd be surprised how much amazing produce can be grown in a small 3x5 plot. Gardener

A lot of places will try to charge you a lot to test your soil but that's bunk - There are two major firms in the country and test run from $35 to $100. Contact me if you don't want to end up paying for the middle man. Alice

I would have your soil tested. I also live in West Berkeley and just got my test back from Timberleaf Soil Testing (which you can find online). We have levels of lead and aresenic that are higher than considered safe for growing leafy or root vegetables, but it is not considered unsafe for fruiting veggies. The greatest danger is actually from the soil itself. It is suggested that small children do not play in dirt with 100 ppm for lead because they often put their hands in their mouths. Fruiting veggies can be grown up to 400 ppm (according to some), but you have to wash them very carefully with water and vinegar because dust from the soil is actually more of a concern than anything inside the vegetable.

The tests are a bit expensive, but I am glad that I found out. We are just beginning to look into solutions, possibly putting in planters or removing the soil. Hope this helps. Feel free to email if you have any questions. Laura

Rocks for garden - where to find?

April 2009

What's the best way to obtain large rocks to augment a rock garden? Not huge rocks-- maybe about the size of a suitcase, or smaller. Is there a place where they can be found and collected for free (ethically and environmentally OK, that is)? If not, where can they be purchased? Thanks, anon

I've bought all sizes and manner of rocks, from stepping stones up to the size of an ottoman, from Diamond K Supply ( on Mt. Diablo Blvd in Lafayette. Pretty reasonably priced, although delivery for the bigger ones adds up. Closer to home, American Soil ( in Richmond is also good and a fun place to browse. Both places have always been friendly and helpful with all my newby DIYer questions. Rock Buyer

Hi, If you want large rocks, I recommend American Soil Products at 2121 San Joaquin St, Richmond, CA 94804. Their number is (510) 292-3000. I do not know about the methods by which they collect the rocks, ie sustainability. They have everything from small rocks to very large boulders. If you order enough, they will deliver to you in the area. In the past, I have found some large pieces of serpentine by the side of the road up on highway 101 near Ukiah, but that was a long time ago, during road work, and I can't really recall specific location. Sometimes, when they make a new road cut, there will be big rocks just lying around, in an already disrupted environment. Not to be mistaken for the neatly piled rocks on the side of the road which are being used for erosion control and should be left in place. Since having a baby, I have just bought the rocks at American Soil. Unless you are planning a long day of scenic curvy rural highway driving anyway. Althaea

You can't take rocks anymore from anywhere without asking permission these days. But you can get a great boulder locally at either American Soil & Stone, 2121 San Joaquin St, Richmond, or at Acapulco Rock & Soil, 3251 Jacuzzi St, Richmond. They are only a couple of blocks from each other, so you can visit both easily. American Soil & Stone is bigger and has more selection, but Acapulco will have some things that American Soil won't. Sue

Good Source for Garden Boulders/Rocks

Sept 2008

We are just venturing into doing our own landscaping and are looking for a good source for some medium-sized boulders to create a bit of a retaining wall. All I've found are places a good distance away. Any ideas?

We like acapulco sand and soil in Richmond. DeAnna in North Oakland

Where to buy top soil?


Hi--does anyone know where to buy bags of top soil? Home Depot sells dark soil mixed with manure, but not plain soil--any suggestions? Jessica

American Soil has a variety of choices. Ruth

American Soil Products has all kinds of soil blends in bags or by the truckload. They are at 2222 Third St Berkeley, on Allston just over the railroad tracks. Michael

American Soil Products on Bancroft and Third in Berkeley has every type of soil mix you can possibly want. In bulk and in bags. Also stone, paving of all's a neat place just to walk around in. Go down Bancroft just over the RR tracks. It's entrance is on the right immediately over the RR tracks. JK

American Soil is my favorite place for all things soil-related. I've never gotten plain topsoil myself, but imagine they'd have it. They have huge piles of soil, sand, mulch, plant beddings, redwood chips, etc., plus a large variety of gravel, rocks, paving stones, and fountains. You can buy by the bag or cubic yard (they'll dump it into your open pickup -- I advise bringing one tarp for under and another for over your load!!), or they'll deliver if you're buying, say, a pallette load of rocks. Stones are sold by the pound -- I have a lovely large green and white one called Sierra Mist in my yard, which weighed over 100 lbs and cost about $40 -- 'twas quite a challenge to get it out of the hatchback but we finally rolled it down a plank ;> Really fun to visit, nice people. They're at Bancroft and 4th in Berkeley (going down Bancroft off 6th St., take an immediate right into their driveway after you cross the railroad tracks). Happy gardening! Nicole

The best place to buy soil is American Soil Products at 2222 - 3rd in Berkeley. Their # is 883-7200. I think is it where Bancroft crosses the railroad tracks, down by Aquatic Park. You can buy it in bags or load a pickup truck or have them deliver a truck load. Barbara