Working with Sacred Soil

In a garden, roots grow together to form a complex network, a web that shares nutrients, water, and structural support. Arthropods, earthworms, and bacteria live among the lacing of roots, which cradles stones, sustains fungi, and wraps around bones left behind.

Healthy SoilWe who walk on the surface of the Earth rarely see this dynamic labyrinth, but we are a part of it. We are a part of the flow of water as it slips up trees and whispers into the sky, as it falls on the soil and returns to the sea. We too are a part of the burn and glory of sunlight, which sparks all life on Earth. We are a part of the One Breath.

We are the gardeners, the stewards of the land.

The soil is a vast kingdom beneath our feet, home to giant and minute earthworms, billions of bacteria and micro-organisms, spiders 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.

Getting to Know the Soil

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 at it carefully, perhaps with a magnifying glass. Smell the soil.

Sacred SoilAs 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, open-hearted 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 terns.

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.

SeedlingsDraw 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 your garden are in shade, and which are baked by the 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 water source? 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 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.

Soil Components

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.

A Corn SproutTo 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 the season, long after applying any fertilizer, manure, or compost to the garden.

A Cottage GardenScoop 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 growth.

Many things affect the makeup of your soil, from the weather and climate to the history of the land. These variables determine what aggregates form in a given place, and also what lives there. Earthworms, bacteria, and other earthy creatures have a big affect on the soil. Healthy populations of these earth allies mean a healthy garden.

This article is a compilation of excerpts from  Sacred Earth: Intuitive Gardening for Personal, Political & Environmental Change by Clea Danaan

All images pulled from

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