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Earth Day soil sampling & testing with Counter Culture Labs

April 26 2015
In honor of Earth Day and the International Year of Soils, Counter Culture Labs will be doing a soil sampling and testing outing.

April 26 2015


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Mission Underway

When Patrik D'haeseleer of Counter Culture Labs ( announced the Earth Day Soil Sampling expedition, I had to sign up! In part it was because I wanted to know what was in my garden soil but I was also curious about Temescal Creek. I have explored the many natural features of the East Bay including its watersheds and creeks but Temescal Creek was a complete unknown to me. So I had to take the opportunity and was not disappointed.

The group split into two sampling teams with my partner Kathy Buehmann and I heading for the uppermost branch of Temescal Creek. Temescal Creek begins on the southern side of the Oakland Hills watershed divide and flows to San Francisco Bay in Emeryville. The flatland flow is underground but the headwaters still flow unimpeded by plumbing though the riparian vegetation is a predominantly non-native mix of eucalyptus and ivy.

Once there the challenge was to descend the banks to the creek and get our soil samples. Kathy was the nimbler of the team and I took photographs while she did the hard part and collected samples. Then it was back to the lab where we sorted out the debris of sticks and rocks, air dried sample aliquots, and repackaged them for analysis. Now the hard part - waiting for results!


wow! I can't wait to hear what comes from the sample analysis. Great photo by the way. I'd love to see more of those!

Thanks Erika. This was my favorite for context shots of Temescal Creek. I have some photos of Wildcat Creek (flows thru the Berkeley/Richmond hills) at if you are interested.

Preparation Stage

After sampling under the trees at the Omni, and discussing where, how deep, and how much to sample, we divvied up the available trowels, ziplock baggies and buckets, and decided to split up for sampling, with the firm intention of returning in 45 minutes (heh - yeah right...)

We actually had four sampling teams:

  • * Ken and Kathy would be tackling the rugged Oakland hills area above Temescal Lake, where the creek still flows as it has for millenia.

  • * Patrik (me) and my wife Carla would go explore the area from Temescal Lake to where the creek plunges into the culverts

  • * Rob was going to stay back at home base, and sample some potential guerrilla gardening plots nearby (lead pollution being a serious hazard)

  • * Laura, Sam and Joe would brave the mouth of the creek at the Bay, and the short stretch where it flows above ground through Emeryville.

Let the expedition commence!

We started out the day with some introductions, and an overview of where and how we would be sampling.

The plan is to submit our soil samples to at least two different services: the UMass Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Lab ( for testing of general nutrient levels and soil contamination, and the DrugsFromDirt citizen science project, which will be sequencing novel antibiotic biosynthesis genes.

Our target area is around (and under?) the Omni building that houses Counter Culture Labs, as well as along the length of Temescal Creek, a highly urbanized watershed that actually flows just a block from the Omni - in a concrete culvert 10ft under ground! There are some stretches of the creek farther upstream closer to the Oakland hills though, and we can also get to the mouth of the creek where flows into the Bay. Today, we're just focusing on soils next to the creek, but this is a warm-up for a more extensive water sampling project in the future too. Possibly involving some Urban Exploration, where we try to access the creek where it flows under the streets of Oakland...

We started people out with some soil sampling from the base of the cypress trees around the Omni. Unfortunately, that's the only "gardening" space we have in our current home, unless we're willing to break up some of the concrete some time in the future. There are several trees along the facade of the building, so everybody got to do a little digging and bagging...

Does it count as a contaminant if your soil sample includes an abandoned shoe?


"Temescal Creek Flowed Here" - at least that's what it says on the side of the Post Office on Shattuck, one block from the Omni. These days, all that's left is a sad little monument of concrete and tile, the creek having been paved over when the mall with the Post Office and the Walgreens was built.

"They paved paradise to put up a parking lot"...

But close your eyes, and on a bright Spring day like this, you can still hear the waters murmuring in the storm drain at the side of the road, 10ft below your feet. Most storm drains in the SF Bay Area have a sign that says something like "No Dumping. Flows to Bay". These storms drains also say "Flows to creek". Aha!

Expedition Background

Wondering about lead pollution in your garden? Interested in soil ecology? Did you know the UN declared 2015 the International Year of Soils? Come celebrate Earth Day with us by doing some soil sampling across Oakland! Soils feed the world, and they're long overdue some appreciation.

Targeted areas are along the course of Temescal Creek, from where it comes out of the Oakland Hills, to where it flows out into the Bay. We will also sample some locations around (and under!) the Omni. Plus, maybe YOUR backyard or community garden? Want to know if you have any lead pollution in your veggies? This is your chance!

Once we get back to CCL with our treasures, we will do some simple lab tests, including bacterial counts and checking for the presence of bacteria that may be producing novel antibiotics ( We will also submit soil samples for microbial diversity sequencing, lead content testing, and secondary metabolites analysis (see

Bring a way to transport yourself and/or others between sample sites, a clean trowel if you have one, plus your smart phone to document our sampling sites.

See you there :-)