That Load of Topsoil… Waiting in the Woods

I’m cheap.

No, wait, I’m frugal. Well, all I know is that I hate spending money, and I only spend it when I really have to.

Over the years I have purchased dump truck loads of gravel for the driveway and in other places to cure some drainage issues, and this spring I was thinking about getting a load of topsoil.

Our gardens are expanding at an ever-increasing rate for our CSA. Last winter Michelle and I decided to invest in 100 new late bearing raspberry bushes. I was going to put them in an existing garden where I had been building up the soil for years. But the more I thought of it that garden was better suited for vegetables for our CSA members and I needed to find a new place.

I decided to put the new raspberries in our paddock. The paddock is a fenced area where the previous owners, Jean & Gary, kept their horses. It’s connected to the horse barn. In the fall my neighbour Ken plowed up the area with the best soil for our new greenhouse. It still left a large expanse in which to plant the raspberries.

The challenge is that this lower area is basically sand. Jean had had someone push all of the topsoil to the upper area, leaving sand in the lower section. She had jumps for the horses in this sandy area, the concept being that if you fall off it’s better to hit sand to absorb some of the shock as opposed to just hitting grass.

This was a dilemma. I wanted to plant the raspberries in this sandy area because I want to plant them far apart so that they can grow into big, vigorous rows. A load of topsoil was the solution. I got a ballpark price of about $400 for a load of topsoil, which when you consider the $250 investment in the raspberries and the decades of raspberries we should get, seems like a reasonable outlay.

And here’s where we come back to that ‘cheap’ thing.

The main challenge of ‘topsoil’ is the definition I use, versus the person providing it. In our part of the world where sand is the norm, anything marginally darker than sand is deemed topsoil. My definition is somewhere closer to a dark, blackish, rich, manured, loamy kind of topsoil. The end game is obviously my disappointment.

Plus I’ve had challenges with these issues in the past. Several years ago I got some manure from a local horse stable. The problem was they dumped their wheelbarrows full of manure on to gravel when they mucked out the stalls so what I got was a load of manure “and gravel”, or should I say a load of gravel with manure mixed in, and believe me with my soil I do NOT need anymore more stone. I will be picking it out for decades.

Then I thought about a special place in my woods where I could get some topsoil. Years ago, as I was exposing the barn foundation, which had become overgrown like a forest, I hired a backhoe to come in and pull out some stumps. Ultimately he pushed them all way back into the woods and took with them some awesome soil. My garden all drains down towards the barn, and the soil around it is dark and rich from the natural drainage of nutrients and the years of animal manure.

But like everything in my life, it would not be easy to get to it. Because when I say it’s ‘down’ in the woods, I really mean… “DOWN!” So it meant pushing every load of soil uphill the elevational equivalent of the hike from Base Camp to Camp 1 through the Khumbu Icefall for people who try to summit Mt. Everest. Why couldn’t the soil be on the top of a hill? Then I could just let the wheelbarrow pull me downhill with inertia. But nope it always works the reverse.

So here’s where I’ve been working for the last couple of weeks. I load up the topsoil from here.

topsoil from the woods1

Then I push it up to this rock outcrop where I rest. Then I push it through this soon to be bulrush swamp and up past the new greenhouse and I rest. Then I push it up through the garden to the new raspberry patch.

topsoil from the woods2

If I had been smart the first thing I would have done when I moved to our homestead would have been to buy a tractor. We had a little money left over from the sale of our city home, so I could have. But “I” didn’t “need” a tractor. I could do everything myself. And I wouldn’t be producing all that CO2 from a diesel tractor. That plan has worked exceptionally well for the last 17 years, but now that I’m 55 and running a CSA, it’s become stupid. But it’s too late, there is no tractor coming to Sunflower Farm. So shut up and shovel Cam.

topsoil from the woods3

Which leaves me and my rapidly declining physical prowess to get the soil from the valley to the hilltop. I pace myself. I only do 2 or 3 loads a day. And I usually take one load to one of the greenhouses to build up the soil there. And so each morning for breakfast, I have one of those commercial, deep-fried potato patties, that are probably horrible for your health and weight but frankly I don’t care. I call them “diesel fuel.” If I don’t have a tractor, at least I’m going to make sure the motor I have to work with has enough calories to get it up that hill a few more times.

topsoil from the woods4

I don’t know what the end result of your daily effort is. Perhaps an awesome new report printed and collated. Maybe it’s 500 cups of coffee served, which made many people happy. In my case it’s the trenches I dug in the sand for the new raspberries that are a getting filled up with some awesome topsoil. The soil has been built up for eons and is healthy and vibrant and rich and dark and just ready to nurture some raspberry plants. The raspberry plants with produce wonderful organic, bright red, sweet, juicy, delicious raspberries that will be awesome on granola, or in muffins, or of course…PIES! And the raspberries in the pies will give me the energy for the next stubborn, cheap, physical undertaking I take on when I realize I’m too stupid or poor to spend money and will figure out a way to find whatever it is I need somewhere on our amazing 150 acres of bush. Topsoil to raspberries to pies to energy for the next load of topsoil. It’s like “Lion King.” It’s the cycle of life! With pies!

the new raspberry patch

* * * * * * *

Cam’s book “Thriving During Challenging Times” has been out of print for a while but we continue to get requests for it. So we added it to “Createspace” and so it is now available as a “Print on Demand” title through amazon. Use this link to purchase it and we will receive a very small commission on anything you purchase on amazon.

10 Responses to “That Load of Topsoil… Waiting in the Woods”

  • Susanne:

    Just thought I would ask if you have a county dump that does recycling and makes compost? we do and are allowed to take a pu load a day. so you know what I do on the weekends!!!

  • Cassandra:

    Just like Ruby I’m surprised you haven’t built a solar tractor. Friends of ours on Full Circle Farm have. Here’s a video of our local green candidate taking it for a spin. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AabNwdWmdAg They also hook an inverter to it to power their electric chainsaw and other plug in tools.

  • Jim:

    Cam that sounds like hard work. I thought you had good soil there but obviously the photos don’t show fertility.
    My “soil” is a shale gravel and clay mix so have to import and soil improve with lots of animal manure and compost.
    My slope is one in ten which is about 10 degrees and my health certainly doesn’t need to push a wheelbarrow up hill but it does have to occur sometimes. I use my ride on mower with a garden trailer equivalent to about 3 wheelbarrows.
    I haven’t bought soil but what I see which is sold as premium soil mix here isn’t any more than sand, a little clay with a lot of sawdust and a little manure. Needless to say that within 2-3 seasons all that is left is pure sand. A lot of people come unstuck with this mix.
    I have been able to get access to a loam bed close to the river a couple of hundred metres away so have got about 20 wheelbarrows full now.
    I did a raspberry swap with another gardening friend and ended up with 5 crowns. I have then expanded them to 15 on one trellis and 30 on another just by digging up wayward roots which love to shoot away from the trellis making the big vigorous rows you talk about. I keep mine compact this way. Also I have given many away to start other’s raspberry beds which will include a school this year.

  • Gotta admire your gumption! BTW, looks like we have the same Crappy Tire basic wheelbarrow… I changed out the tire for one of those “no flat” ones but otherwise it is put up well with extraordinary abuse over the years.

  • I have been going through a similar issue with putting in a strawberry bed. Our soil is also very sandy but my main problem is the perennial wildflowers (that really means weeds). Because of that I decided to put in raised beds. We do not have any wonderful natural areas on our small farm with amazing soil so I had to bite the bullet and I bought 15 yards of triple mix. I have been moving it all by myself in a wheelbarrow, although I do not have to go uphill, only about 150 feet or so. I reckon that it will take about 45 wheelbarrow loads to fill each bed. I have already lost about 3 pounds and can only imagine how fit I will be by the time I have moved all that soil. Great post as usual.
    Cheers, Melanie
    candlefordfarmhomestead.blogspot.com

  • CJ:

    Would it be possible to use your rototiller to pull the load in a small wagon or sled?

  • Gerrit:

    Woah Cam, that looks and sounds like brutal work. I’m 52 and was fit as a fiddle until recently. But I’ve become like a car whose warranty just expired. It pains me to think of your physical workload.

    Could you guys crowdfund a used tractor? You’ve got too much going right now, but maybe start it late fall? Then the funding could come in over the winter for spring? You could use your books, consultations and workshops and suchlike as donor rewards.

  • If it’s any consolation, if you don’t manage to get as much of the topsoil to your new patch as you’d like, my mother had raspberries growing in VERY sandy soil and they did great! I’m not sure if the nutritional content was as high in each berry, but they looked nice:}
    She got tired of them eventually, said they were taking over her flower bed, so now they’re mine…and they seem to have adapted to the ridiculous heavy clay soil just fine. I’ve concluded that raspberries are very adaptable! :}

  • Ruby Lynn Trotter:

    Cam:Have you considered buying an older tractor and converting it to solar battery powered? I have seen an article about doing this. If you do it, be sure to obtain a tractor that has hydraulics. Just a thought

  • Jeff M:

    “Which leaves me and my rapidly declining physical prowess to get the soil from the valley to the hilltop”.

    Funny as I was reading your post I was thinking I bet Cam is getting fitter by the day.

    Congratulations on all the hard work. Think of it as candidate training for this fall’s elections.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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