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how to prove that you are starting with dirt

 
author and steward
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One way is to show, to the camera, your dirt.  Handfuls or shovelfulls.  Maybe a mason jar is involved.  And then you need to compare it to good garden soil.  

Another way to have a soil test done and it reports the organic matter.

A mason jar test could convey "dirt" to other gardeners, but probably not great for newbies - unless the same thing is done with rich garden soil.


(other ideas?)
 
master gardener
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I've been wrestling with this idea as well.

If people have established gardens, side by side mason jar tests sound like a straight forward comparison for soil texture. - https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/soil-texture-analysis-the-jar-test/

I believe the standard organic content test is to weigh a sample of dried soil, fire it at 400 C, then reweigh it after you burnt off all the organic matter. The lost weight is then your organic matter that was present. That one is not so easy for people to achieve.

 
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Obviously to look at the soil, to smell it, to count the worms, and notice how much water it holds, maybe to even taste it, and certainly to lay down and rest & dream with it, are all very good ways to build a relationship with the soil and to teach others the same.

But for me, the number one first thing I do is to simply look at what is growing in and on a particular soil, ~Naturally. Before it is "molested" by humans. The type of plants and their vitality and color and abundance tell me a quite eloquent story before I ever walk in that place, space.
 
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As a lumper, it's impossible to me to distinguish between dirt and soil. The dictionary doesn't help.

Miriam-Webster wrote:
soil
: the upper layer of earth that may be dug or plowed and in which plants grow

dirt
: loose or packed soil or sand

 
pollinator
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I agree it is all soil, it occurs to me that the difference under consideration here is condition.  In my garden after thirty years of zero chemical inputs and lots of added organic material it is dark and fluffy. I can push a shovel to full depth with my toe. I often plant seeds by just poking them in with my fingers. I can easily dig in it with my fingers, even big deep-rooted weeds like dandelions and dock easily pull up intact.

Out in the yard the ground is yellowish brown, covered with a couple inches of dark soil and grass roots.  Here I would need to stomp heavily on the shovel several times to get it to full depth, and it would not crumble, but come out in one big chunk. Many things will still grow in the hard chunky places but working it is considerably more difficult. I wouldn't want to plant root crops there, except to improve it by letting them rot.

I reckon if I wanted to make up a definition, I'd say soil is loose, dark colored, full of organic material and biologically active. Dirt is hard packed, with lower levels of organic material and microbes.  

I could go out with my camera and easily demonstrate the difference except right now it's all covered up with a couple inches of cold white stuff. And it's almost dark. And my beef stew is done and smells really good, so it's time to make the corn bread.
 
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As I understand it, we want to find a way to show (on video) that it's dirt and not soil.

Soil tests are good at telling us the makeup of the dirt/soil, but are boring as all hell on a video.

I like the mason jar, water, shake, and settle test.  I could see a montage kind of thing of multiple people shoveling dirt into the jar, add wateer, shake, if someone could get a timelapse of theirs settling.  Then cut to the dirt jar settled, and placed an already done soil jar next to it.  Pretend 5 or 10 people.  The sequence would take 15-40 seconds depending on the feel the editor is going for.  

It's more show than tell this way, so a narration over it would help for the audience that likes more details.

And shots of the trowel entering the dirt vs the trowel entering the soil would help to bring home the difference.  

 
pollinator
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I get what you are going for here but what if it is all "soil"?

Part of why we chose this property was because it was on sandy loam, in one of the best growing areas in the country. Our prior place was heavy clay, which still grew some stuff really well but was a ton of work to dig. Here, anywhere I stick a shovel, it goes right in! Just a straight way down of sandy dirt with worms and a few white grubs.  There are a few spots that seem even better, but aside from under the 60 year maples where you have to deep in around the roots, it's all lovely. ( I moved 60+ pots and got a chunk in during the long fall so have dug at least a pot sized hole in lot of different areas of the plot)
We have info on some history of the property and know where there was a substantial garden, at least in the mid 80's. And we also know where they have had their compost pile for at least a decade +. I was going to use a spot outside of those, that we are pretty sure has just been lawn for the 60 years.

I know that this is a wonderful "problem" to have but I'm not sure if I have a spot bad enough to qualify. I have yet to try any annual beds since this will be our first year. I've prepped lasagna beds but was looking to try growing straight on desodded ground for this challenge and that would show me how good/easy it is here or if I should go for building raised, partially hugle beds like in our old place.
 
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r ranson wrote:As I understand it, we want to find a way to show (on video) that it's dirt and not soil.

Soil tests are good at telling us the makeup of the dirt/soil, but are boring as all hell on a video.

I like the mason jar, water, shake, and settle test.  I could see a montage kind of thing of multiple people shoveling dirt into the jar, add wateer, shake, if someone could get a timelapse of theirs settling.  Then cut to the dirt jar settled, and placed an already done soil jar next to it.  Pretend 5 or 10 people.  The sequence would take 15-40 seconds depending on the feel the editor is going for.  

It's more show than tell this way, so a narration over it would help for the audience that likes more details.

And shots of the trowel entering the dirt vs the trowel entering the soil would help to bring home the difference.  



I agree! Soil tests can very wildly depending on where the sample was taken. Around these parts they are expensive too! So not great for keeping things "freaky cheap".

I also think the mason jar is a great way to tell a visual story. Maybe we can have a GAMCOD protocol for how to do the mason jar test. Maybe show a second one from some where else on your property that has nice soil.

Mark makes a good point of showing compaction. Maybe not mandatory for GAMCOD but another good way to illustrate the condition of the starting soil. I know mine is best worked with a Pulaski.
 
pollinator
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I think proving that it is DIRT is going to be a difficult aspect to define as everyone's dirt is different. What if someone goes to the worst corner of their property takes a shovel full of sod and finds a worm or two? Is that dirt or soil? There will definitely have to be some dialog about how the dirt is not perfect and the individuals plan to improve it.
 
r ranson
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Could we define it as soil has x percent organic matter?
 
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In a mason jar test, live and decaying organic matter would form a separate layer at the top. So I think if a sample taken from below the top 3 inches or so from the surface had a good proportion of organic matter, that would be a fair indication of 'soil' rather than 'dirt'.
An alternative might be a cross section through the site.

with a rule showing the depth of layers.
I'm pretty proud of my one inch of soil developing here!
 
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How about the Soil Stability, or the Soil Rain Simulator, test?  

Getting to the point in 5 minutes or less.  



Here is another slightly longer video



 
master steward
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Ashley Cottonwood wrote:...Soil tests can very wildly depending on where the sample was taken. Around these parts they are expensive too!...
I know mine is best worked with a Pulaski.

I'm on mostly sedimentary, crushed and mixed by the last Ice Age. Once you get through the minuscule layer of topsoil, the average shovel is pretty useless. But because it's so mixed, 2 soil tests 3 feet apart could easily give quite different readings. "Mixing" the dirt from areas and sending the mix for testing could make the results useless!

My Sisters in Ontario live just a few blocks apart and one's on heavy clay, and the other's on sandy soil. Not sure if that was the work of the Ice Age, or the work of humans, but the Sister with the sand has this strange patch on her front lawn that struggles no matter what. One of these years I may just try digging it up to see...
 
paul wheaton
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Dian Green wrote:I get what you are going for here but what if it is all "soil"?



if you send it off for a test and it comes back as 2% OM or less, then it is okay.

Otherwise, you are correct, you cannot be part of this movie.
 
Dian Green
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paul wheaton wrote:

Dian Green wrote:I get what you are going for here but what if it is all "soil"?



if you send it off for a test and it comes back as 2% OM or less, then it is okay.

Otherwise, you are correct, you cannot be part of this movie.



I appreciate the clear definition. Pretty sure all of the spots I'd use will fail that requirement so I'm out. I will be looking forward to seeing what everyone does with their plots and I'm sure there will be lots of things to learn!
 
Marc Dube
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I don't know if providing soil samples would be in the right direction for the main goals of this movie, growing food for cheap with what you have. If you show 6 gardeners all with soil samples it's kind of saying it's a prerequisite to have a garden and might deter people instead of encouraging them. It would be discouraging for me for something to be touted as cheap and easy yet every example given has a soil sample which is close to $100 CAD.

I'm on prairie loam soil and will not be able to find a spot with less than 2% organic matter even though I have spots with VERY little biology which makes for good soil rather than dirt.
 
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Except that the soil tests are established to prove that the soil is unimproved. It's not something the viewer is going to be encouraged to get done.
 
paul wheaton
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When I first thought of GAMCOD, my idea was to bring five expert gardeners to my place.  I would set each of them up with one acre.  I knew the starting soil was very poor and each expert would be informed that they were starting with very poor soil.  

Each expert would have their own philosophy about which crops to grow and how to do it.  

On this try, each expert is .... not here in montana.  

There are some people that are not experts that wanna try.  And that is lovely.  Please put in the extra effort to fill in your knowledge gaps.  


This project is about growing a lot of food on dirt.  And through the first year, trying to move that dirt to be a bit more soil-esque.   Each expert will have a different way of showing the viewer (who does not yet know the difference) that they started with dirt.  And hopefully, the end of the year will be able to show that this dirt is now more like soil.


It would be lovely for our experts to explain, in their own way, that this project would be far easier to start with soil.  And why.


From a far more personal perspective:  

     - i see noobs trying to grow a garden in dirt as if they are starting with soil and getting very frustrated, and then they quit

     - I see noobs see dirt and recognize that it is not soil and quit
 
     - I see noobs grasp some really weak excuse on why they cannot grow a garden

     - I want to make a movie that will inspire 100 million noobs into

             o try a small garden
             o have a little success
             o know that next year will be much easier


I think the core of this project is to grow a lot of calories on dirt.  Emphasis on dirt.  And that the viewer can understand

  - that it can be done
  - that it can be done many different ways
  - what is the difference between dirt and soil and why we care

 
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I'm not sure I can do a very good comparison of dirt versus soil on our property.  Where we are presently gardening (about 1/4 acre), in 2021 and prior, it was chemically / industrially farmed, so we arguably don't have any very good soil yet, although there are some spots that may be doing OK.  In hindsight, it would have been nice to be able to run some various soil tests starting from day 1 (slake, infiltration, %OM, etc) and update year by year.  

After another overspray event into our orchard area, I let the neighbour who was farming about 3 acres of our property know that we'd be taking it back.  I told him he should do any fall treatments, but the timing of the survey and his work meant that he applied anhydrous ammonia (nitrogen fertilizer) to much of the area we were reclaiming.  The 2022 garden had a lot of squash (not that we are big eaters of it, but I wanted to cover the soil) and we had some pretty incredible production.  Much of the area had a cover crop mix applied (two pollinator mixes - one annual and one with short-lived perennials).  When frost was predicted, we performed a panic harvest.  At that point, there were over 50 spaghetti squash of varying sizes (biggest were around 7 lbs).  This is a garden of neglect to a degree as we live 61 km away with the intent to retire to the acreage in about 10 years.

The 2023 garden was pretty much a bust...every year is different and we went from a cool spring to around our last spring frost date turning to about 30 C and dry...the transplants that we cared more for (mainly tomatoes and peppers) turned out OK in the end, but we didn't get a whole lot else.

Anyway, I look forward to a call being made as to how we can demonstrate dirt.  As part of my PDC, I did do a test and my sample came out as silty clay - about 50% clay, 45% silt, and perhaps 5% sand (tough to make a call in the jar of such a thin layer) with a thin film of organic matter on top.  If I manage to participate in this, I'd be starting in an area that has been in turf grass (with some weeds) since before we purchased the property in 2008.

 
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Perhaps we should put forth a DEFINITION of what is the difference between soil and dirt?  {And this might also be an educational point in the video...}

Are we not speaking here of the difference between inert dirt and LIVING Soil?

If this is the case, then a soil test will likely be wholly inadequate to the task. And, if true that it's not the "mineral" content of dirt that is a requisite factor, but rather the abudance of soil-based organisms essential for the uptake of those minerals, then we want instead a way to show that there is a paucity of living biology in the dirt on which one's GAMCOD plot is begun.

A microscope would be awesome here, but far outside the budget of most peeps and intimidating too!  I like the idea, presented above by Jim Fry:

"But for me, the number one first thing I do is to simply look at what is growing in and on a particular soil, ~Naturally. Before it is "molested" by humans. The type of plants and their vitality and color and abundance tell me a quite eloquent story before I ever walk in that place, space."
 
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A gòod gardening book will have a chapter on soil so it's easy to find reading materials on this aspect. Some short youtube videos demonstrating methods for testing soil will help too.

I am thinking about a few simple tests gardeners can to to show the status of the dirt/soil so they can compare and show the improvement.

1. Start with the surface. What plants are growing in the spot to tell you about the soil. For example, moss indicates acidic soil, pineapple weed grows in compacted area, plantain has an advantage in low fertility soil. How big the plants get? The smaller the poorer soil.

2. Dig down to show the depth of top soil or subsoil like Nancy did.  If your topsoil is one ft deep you are not qualified.

3. Drainage rest. Fill the hole with water and see how long it takes to empty.

4. Mason jar test. Tells you the composition of sand silt and clay. In clayey soil, 2% OM is ver low, 3% is decent, 5% is considered ideal. In very sandy soil, even 2% is hard to achieve.

5. Biology. How deep are the roots growing down? See any earthworm?

Additional tests like ribbon test, compaction tests all tell you about different aspects of the soil.

If someone already prepared the plot and didn't show the original state of the ground. He or she can still do that in a spot right next to the 200ft.

I took some quick pictures to show samples of various locations. Would be better to include a ruler for scale in each picture.


Resized_20240229_070442.jpeg
Mossy acidic soil
Mossy acidic soil
Resized_20240229_073357.jpeg
Eroded compacted soil, little growth. BBQ skewer went down 4 inches. Almost impenetrable in summer
Eroded compacted soil, little growth. BBQ skewer went down 4 inches. Almost impenetrable in summer
Resized_20240229_070236.jpeg
Thin topsoil layer
Thin topsoil layer
Resized_20240229_070102.jpeg
High and low OM soil color comparison. Hard to get accurate colors due to exposure setting
High and low OM soil color comparison. Hard to get accurate colors due to exposure setting
Resized_20240229_065759.jpeg
Compost pile on top of poor soil. Earth worms moving in digging tunnels through compacted layer
Compost pile on top of poor soil. Earth worms moving in digging tunnels through compacted layer
 
Derek Thille
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May Lotito wrote:

2. Dig down to show the depth of top soil or subsoil like Nancy did.  If your topsoil is one ft deep you are not qualified.



The native soils in some regions are incredibly deep, so I'm not sure I like this as a disqualification mechanism.  In recently developed urban areas, you'd be hard pressed to find more than a couple inches of topsoil above fill so it would work there.  I know I don't have a good delineation on my property until I get relatively deep and into clay...that said I don't have a good grasp for how deep that horizon is.
 
May Lotito
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Derek Thille wrote:

The native soils in some regions are incredibly deep, so I'm not sure I like this as a disqualification mechanism.  In recently developed urban areas, you'd be hard pressed to find more than a couple inches of topsoil above fill so it would work there.  



I'm speaking out of my situation of mostly refilled subsoil. Maybe you can show a picture of yours and see what Paul thinks of it. IMO, getting some food to grow is always good regardless of where your starting point is.

By the way, in colder climate, there will be more soil organic matters and the top soil layer is deeper.  In the warmer area, organic matters break down fast and naturally soil has a low level of OM. Since the GAMCOD is for cold climate, do we need to consider raising the bar a bit? 2% is very low and will exclude quite a few participants.
 
May Lotito
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I found additional information on soil OM on USDA website.
There's a wide range of soil organic matter levels of US. Also, besides lab test, there's color chart for a quick in field estimation.
Screenshot_20240229_124925_Samsung-Notes.jpg
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Filename: Soil-Organic-Matter.pdf
File size: 1 megabytes
 
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Perhaps a practical hypothetical could clarify this some...

Given that the Lab has good, rich soil in many places, I'm guessing that ant village was selected to offer as much as possible of it? If someone signs up for an ant village plot this year with a mind to partake in gamcod, how would their plot be chosen, such that it would include an eligible "dirt" spot?

What telltale signs around there would guide the choice? Would soil tests be needed? Would proximity to conifer trees/acidic soil/aliopathic elements be a factor in classifying dirt from soil?
 
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The main difference between soil and dirt is the life. Personally, I document this with a microscope doing "shadowing" microscopy as taught by the Soil Food Web school (founded by Dr. Elaine Ingham). This is way out of the price range of keeping this economical. It is important to be aware, though, that the biology is what differentiates dirt from soil and is key to turning one into the other--adding/cultivating biology to make soil, Killing biology to make dirt.

Longtime organic gardeners know there a lot of visual cues to the presence of biology in the soil. I really like this information sheet put together by the Land and Leadership Institute: https://www.landandleadership.org/fact-sheet-measure-soil-structure.html.

It is intended to be economical and accessible to anyone interested in the health of their soils. I am not able to participate in this project but I wanted to offer this publication for y'alls consideration of easy ways to assess and document the status of your soil.

This is fun and exciting work. Have a blast with the experiments.
 
Laurie Dixon
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Here are some other soil assessments focused on the visual and other straightforward metrics. All are from respected sources and freely available. They may not be useable for this project but are great sources of information.

https://www.noble.org/regenerative-agriculture/soil/look-for-these-soil-health-indicators-in-the-field/

I mention bioassays as they are a simple way to determine if the soil is contaminated:
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/conducting-a-bioassay-for-herbicide-residues#:~:text=A%20bioassay%20is%20a%20technique%20for%20determining%20if,high%20enough%20concentrations%20to%20adversely%20affect%20plant%20growth.

https://orgprints.org/id/eprint/30582/1/VSA_Volume1_smaller.pdf

https://www.css.cornell.edu/extension/soil-health/manual.pdf
The soil health assessement begins on p. 19

Quivera coalition Soil Health Workbook is available for purchase on their website and for free online:
https://issuu.com/quiviracoalition/docs/soil_health_workbook_qc_v2
 
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