Most of all one discovers that the soil does not stay the same,
but, like anything alive, is always changing and telling its own story.
Soil is the substance of transformation.
–   Carol Williams

I have been focusing on soil recently..the foundation of our garden.  I decided it was important to know more about what is essentially the most important part of the garden.  OK I should have studied soil first not last, but really I am not a sequential learner.  Never have been, and when it comes to exploring and creating I jump right in and discover and learn as needed.  So now I need to know more about soil especially if I am going to be more organic in my gardening.  When I was using chemical fertilizers I just relied on them to boost the bloom never realizing I was essentially killing my garden.

So I searched for a good book to help me and ran across Teaming with Microbes-The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  This is the 2010 Revised Edition.  Not sure what they have revised in the book since I did not read the original version, but the emphasis is on organic which suits my purposes just fine.

The overall theme of the book is, “If you are going to be a good gardener, then you have to understand what is going on in your soil.” Makes perfect sense, but for those with little time this may present a problem since digesting this book will take some time.  The first thing I learned (and I haven’t even gotten a third through the book) is that your soil is alive.  Now I paid attention in biology class, but we never learned about all the tiny organisms that live and work in the soil.  “If you are going to be a good gardener, then you have to understand what is going on in your soil.” The next revelation is that chemicals kill these organisms or “beneficials of the soil” as they are called, and reestablishing the proper biology of your soil is critical.  They talk more about this in the second half of the book.

The main idea of the first half is understanding the Soil Food Web.  It is fascinating as you explore how soil actually produces nutrients, and that healthy soil controls diseases so you won’t need so many chemicals.  They also encourage you to do your own soil composition test which was very interesting given I had just read about such a home test from Hanni at her Sweet Bean Gardening’s blog. She has created The Great Soil Experiment Meme.  After all it is important to know the makeup of your soil so you know how to amend it.

Soil is essentially made up of three parts:

  • Sand-small in size; particles from weathered rocks
  • Silt-smaller than sand, but similar in that it is made from weathered rocks; it is  the consistency of flour
  • Clay-smallest particles from chemical action on silicate-bearing rocks; absorbs and holds lots of water as well as silicon, magnesium, iron and aluminum; forms as a compound that is slippery in consistency. (sorry for the science but we have lots of clay and I found it interesting).

The ideal soil is loam which has equal parts of all three.  Good soil is 30-50% sand, 30-50% silt and 20% clay with 10% organic matter.  So of course I thought I would test my soil and participate in Hanni’s meme.  Our soil is made of that awful heavy clay soil you could make pottery from.  Since I have amended many areas of the garden, I thought let’s see what we have.  I tested the meadow which has a small top coating of peat moss; the veggie garden which is a mix of soil with compost, sand and peat moss; and the soil in the back of the garden where we get standing water (it is clay underneath, but lots of amendments of sand and peat moss on top).

Needed are a glass jar, 1 part soil, 2 parts water and some salt or tablespoon of water softener (as the book directs; which is essentially sodium or salt).  Mix and let settle.  So here is what I found…sand settles first, followed by silt and clay with organic material floating to the top.


back garden/meadow/veggie garden

The results show an excellent mix for the veggie garden (almost a loam); a decent mix for the back garden, but because of the underlying clay we will have to either further amend (doubtful) or create a rain garden.  The meadow is some sand and silt with large clumps of clay. It is the natural habitat for the native wildflowers planted there, and the early spring bulbs can tolerate it as well so I will only amend a bit when I seed it further.

So what does all this soil testing mean…well it means I have to read the second half of the book to get a better understanding of how to change the soil to help things grow more efficiently.  Of course that will be a later post.

Like the soil, I have found myself recently examining just below the surface of my life to what lies there.  What is the foundation of our life; what lurks beneath the surface that we are willing to look at.  It is not what we are doing, but who we are; the stuff that is so much deeper that I am examining.  There are days I find I just go through the motions; tired, bored, lifeless.  I know this is when I need a break from my routine; time to reconnect with the earth.  With the change in the weather I can now do that in the garden.

And like my soil, I need to keep a better balance to nourish my mind, body and emotional needs.  To feed the soul as it were.  I find I can do that best by meditating in the garden.  Do you ever find yourself weeding and before you know it you have moved along seemingly not even realizing you were moving.  You find yourself mesmerized looking at the bugs as they work around the soil and plants.  I find this is a kind of meditation where my mind wanders and ideas flow.  I come up with some of my best ideas (garden and life lessons) during this meditative state.  I am transfixed and transformed in my garden as I continue to work the soil; my foundation.

So as I learn more about soil and how to best work with it and amend it, I will post some further information and observations (part 2).  I have a feeling as the garden foundation is changing for the better so too will my life…for in my garden, as the garden goes, so goes my life!

…. if I wanted to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. …. Always, the soil must come first.
–   Marion Cran, If I Were Beginning Again

33 Replies to “Foundation”

  1. I have been a Master Gardener for over ten years and doing soil samples is our main service. In all that time, with hundreds of samples, we find they vary very little in composition and ph in our area. But the people we do these for are amazed. Funny thing, to keep the soil a lighter texture we have to add compost regularly. If not it reverts and the clay returns.

    1. It is funny Donna that the clay returns, but it sure does. I decided I should learn more about soil as well for the business and so I could do tests of soil for clients…fascinating subject though!

  2. I have clay soil and stone. I find that compost and mulch helps the soil a lot. But I have done silly things. I bought many packets of black soil and burnt soil to add to the garden thinking that it is for the better. After 3 years of doing the same thing continuously, I came to realize that what they call ‘burnt soil’ is actually clay soil. I have added 100s of packets of clay soil into my garden. Why?

    1. Oh no…I am so illiterate when it comes to soil which is why I decided it was about time to stop the constant redoing and do it right by learning more…there is a lot to learn from the book which is fascinating and not like a text book…I hope to figure out what to do right and fast since veggie planting is soon although I switched to an organic fertilizer tea in hopes that would help for now…will keep posting as I go through this exploration…

  3. GWGT Donna – that is fascinating! I am very much a novice in learning about my soil too…Donna, you and I will have to learn together… 🙂

  4. Donna how interesting, I keep saying to my self I will do the jam jar test but never have, I’d swap some of your clay for my peat if we could, at least clay has food for our plants in it, apparently peat is empty of nurients for most plant life,
    I clicked through to Sweet Bean and found it was last week but I might still get to it in the next couple of days,
    thanks, Frances

    1. Frances you should definitely do it and then link in …let Hanni know…mine only took a couple of days to really settle to see although you could see it within a day…I actually use peat to break up the clay….too bad we can’t trade some

  5. I haven’t felt the need to do the soil test, as I literally come across lumps of clay when I dig in the garden…

    I grew up with a mother and a grandmother who did amateur gardening (my grandmother perhaps on a larger and more serious scale, considering that her vegetable patch wasn’t dug in autumn; she had my grandfather go over it with a tractor and a harrow…), and I guess one of the things I picked up a the sense of what good gardening soil feels like. When I dig up a new flower bed I can feel that the soil needs a touch of sand and a load of organic matter to lighten it and enrich it. I never realised they had taught me this before I had a garden…

    1. Amazing how much heavy clay there is around the world….what a wonderful gift your relatives gave you to touch and feel the soil and know what you need…wow

      1. Isn’t it true, though? Good gardening soil has a certain feel to it; a tactile signature that is easily recognisable. Light, yet rich; fragrant with that earthy-yet-not-mildewy smell; alluringly fertile in a rather indescribable way.

        1. I agree…I know my raised beds have that kind of soil because I mixed it special…and you are right about the fragrance of good soil…then there is the rest of the garden that breaks my back to get through…

          1. I have that type of soil two places in the garden; the small “nursery” bed that I made on the site of the old sandbox and the rudbeckia bed in front of the patio. The rest of the garden still needs to be done, so there goes my back, I guess… It would be easier on the back to enrich sandy soil than to lighten this heavy clay!

  6. Great post Donna. I love how you link our soul with that of the soil. We are kindred in this way of thinking and feeling. Soil as a living organism . . . ever changing and nurturing life that reaches far out into the light is a beautiful metaphor for the soul . . . the core of who we are. Our gardens flourish or not depending on how we care for their ‘foundation’ just as we as people/gardeners/artists or whatever our life work, flourish by how we care for our deeper self. Make that part of ourselves heathy and alive and our lives will grow fully and bring joy to others as will our gardens, when we care for the living earth that it grows in. I too get lost in meditating with weeding. I have never tried this soil test. Interesting.

    1. Carol, you should try the test…your comment was like reading an abstract of my post…you captured it beautifully…I am honored to be your kindred spirit 🙂

  7. I have heavy clay, and I have spent years amending it. I know where it is good and where it is bad, and I am trying to compost more to amend the places that need it. Wish I would have thought more about the soil when we moved here, but at that time I didn’t garden. I have learned a lot since then!

    1. Holley keep amending when you can it will only help..I am still in the forever battle of constant amending…it is amazing to see how much clay soil there is all over the world…

  8. I have to add compost to my soil like crazy as it is primarily sand based, but this year, surprise, I’ve got worms. Its a wonderful miracle and I’m telling myself I must be doing something right!

    1. Jess that is so exciting to have the soil change. It seems as much an issue for those with sandy soil as with clay. Continual amendment.

  9. After two gardens in a row with clay so dense I could make bricks, here we’ve gone to the opposite end of the extreme, sand. It’s not beach sand, but our native mud stone that underlies a thin few inches of top soil, weathers to sand. We’re constantly adding organic matter just to retain moisture and nutrients. I agree that metaphor works for life too. Sometimes you have to work hard toward retaining a balanced foundation in life.

    1. All that hard work on the soil has pays off for a gardener…interesting soil you have…I am learning so much just through the comments

  10. When we moved in our soil was depleted, chemicalized clay. We have been working on it for almost 30 years (since 1983) and now it is soft black “gold”. What have we done? Added compost, used our ground leaves as mulch, and left the leaves in the woods and other informal beds (see my November 2010 posts on fall clean up and leaves on the lawn). I really believe that’s all you need to do. As an aside, I think peat moss is a waste of money, and it’s a nonrenewable, unsustainable resource—I never use it and discourage my customers from using it. Most days in the spring, I have too much time to meditate in the garden because there’s so much nursery work to do :).

    1. It does take losts of time and you are correct about the peat…I wish I had compost enough to amend at times but in a pinch I have had to use it…as my compost piles grow I will not use it anymore…

      1. Sorry, I don’t want to discourage anyone—it hasn’t taken 30 years. It actually really doesn’t take that long. If you don’t have enough of your own compost, many municipalities produce compost and give it to residents. That’s where we got ours. But all you really need to do is grind up leaves with your lawn mower and put them in beds. They turn to compost. If you don’t have enough leaves, collect them from other people or the side of the road. I really admire the learning process you are going through and how you are willing to share it with others.

        1. Thanks Carolyn…I love the idea of the leaves..we generally grind up the leaves with the grass and I spread it on veggie beds but I will start incorporating it into our other beds as well…I am a life long learner and by profession an educator so I love to learn…can you tell 🙂

  11. Just like the soil, our foundations are built up by our predecessors. Our lives are not our own but continuations. I find this a comforting thought.

  12. Taking care of good foundations is being in the correct track to success, regarding the time it takes to get there. I love carolyn’s seggestions on getting leaves even from ths side of the roads, it really mean using all you have to being sustainable!

  13. So true Lula…Carolyn is amazing and patient with those of us still learning…I loved the idea as well and plan to work hard to bring it to fruition…

  14. Thanks for the book recommendation, Donna; I’m flagging this post and adding the book to my list of books to read. I tend to do things in a very sequential way, but I think my sequential approach to gardening has been from the top down — first falling in love with flowers, and then learning to pay attention to foliage, and now learning about soil. I like a good nerdy science book! 🙂

    1. I love your learning makes sense to me..we are eventually getting to the soil at least…I think you will like the is a bit of a nerdy science book with lots of great info and pictures 🙂

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