“Fairy tales make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” ~ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Note: urban soils and the bags of “soil” you buy at the local nursery are not real soils. Soil is the cover made up by different layers that we find in different ecosystems: depending on many interactions (time, climate, water, wind, etc.) and the parent material (type of rocks that originated the soil), the layers will have different thickness and would be more or less rocky, containing more or less from certain minerals.
This soil can have a higher percentage of clay, sand or silt and even the amount and quality of the organic matter will vary.
There is a reason you find different plant arrangements and ecosystems in different soils: what grows there would depend on the type of minerals, porosity, water and nutrient retention capacity and other factors affecting the soil, and they will as well interact with the soil, changing and shaping it.
The urban “soil” found in yards and patios is usually top soil and may be contaminated: it was most likely removed when the area was urbanized and many different things may have been dumped and buried on it. You may not find the same layers or “types” you’d find in a “virgin” soil such as a forest, a grassland or a meadow. For urban soils you may also want to test the toxicity of the soil or create raised beds in order to avoid contamination as much as possible…taking into account that contamination and pollution are now a world-spread phenomena affecting all our soils and watersheds.
The soil you buy from the stores is most likely a soil “made” by a company, farm or person and may contain different particles but will not be or behave as “virgin” soil, it is more of a “growing media” than a “soil” and its quality and value will vary depending on what is made of or what’s its origin.
All starts with observation: of your soil, your garden, your life and what you are made of.
When it comes to observation of the soil, we want to fully understand what we have:
- How does our soil look like?
- How is its texture?
- How is its structure?
- How is it smell?
- What is made of?
- Are there visible little beings, such as worms, beetles, spiders, ants? What kind?
- Are there plants of any kind? Which ones? Do they look healthy? (this will tell you about the existent nutrients: minerals and organic, Ph, etc already existent in your soil, as different plants grow better in different environments)
- Is it usually dry, wet, rocky…? Describe what you see and how it seems to behave
The questions above will give you the “innate” part of your soil: what it is and how it looks like, how it behaves, when and where…
You can easily extrapolate this exploration to anything you are observing: from your own emotions and character to your thoughts and behaviours. You can apply observation (and similar questions) to your house and each one of the systems in your life (click here for more detail in exploring systems)
- What is the story of this soil? What has happened here in the past? Who used it and for what?
- Where does the water come from? Where does it go? How much of it stays and where?
- Where does the sun come from, where does it stay all day, in what corners and for how long (count all seasons as it changes)…
- What provides shade to it?
- Are there animals around? What is their behaviour? Do they poop and pee on this soil?
- What grows on it without your intervention?
- What is it currently used for? What are the futures uses of it?
- You can buy a pH pen or pH test strips (the pen will give you more accurate results) and do a soil test at least once a year (better once every six months). For accurate results, take a sample of soil from different corners of your garden/land…if it is very big, you may want to test different areas to see what grows better in each
- You can also test the “texture” of the soil by touching and feeling it and the structure by using the ball, worm/sausage and bow methods and looking at how mouldable the mix is: if you can manage to make a stable ball or worm and throw them to the air and it won’t easily break, you are dealing with clay-type soil, easily breakable would be a sandy soil and so on…
- You can also pay for a full test but it is expensive and may be unnecessary if you just want to garden in a small space: this will give you an idea of what nutrients are present and in what percentage but not how to fix the problem