The State of Soil on Vacant Lots in North Omaha

Please welcome another guest Blog writer, Dan Harvey. Dan is a staff Soil scientist and farmer for OP, funded through the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation. He is leading our efforts of soil rejuvenation OP and he wants to tell the story of soil on North Omaha vacant properties. Enjoy...


That, my friends, is an entanglement of mycelium.  And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing, especially considering where we have been playing with the soil. Since the beginning of April, Chris Madden of Upstream Weeds and myself, have been designing and installing public permaculture gardens on four Omaha Permaculture lots.  For two months we have been digging in the soils of North Omaha and the diversity of soil profiles is astounding. 

Mid-April the city came out and did an 8 inch roto-till on designated lots.  Immediately following that one-time initial till we broadcasted tillage radish which grew two to three weeks before Chris and I moved in with shovels and rakes.  The gardens are designed with heavy focus and intention to efficiently manage water as it moves through the lot with use of swales on contour to both direct water where needed and to wick and store water in the swales.  This manual shovel and rake work has given us an intimate introduction to the diverse soil profiles present throughout the oldest part of the city.  Here is a soil-centric review of what we have encountered so far.


Top Lot Garden

The “Top Lot Garden” was first in the queue of lots for Chris and I to address this season.  A raw Northwest Radial-Abandoned-Burned-Down-House back drop sets the scene for this elevated, street side garden.  Having been gardened by a group of Karen farmers in 2017 and tended to in previous years by the OP group, the allotment had not been tilled by the city, but did already have a rough layout with some 10-20 raised beds, raspberry bushes, Jerusalem Artichokes galore, compost trenches and a seemingly struggling asparagus patch.  The lot has a back alley, drive-in entrance where the burned down house likes to cough up that which is left of its lungs.  The soil on this lot is equally as “rough around the edges” expressing its true self through compaction, acidity and a bacteria to fungal biomass ratio high in bacterial populations and low in fungal content.  These soils lend themselves easier to annual crops and bushes, though even this early in the season we are seeing with an abundance of living plants in the ground a heavy increase in soil biological activity.  This garden is going to be a perfect location to demonstrate the 5 year permaculture succession plan of establishing design and annual gardens, and allowing the property to progress in biodiversity while later, slower-to-develop crops (like fruit and fiber plants and trees) can establish and fill in over time.


The Military Lot is the second lot that Chris and I approached.  We sunk our shovels into the soil which had been tilled and seeded to tillage radish yielding a knife-through-butter sensation while shoveling and raking.  The Military lot is across the street from Benson Park and next to the original farm house for the area on the westernly dead end of Spaulding Street.  It collects water from a slope on the north side, funneling it directly through our garden resulting in little worry about water so far this season. The soil on this lot is dark and beautiful; I would say 80+% cocoa color throughout with high organic matter but lacks mycelial networks (one theory I have is it has had a consistent water content of 60% or more, slowing and/or preventing the growth of mycelial networks).  Peeking through the microscope I find beautifully developed fulvic and humic acids, and a dense population of fungal spores just waiting for the right conditions to start proliferating.  Though the soil is slightly bacteria laden we have encountered plenty of earthworms, which are a great sign and often a good omen to gardeners and farmers alike. These soils are supporting all vegetation (edible and decorative) beautifully with an abundance of nutrient cycling leading to bright green plants!  It won’t take long to build up the carbon content and organic matter percentage, and to grow a beautiful fungal network.  Whoa.



Third on the list was our lot at the southeast corner of 19th and Pinkney across from Kountze Park.  The lot sits at a bit of an altitude...I’d say about 4 feet above street level.  Attop this knoll used to sit a house that was taken down years ago.  Having received the same tillage and radish seeding preparations, we found the ground easy to manipulate with a shovel, except for when encountering the numerous cobblestone bricks.  Though I can imagine these bricks have added an abundance of nutrition to the soil over the years, striking one with a shovel can leave a ringing in your head that is hard to forget.  With the lot being slightly elevated above street level and sloping to the northeast, we witnessed some topsoil erosion during torrential rain events.  With these helpful observations we got to work making swales and raised beds on contour to hold and infiltrate runoff from the lot, and to retain that rich topsoil.

Stepping back and looking at the macro profile of this lot’s soil you can see a notable change in color and structure in a few areas. The highest area in the northwest corner of the lot has had it’s fine, dark silt washed out and contains sand and clay components which gives it a predominantly grey color.  To the south the soil has more of a burnt red color indicating oxidized iron and well drained soil.  There is decent small size aggregation here.  In the lowest areas the soil is dark black-brown.  In that lower area is where most silt and fine organic matter has settled and created a very rich soil.  The microbial profile varies all over this lot but ultimately is diverse and active.  Plants are showing healthy establishment, growth and color.



At the corner of 28th and Meredith Ave is where our fourth and final garden can be found.  The lot is framed with trees and bushes on the north, south and west sides, and we have a next door neighbor to the east.  The lot is mostly level throughout with a very gentle slope to the south.  The soil was tilled and seeded to radish and has shown excellent water holding capacity.  The area stays humid with such excellent wind block and insulation allowing for the lot to retain any transpiration which in turn allows soils to retain moisture. These elements in addition to this being the last lot we dug into have allowed for the mycelium to establish. 

This lot quickly became my favorite lot for the design and beautiful curves, the memories of the Integrated Life Choices group, the mycelium and the genetic seed heritage we planted.  Sacred Seeds gifted us corn, pumpkin and melons and we were able to find spots for all three, plus a whole bunch more. 


Soils provide and nourish us, but soils are so much more than that.  Soils are a reflection of the times.  There is a past, present and a future, and the soil’s future is one that can be, and has been, predicted accurately.  I feel as humans we must advocate on behalf of the soil to prevent further destruction.  Soil is where human life begins and ends.  Soil is alive and there are so many little critters and rocks and minerals and molecules in soil that love you.  It is a blessing to play in and love the soil  every day, and it is my honor to advocate for the soil, work the land and plant the seed that can help ease the stresses of sustaining day to day in this world that is currently operating on borrowed time.