collecting soil samples on my mountain land

Wherever I go, I grow things. Flowers. Ferns. Hostas. Berries. Vegetables. Whatever the soil will take and hold. It’s my gift: to myself, to my neighborhood, to the land. I learn the land by putting my hands in the soil. I pick out and collect the stones. I wrap my fingers around the roots. I shape and sculpt, dig and contain, tie up and tie back.

But this time, this land…

Oh, I’ll still grow things. But Joyous Gard is no city lot. More than 11 acres, 2/3 of it treed, there is little here in this wild place I’ll be equipped to shape with only my two hands. This time, I’ll need to surrender: ideas about taming, thoughts about correcting, illusions of control.

This time, it is I who will be shaped.

a change of perspective from ireland

I had homework. The Cooperative Extension Services folks, Elizabeth and Ross, left me with a fistful of boxes and a form to fill out. I’d collect samples of the soil, box them up, complete the form (indicating what I might want to grow in each location from which I’d collected the samples), and mail the whole thing off for analysis.

In the time that passed between Ross and Elizabeth’s visit and the day I finally arrived in the mountains to collect my samples, a lovely herbalist I follow on Instagram had introduced me to the writing of an Irishwoman, Mary Reynolds. From her book, The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves, I began learning about a new way of thinking about gardening that placed the land itself at the center of the creative process. Reynolds invites us to think differently about what it means “to garden”:

If we invite Nature to express her true self in these spaces and then work to heal the land and bring it back into balance, something magical happens. Nature begins to interact with us on an energetic, emotional and physical level. Your garden becomes your own personal church; a place of safety, abundance and peace. Once recognized, loved, and respected, Nature will embrace you in ways that most people have not experienced for many, many years. A magical doorway opens for us.

I found the idea of allowing the land to express itself, to co-create with me, intriguing. I was intentionally ditching the idea of “dominion over” in favor of “cooperation with” at its heart. From this perspective, my intentions for gathering soil samples shifted from wanting to “fix” the soil through chemical means to understanding how best to nurture it back into its own particular balance. I decided to follow Reynolds’ example and attempt “no-till” gardening, which would replace digging into the soil — thereby disturbing the complex workings of micro-organisms beneath the soil’s surface — with the process Nature herself uses to build healthy soil structure: layering organic material over top of the garden to create a light, spongy layer of mulch for nurturing new seedlings while keeping weeds at bay.

This all meant I’d have to read the soil analysis report a little differently than it was intended to be read. Instead of using it as a guide for correcting the soil with chemical fertilizers, I would use it to give me clues as to how best to supplement what it already offered. Rather than competing with native plants, I would do my best to mimic what was currently thriving, adding a few different types of composting material to support more “garden variety” species, where possible.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, I know. The process will certainly test my mettle.

real farmers use shovels

I’d allowed time to slip away, so the samples I might have had analyzed for free during the slow part of the Department of Agriculture’s year would now be processed for a fee. I didn’t mind. Sometimes moving slowly costs money, and I accept that.

The form and sample boxes both provided detailed instructions. I needed a clean pail, a means for digging up soil samples at least 6-8 inches below the surface of otherwise undisturbed ground, and I needed undisturbed ground. Check. Check. And check.


My guess is that by “pail,” they meant something akin to a 5-gallon bucket, but my pail was little more than a plastic cup one might use to hold paint for touch-ups on door trim. And I’m betting they envisioned a shovel, rather than my little — albeit bad-ass — garden trowel for the digging part. But I had my boxes, my container, my digging tool, my leather work gloves, and some construction ribbon to mark where I took the samples for future reference. As far as I was concerned, for my humble purposes, I was ready to go!

I chose eight areas around the property based on how much sun they got, how wet the ground was likely to be, and their proximity to where I planned to put my yurt (and, therefore, where the food would draw wild critters). I also considered the availability of rainwater collection systems and my well so I wouldn’t have to lug water from one side of the property to the next. I dug a few holes, broke up any clumps, as instructed, and filled the boxes to the red fill line. I decided to annotate the bottoms of the boxes in addition to numbering them, just in case the numbered, colored tape I tied to nearby trees blew away. I photographed each of the boxes so I could later match them up with the report and map them to where I’d collected the samples. Sounds really systematic, right?

Real farmers might use shovels (and actual buckets), but I’d still get what I’d need for a few vegetable patches and berry bushes.

The marker for sample #03, taken from the west side of the tractor road, north of the turn-around.

mary, mary quite contrary, what will your garden grow?

Once the soil samples were collected, I sat down to record my crop selections. The form provided a handy key, grouping similar crops together: vegetable garden; berries/fruits/nuts; blueberries (oddly, its own category). I made my selections, wrote a check, and packed up the whole caboodle to send for analysis.

Weeks later, when the report came back, it was clear I’d either need to grow composting plants to support the crops I wanted to grow for my own sustenance, or I’d have to rethink where I plant my vegetables. Luckily, Reynolds’ book includes detailed charts of plants to use for providing specific nutrients to the soil — because, yes, plants feed the soil, just as the soil feeds the plants.

Whatever I decide, I have my work cut out for me.

Soil Sample Report Examples
Excerpts from the soil report.

co-creation: safety, abundance, and peace

Mary Reynolds makes an interesting observation about how most of us in the modern world approach gardening:

Most of our gardening energy is spent trying to stop our gardens from becoming what they want to become. We call it ‘maintenance,’ and a ‘low maintenance’ garden is one that brutally smothers life out of the land. If we work to facilitate the land’s needs, managing it just enough to allow our own expression and requirements to be part of the process, we are working within the flow of life.

While ornamental gardens (and mono-culture grass lawns) can be lovely, they impose unnatural expectations on the land and the vegetation itself, requiring us to fight them every step of the way as we try to contain and control them. They also separate us not only from the production of the food we eat but also the recognition of food the land already produces. Many of the weeds we kill in our yards are natural food and medicine, and the toxic chemicals we spray to kill them endanger our health and further complicate garden maintenance, trapping us in a cycle of depleting  soil nutrients to choke the “weeds,” then attempting to replenish them artificially to grow flowers and vegetable gardens. It’s pretty bizarre, if you think about it.

And I think about it.

Having said all that, I have no idea how successful my attempts to co-create with Joyous Gard will be. Its current form of abundance is a tangled jungle of food, medicinal, and invasive plants on the west and a poison-ivy-laced woods on the east. Hungry deer, squirrels, and bears roam the mountains and will likely want their share of anything I grow. Will I be able to co-exist in peace with the land and its inhabitants? Will there be enough abundance for us all? Will it be safe for me to grow near wild plants that may or may not leach their own, natural toxins into the earth? Am I up to this task I’ve set for myself?

One thing is certain: My most prudent expression of respect for the land will involve learning as much as possible about what it already offers — and how those offerings will affect what I choose to grow for myself.

Annotated, numbered soil samples, ready to ship off for analysis.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lowell Rinker says:

    You had me at your garden is your church. Anxious to hear how this plays out. Not sure I could do this….I’m results driven and need control. This sounds quite the opposite 😏


    1. Denise says:

      It is, and I’m not sure it won’t drive me bananas. (Which, incidentally, won’t grow in my soil.)


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