The Sacred Soil
The soil is a vast kingdom beneath our feet, home to giant and minute earthworms, billions of bacteria and microspiders and ants, and wise, ancient stones. Rich black, sandy red, or pale and gritty, it is in the soil that life on land begins. But not all soil is the same-far from it.
The first step to getting to know a garden is to meet and appreciate the soil. The health of a garden depends on its soil. Just as a good house needs a strong foundation or a healthy child needs a stable home, a garden needs well-balanced, healthy soil.
Soil is a garden's immune system. Since soil builds a garden, and the garden brings health and healing to the gardener and the land, we begin our magic-making and world-healing in the dirt.
A few summers ago, I prepared a garden bed that had not been touched for years, a plot of mostly hard-packed clay. I turned over piles of the dark, slate-gray soil with my shovel. The sandy clay, granular but compact and moist, supported a few worms, including two behemoth night crawlers. Bits of charred wood and carbon specked the soil, perhaps remnants of an old burn. It smelled like a dripping cave, damp and cool. I felt a sense of the soil awakening, seeing sunlight for the first time in many years. I also sensed a curiosity from the soil itself and a willingness to explore the co-creative journey of garden-making.
In another bed in another garden, I met very different soil. Pale and gritty, the land had baked beneath Colorado sun for years. Digging it was like scraping ice, hard and unyielding. I felt a mistrust from it, like a rattlesnake eyeing me askance. Beneath this top dry layer lay clay, stone, and bedrock, layers that would give my garden a hardy, determined energy.
Whether you have worked a garden space for years or you approach a new bed that you have never met, take time to get to know the energy, perand style of the land. This is the beginning of any sacred gardening partnership.
Getting to Know the Soil
In this book, I offer meditations for getting to know the garden better, and for sinking more deeply into yourself. We begin with the soil, the literal and energetic ground of the garden.
Find somewhere you can touch soil-a comfortable place outside or with a potted plant indoors. Sit in front of your plot of earth, and place your hands gently on the dirt. Feel its temperature and texture. Scoop up a handful, and look carefully at the soil, perhaps with a magnifying glass. Smell the soil.
As you interact with this earth, ask yourself how it relates to your own body. How do you express the qualities of strength and groundedness or of creativity and fertility in your life? Ask the soil aloud or in your mind what it has to teach you about being solid, about growing muscular roots. Feel any shifts in your body as you respond to the soil and it responds to you. When everyday mind-chatter slips in again, let it go, and bring your awareness back to your body and the soil. Take a few moments to still your mind and just be with the soil.
Expand your awareness of soil to include your entire garden, be it acreage or a window box. Walk through your garden, picking up handfuls of soil and extending all your senses. What do you notice? What does the land tell you about its history? How does each area interact with water or sunlight differently? How does the soil smell? Keep checking in with the sensations in your body. How does your heart respond to the soil?
Your hands? Your breath, your muscles, your mood?
Open-minded, openhearted observation is the first step in working with any garden space. Each garden is unique, with its own personality needs, and quirks. Just as you would in meeting any new friend, spend time listening and looking to know the land on its own terms.
You may wish to start a gardening journal, where you record your journey as a sacred gardener. Begin now by writing down what you discover about the soil. Add to your journal frequently, including drawings, photographs, and observations that are both objective and subjective. All of this information will aid you in working with your garden; testing the soil and feeling it with your heart are simply different ways of listening to the earth. Let your journal and your relationship with the land and its parts evolve like a poem written over time.
Draw a map of your garden in your journal, indicating what you discover from and about your soil, including sense impressions and soil tests. Record different colors of soil, size of the particles, water retention, and other observations. Which areas of the garden are in shade, and which are baked by sun? How does this change throughout the year? From which way does the wind blow in the summer? The winter? Do power lines cross the garden? Is there a nearby source of water? Does a neighboring tree drop leaves, needles, or fruit on your yard? What other elements affect your garden? Include the date of your observations, just to see how your skill of observation using all of your senses, including your "extra" senses, develops and changes over time.
You can also get to know your soil on a more "scientific" level by observing what types of soil make up your land, including its components, pH, and nutrient levels. This is valuable information in co-creating a garden with your land. What you discover about levels of nutrients can confirm what you sense in your body and can provide important information about the land.
Since soil is so complex and so important, an understanding of what lives there is crucial in creating a vibrant garden. It is also important to know what kind of soil you have in addition to having a felt sense of your soil's energy.
There are three kinds of particles that make up dirt: sand, silt, and clay. The balance of these particles determines how well the soil retains water and supports nutrients and microbes. Most soils are a combination of these particles. A combination of sand, silt, and clay is called loam.
To identify the type of soil you have, rub some moist soil between your fingers. Sand feels gritty, while silt feels smooth, and clay feels sticky. Now squeeze a moistened ball of dirt in your hand. Sand or sandy loam will break with slight pressure. Silty loam stays together but changes shape easily, and clay loam resists breaking when squeezed.
The soil type can also be determined by observing how well it absorbs water. Dig a cubic-foot-sized hole and let it dry completely over a few days (cover with a tarp if rain is due or your climate is dewy in the mornings), then fill the dry hole with water and monitor how long it takes for the water to drain. Sandy soil will drain in less than five minutes, while clay soil can hold water for more than ten minutes, depending on how much silt the soil contains. Silt retains water, but not as much as clay.
Ideal garden soil varies, depending on what you wish to grow (and what your land wishes to grow), but gardeners generally aim for what is called humus. Humus is a balanced loam rich in organic matter. It drains well but retains moisture, contains lots of nutrients, and allows the right amount of air and water to penetrate the soil particles. To create humus, regardless of what kind of soil you have, you need to add organic matter, which is discussed more fully later.
Soil is like a plant's immune system, and like our own immune system it requires plentiful and balanced nutrients. To determine what nutrients and minerals are present in your soil and which ones need boosting, use a soil test kit. They are relatively inexpensive, available at good garden stores, and are a fun science experiment. Test your soil at the end of a season, long after applying any fertilizer, manure, or compost to the garden. Scoop three tablespoons of dirt from two to six inches below the surface, taking care to not touch the soil with your hands. Let it dry in a paper bag in indirect sunlight. Following the directions that came with your kit, mix the soil with the test solutions. Your test will tell you the soil's pH, or acid level, and the presence of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. Some tests include other crucial nutrients like calcium. I will discuss later how to amend and fertilize your soil as needed for optimum garden growth.
Many things affect the makeup of your soil, from weather and climate to the history of the land. These variables determine what aggregates form in a given place, and also who lives there. Earthworms, bacteria, and other earthy creatures have a big affect on soil. Healthy populations of these earth allies mean a healthy garden.
There are 1,800 known species of earthworms. Most garden worms are one of four kinds: night crawlers, red worms, manure worms, and garden or field worms. Worms plow the soil underground by eating decaying vegetation and dirt. They bore tunnels in the soil, allowing the air needed by microorganisms and roots to penetrate the soil. What worms don't use for their own energy is excreted as worm castings, which are full of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium, all necessary nutrients for living soil.
Worms till thousands of pounds of soil per acre each year. By tilling so much soil and turning organic matter into worm manure, these little annelids improve soil fertility. They fertilize and enliven the soil just by going about their business, providing an invaluable service to gardeners. Their work affects bacteria populations, the porousness of the soil, and overall soil health. Cindy Hale of the University of Minnesota points out, "Worms are literally ecosystem engineers. They are at the base of the ecosystem. Their actions drive everything else that happens." 2
Worms are hermaphroditic, sacred to Hermes. The messenger of the gods, Hermes rules over communication, profit, travel, and the cross-roads. He leads the dead into the Underworld. Originally he was joined with Aphrodite, giving us the term herm-aphro-dite, god and goddess in one. Worms bring a gender balance to the foundation of every garden.
"Worms are redeemers," writes Amy Stewart in The Earth Moved. "They move through waste and decay in their contemplative way, sifting, turning it into something else, something that is better. 3
In what ways might worm energy help you in sifting through your own life and bringing about transformation? How might they bring nutrition and balance into your garden--the one in the soil and the larger garden of life?