Grubbing in the Dirt

It is hard for me to imagine talking about local, sustainable foodsheds without talking about gardening.

The two go hand in hand.

And speaking of hands, there is no greater pleasure on earth for me, (other than tearing into a freshly baked loaf of whole grain bread, steaming and fragrant from the oven) than sinking my hand deep into sun-warmed soil, and planting something beautiful and edible in that fragrant, fertile bed.

I don’t really understand people who don’t like gardens and gardening. Being outside, in the open air, with the sun on my face, and the wind at my back, the sounds of birdsong filling my ears and the thousand shades of green that the natural world cloaks herself in dazzling my eyes, is a great comfort to me, and fills me with quiet joy.

I reckon that I’ve been a gardener since I could walk, toddling after my mother, making furrows in the dirt with chubby fingers, and carefully covering seeds she planted, then patting the earth firm, “like tucking the flowers into bed,” as Mom would say. And if I wasn’t following Mom, I was at Gram’s side as she instilled in me her principle for foiling weeds and having the prettiest porchboxes in the neighborhood. “Crowd the flowers in, Barbara,” she’d say as she tucked petunias, geraniums, allyssum and coleus tightly into her green enamelled metal porch boxes. “Then feed them well, and water them,” she’d say, “and when they grow, they will tumble all over each other, and spill out of the box, and cover the box and the railing with blooms. Their roots will grow together like one plant, and will crowd out every weed.”

Or, if not Mom or Gram, I’d be padding barefoot along garden rows behind Grandma or Grandpa, as I helped plant corn with the antique contraptions that Grandpa saw in a book somewhere and built in his woodshop, or as I picked green beans off their neatly trellised vines with Grandma. Sometimes, I’d just patter through the garden on my own, enjoying the warm kiss of damp red clay under my toes and the scents of ripening tomatoes mingled with the well-rotted perfume of cow manure and chicken bedding used to dress all of the plants. I remember running through the stands of corn, placed in perfect rows, laughing as the tassles danced in the wind and the leaves struck my face, as I played imaginary games with the crows who called overhead in a chorus of raucus voices.

I simply couldn’t keep my feet and hands out of the dirt growing up. I even inveigled myself into the neighbor’s gardens and helped plant and prune, weed and tend, trim and water. Flowers or fruit, herbs or vegetables–it didn’t matter. I loved them all, and dearly.

Everywhere I have lived, I have had one sort of garden or another, and I usually grow flowers and herbs in equal measure.

My first herb garden was when I was in high school, and I saw small herb plants neglected and alone in a local nursery in Charleston, West Virginia. Rosemary, sage, thyme, chives and oregano came home with me that day, and I put them in a row of pots on our back steps, where the sunwarmed brick would hopefully simulate the rather dry, very warm Mediterranean climate that these plants favored.

Those herbs became an object of interest to my parents, the neighbors and the rest of the family. The only herbs most folks grew in town around us were dill for pickles, catnip for cats and maybe some feverfew because it was pretty. Herbs were not popular then, not with West Virginia cooks, nor with gardeners, so folks came to see what I was about.

The only lady who knew at all what those herbs were and what they were for was old Mrs. Abdella, the grandmother of some of the kids I went to school with. She was Lebanese, and she knew quite well what I was growing, and when she heard, she came by and had me follow her to her backyard, where I was thrilled to see larger versions of my potted baby herbs sprawling over the landscape, mostly in place of a lawn. “You going to cook with yours?” she asked me, her dark eyes twinking.

“I aim to, ma’am,” I answered.

Nodding, she pointed to the back gate that opened into the alleyway. “Until yours grow and get big, you come here and pick–just come through that gate, anytime of day, and I won’t mind. I have enough for the whole neighborhood, if they only knew how to use it.” She rolled her eyes, and snorted. “So, I share with you, eh?”

Mrs. Abdella had been the terror of the neighborhood kids for years, threatening many curses upon any child that dared think of opening that back gate or even stepping a toe on her lawn, so I felt rather as if the Wicked Witch had just transformed into The Herb Fairy in front of me, and instead of flapping her apron and screaming imprecations in a couple of languages, was smiling at me as her gnarled fingers stroked her plants lovingly.

Needless to say, when Grandpa loaded us down with vegetables that summer, as he always did, and we distributed bags anonymously to the neighbors, I made sure that Mrs. Abdella’s bag had lots of extra tomatoes, squash and eggplant, and I always left it at her back door, with a smiley-face drawn on the bag with magic marker.

Over the years, I have made gardens in the most unlikely of places.

In the last house I shared with Morganna’s father, I made a garden in a foot and a half wide strip of hardpan that stood between the house and the curb of the alleyway it fronted. It was the width of the house–about twenty feet or so, and was nothing but baked subsoil, in which only dandelions and thistle could grow. When Morganna was about five months old, I remember sitting on the porch with her, surrounded by asphalt and concrete, looking across the alley at the middle school I had attended years ago, with the brick building and chain-link fence looking prison-like, and being utterly despondant, as I longed for the sight of green. I looked down the street jealously at the wee, postage-stamp sized yards of the row of apartments that made up the little working-class to poor neighborhood, and wished I had just that much room. What I could plant in it!

Well, what I had was that depressing strip of baked dirt.

I ended up calling Mom, and after saving up my money, I had her bring her digging tools, and take me to the nursery, where I bought cow manure, topsoil and a small bag of gravel. And with a pick and shovel, I rooted all of that hardpan out, sweating like a pig, and cursing like a sailor while Mom kept Morganna occupied. I grubbed about two feet down, and then treated the resulting trench as if it were a long porchbox. I sprinkled gravel in the bottom for drainage, and then mixed the manure and topsoil together, and shovelled it in.

That was the first day, and in subsequent days, Mom and I planted every kind of culinary and scented herb we could find. She got so into the project she bought all of the plants and gave me a bunch of her old terra cotta flower pots so we loaded up the porch, too. We planted morning glory seeds in the back, so they clambered up the porch railings to the porch roof, and made a spot of shade to cool the glare from the alley. Dill, bergamot, mint and oregano stood tall and regal in the back, with thyme and creeping chammomile spilling over the curb. In the middle, basil, rosemary, Greek oregano and lemon balm grew in profusion, while at the corners, chives stood watch, thier pale purple blossoms nodding in every breeze. Nasturtiums bloomed where the thyme hadn’t spread yet, and borage’s sky-blue flowers cooled me with the scent of cucumber. Pots of lavender and more rosemary lined the steps, while scented geraniums stood sentry along the porch rail.

By midsummer, it was beautiful. Everything grew in grand profusion, tangling and twining around each other as I applied Gram’s principles of crowding out weeds in a porchbox to a grand scale. My cooking improved immensely, since I could just run outside and pick handfuls of whatever herb struck my fancy, and when I nursed Morganna, I could go without a shawl, because no one could see past the screen of morning glories that tumbled over the porch to the roof, and cascaded back down in a curtain of green heart-shaped leaves and sky-blue blossoms. The smell of baking asphalt was covered by the scent of rich earth and green and growing things, and in the evening, when I would strap Morganna to my back and tend the garden, the neighbors would stop and talk, marvelling at the transformation of that depressing squat house that sat crooked on its foundation, to a magical cottage covered with a verdant cloak.

Since then, I have gardened in boxes, crates and pots, in plots of earth large and small, and I have a few observations.

One–I despise the American obsession with perfectly clipped, tidy green lawns. A more wasteful, stupid preoccupation with perfection I cannot imagine, and a worse use for a good bit of land I cannot fathom. The amount of petrochemicals poured out in the form of fuel for noisy, air-polluting lawnmowers and trimmers, in the form of fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide in the creation and maintenance of a wide expanse of perfectly manicured green grass is horrendous.

I think that Americans would be better off getting rid of lawns and planting other stuff in thier place. Preferably some vegetables, fruits and herbs, but I wouldn’t ever hold it against someone for planting flowers. The problem with my wish is that gardens require tending, while lawns, once established only require mowing, which now, one can do sitting down, with little to no effort at all.

But look at how much local, sustainable food could be grown, even in a small yard. And think of how good it would taste!

A second observation is this–gardening creates community–something that is lacking in many American neighborhoods today.

But, it is true. I have never had so much luck meeting neighbors as when I am engaged in gardening. People are drawn to plants, and the cultivation thereof. Many people regard the ability to grow plants well almost as some sort of magical gift, and will stop and ask about it. The colors, scents and if you grow vegetables or fruits and share them, flavors, of a garden make people slow down and want to talk. And talk is good–it is the first step in creating bonds of fellowship that grow into a real community feeling, which is necessary for humanity. We are not meant to live in isolation, but instead, in groups–that is what we evolved to do.

My third and final observation is that gardening creates kinship with the rest of nature–and that is something that is also sorely lacking in the urban and suburban word of modern America. While some gardeners rail against nature in the form of deer eating their tulips, others are enchanted by the nesting habits of wrens or the appearance of butterflies in the echinacea in the morning and the fluttering of moths near the same flowers at night. Learning to work with the natural world–the world of which we humans are a part, no matter how hard we try to ignore or deny that fact by living in air-conditioned homes and driving in closed cars to malls that are the very epitome of artifice–reforges the bond humanity must reclaim with the environment, if we are to reverse some of the damage we have done with pollution, overpopulation and soil depleting agricultural practices. Gardeners learn volumes of information that cannot be read in books or on blogs, that must be absorbed through the fingers, and toes, through the senses of sight, scent, taste, hearing and touch, that cannot be conveyed by mere words.

We humans grow roots when we garden, just as surely as the plants we lovingly tend do. We plant seeds in the earth and find seeds planted within ourselves, and as we watch our gardens grow, we, too, are made anew.

That is the principle of sustainability writ small, and in a person’s heart. Learning to live rooted to place, learning to live within the rhythyms and cycles of nature, learning to nurture life in all forms, are all lessons that a garden can teach us.

I write these words as I look out upon the expanse of our back lawn. Green swarths of grass cover a steep slope–too steep to till, and I dream. Next year, or the year after, that slope will be terraced, and the soil will be mixed with compost and manure, and our fingers will sink into it, learning the secrets that it holds. We will plant flowers, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in vast profusion, with glee, and watch as what was once just an unuseable hill grow into a place of fertile abundance.

And I can tend the herbs again, with a baby strapped to my back, with the sun on our faces and the breeze in our hair, and it will be good.

Oh, how can anyone prefer a lawn to that?

19 Comments

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  1. Again, a lovely meditation, and lots to think about.

    I lived in apartments for years, and aside from window boxes of herbs was not a gardener (my tomatoes failed repeatedely as I tried and failed in CA to recreate the tomatoes I grew up with in PA. Then I moved into the house I currently live in, not so long ago and discovered gardening. I was lucky enough to find a house with no lawn, just lovely woodland and gravel paths and a brick courtyard in front. I love not having to mow anything, and planting what I like and let it spill where it wants with no requirement to stay neat and orderly. Not much sun unfortunately, but made up for by lovely shade trees. I have planted herbs and find my time digging in the soils and cultivating CA native plants and fragrant herbs and flowers very restorative.

    Comment by Diane — May 7, 2006 #

  2. The climate in New Mexico is so different from my native West Virginia (as I’m sure you can imagine) that I have been relying on CSAs and Farmer’s Markets for my produce. Thanks for reminding me that even if it is just a strawberry pot brimming with herbs, what I really want is to grow my own. I’m going to go out next weekend and buy my supplies. :)

    Comment by Hannah — May 7, 2006 #

  3. Great post :)

    I’ve heard lawns described as “green cancer” – which seems a fitting description.

    And thanks for the timely reminder to sort out my window boxes :D I haven’t got a proper garden (yet!) but my potted rosemary bush is already flowering…

    Comment by Steph — May 7, 2006 #

  4. What a lovely sentiment in this essay on gardening. I never knew how much it effected my life until I moved away from my parent’s house. I was miserable without dirt to grub with, plants to tend. Right now I am stuck in a place that needs all the gardening help it can get. It doesn’t have lawns per se (not that I’d want such a wasteful thing) but since this is a coniferous-laden, boggy, acidic rock, you need to give the gardening and herb fairies all the help they can get. But if they could turn waste land in Scotland into Findhorn, I can turn Waglisla into a small bit of paradise.

    Comment by Nerissa — May 7, 2006 #

  5. Barbara, that is just beautiful – brought tears to my eyes, I’m not joking. And it made me even more annoyed that I didn’t make it to the plant market yesterday as planned to get some flowers and vegetables. I already have thyme, rosemary, sage and laurel on the terrace and parsley is easy to grow from seed. But our Northwest facing terrace is not proving very good at growing vegetables from seed (two cayenne sprouts and a zucchini is all I’ve got) so I want to get some tomato plants and see what else is out there.

    It also makes me realise I should be a lot more open-minded about my toddler’s fascination with the big, empty planters. I’ve been depriving him and there is no excuse!

    Comment by Meg — May 8, 2006 #

  6. I’ve just planted my vegetable garden with tomatoes, zucchini, melon and basil. I hesitate with eggplant-don’t want tons of that-but I can’t wait to bite into my first home grown tomato still warm from the sun. Can’t get any better than that.

    Comment by Linda — May 8, 2006 #

  7. I like the theory of gardening, and when we initially moved into my house, I hoped to use some of the huge back yard for a garden. But I’ve learned that in practice I have a lot of trouble maintaining even a few plants, and I’ve never been able to keep food plants going long enough to get a real harvest. (Heck, I have trouble mowing my lawn more often than once a month.) So I just enjoy the interesting variety of plants that show up naturally on my land (the wild sunflowers look especially promising this year), let my autistic son run loose in the back yard without worrying about him destroying my hard work, and anticipate my next CSA box.

    Comment by Castiron — May 8, 2006 #

  8. What a wonderful image you gave me, trenching out a space. And since I have beautiful black river bottom soil in the back and clay in the front, I believe I’ll try your trenching idea in the front. The need to have growing things around us isn’t necessarily universal; but for some of us, it is necessary.

    The most expensive use for land is lawn. I have a small patch, to satisfy my husband’s need to run the lawnmower. But I have a lot of ground given over to native life that does well where lawn is a struggle. It doesn’t always look wonderful, but this time of year? It is major “eye-candy”.

    Comment by Cindy — May 8, 2006 #

  9. This is lovely, especially the bit about the herbs and Mrs. Abdella.

    I suppose the main purpose of lawn is to lie on it, but to have a soft and spiky-weed-free lawn, it requires tons of watering and fertilizer and spraying, and I never thought it was worth the environmental cost. It really frustrates me that my supposedly environmentally-conscious college put in a huge lawn a few years back. In Colorado.

    Comment by Mel — May 8, 2006 #

  10. I love having my hands in soil too! I’m not too fond of typical lawns either!

    I am mostly interested in butterfly gardening, so I grow (mostly) native plants for them. I started an herb garden last year – I’m not much of a cook though so they don’t get used a whole lot!

    All three of your observations are so true!

    Regarding typical lawns, we are trying to get buffalo grass started in the non-garden areas of our yard. It is native, doesn’t require much water and doesn’t need to be mowed very often either. On my blog I have more information about it. (You may be interested in another blog post (not mine) about this issue: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/05/that_time_of_year_that_tedious.php – the comments are interesting also!)

    Our house is on a corner – and we have met many people in our neighborhood because of our gardens. People around here walk a lot and are always asking us about them.

    And we have so much wildlife in our yard because of all the native plants! We have robins with two babies now, lots and lots of frog eggs in our ponds, baby preying mantis’s and new butterfly eggs! Why is it that so many people seem to want to kill anything on their property that’s alive (except their precious non-native lawn grasses!) ?

    Comment by Trisha — May 8, 2006 #

  11. What wonderful memories you brought back for me – walking behind my grandpa barefoot in the garden with the warm soil between my toes, sitting and snapping off the ends of the green beans for my grandmom before she made dinner with them.

    I miss the community. I can actually remember when other people would do stuff like give their extra produce to the neighbors. I gave some cuttings from my herb garden to my neighbor across the street a couple of years ago and she looked at me like I was nuts. People don’t really talk to each other any more. It’s really kind of sad.

    Comment by Becke Boyer — May 8, 2006 #

  12. another great post !
    dear barbara, how you manage to strike so many chords in my heart, sitting thousands of miles away, and eons of culture away !!!
    aaah ! gardening !! i grew up in a house that possessed a magical garden, carefully nurtured by my father. it had all the lushness that could be created by a well-balanced combination of completely local flowers as well as the completely foriegn, exotic plants. it was a world in its own. i had not one, but many, many special corners where i spent my summer vacations with a book in hand, or playing with stick people, making sand houses, following ants to their colonies, creating empires, fighting battles and imagining a whole distant world of wonders.
    the months of monsoon spelt sheer magic in that garden. i would wait anxiously as the first clouds of the april summer showers gathered in the eastern sky, with the thunder rumbling in the distance, under my favourite mosantha plant. birds built their nests, drank from the water pan we set up.
    years later, i left home for college, then my job. my parents decided to extent the house, build a new porch and add an upperstorey to the house. half the garden was eaten up. also, my father grew too tired to maintain.
    now, living in a first floor apartment in the city of kochi, i am learning the value of soil. not one day passes without me wishing, ‘oh, only if i had some soil to plant something….’ i do plant, in pots and pans, wherever possible, trying to grow as much as possible. not very succcessfully, since our constant travels ensure that the plants wither up quickly. it is very hard to get someone water them regularly.
    the most beautiful sight in the world, for me, is to look out of your window, and see the green leaves swaying in the light breeze, against the clear blue skies…

    Comment by renu — May 9, 2006 #

  13. I am not surprised by the passionate responses, cross-culturally to this post. The love of green and growing things is a human trait. Not all people have it, but it is not bound by culture or place for those who do have it. And I would say that more people have it than not–even if they themselves do not enjoy the work of gardening, there are those who enjoy the fruits of gardening, and whose hearts and souls relax in a verdant and lovely garden.

    Diane–I have a friend who is a gardener in northern CA–she is a gardener not just by avocation but by trade. She explained to me the method of growing delicious tomatoes in CA–it is called “dry gardening.” You plant your tomato starts very deeply, with much of the stem way underground. This allows roots to sprout from the stem, and create a deep root system. Then, you water it well during the rainy season, and mulch it very deeply, and after the root system is in place, you can restrict water to a degree that we Easterners would find to be most distressing.

    However, she always gets a lovely harvest and has been doing it for years.

    Different climates take different methods!

    Hannah–I am glad to have inspired you! If you have a chance, let me know how it goes!

    Steph–potted rosemary counts as a proper garden to me! Rosemary is one of the few herbs I continually do in for one reason or another. I can never get it last past one season, so I grow it, sadly as an annual. I thought I would die when I visited my gardener friend in CA and saw -hedges- of it growing three frigging feet high! All in bloom! Lovely! But I was so jealous!

    Nerissa–you just have to work with what you have, all the while improving it. Find acid-loving plants, and add compost formulated to change the pH blanance closer to neutral.

    And yes–Findhorn is a miracle, is it not? Though, I like to think that every garden is a bit of a miracle.

    Meg–so long as you are working with edible plants, don’t fear your toddler being with you in a garden. You must watch him with some plants, it is true, for some are poisonous and they don’t taste bad enough for a wee one to notice, but other than that–there is much for a small one to gain in the garden.

    Morganna tells me that she ever so barely remembers that garden in the last house her father and I shared. What she most remembers was the flavor of the basil leaves I gave her to chew on…but she is certain that part of her love of gardening comes from that early exposure.

    There is so much for a little one to learn in any sort of garden, whether it is on a terrace or a huge farm.

    Linda–warm tomatoes are straight from heaven. There is nothing better, not chocolate, not coffee, nor wine. Good luck!

    Castiron–some do not have the gardening “knack” naturally. But that is allright–wild sunflowers sound okay by me! (You could always plant a stand of big cultivated ones, though–they are an awesome sight en masse–and they come up pretty much on their own, with little care from the one who plants the seeds.)

    Give the trench idea a shot, Cindy. I have read of others using it with clay and turning out pretty nice gardens with it. You can always widen the trench year after year, replacing clay as you go.

    Wow, Mel. Colorado lawns. That is not quite as bad as the golf courses in Arizona and New Mexico, but almost. Really crazy stuff. Wasting an aquafer on that.

    Hey Tricia–native grasses and wildflowers are a great substitute for traditional lawn grasses. People forget that our weird ideas about lawns come from Victorian England, where a wide expanse of lawn was a sign of wealth and prestige–and the upkeep even then was amazingly expensive. But, Americans want to emulate that. I think there is also the ideal of the village green in there…the pastoral vision of a field with close cropped grass, all green and sweet looking–of course, without sheep or cattle to crop the grass….

    Well, you know what I mean. Lawns are just bloody silly things, in my opinion.

    Oh, and as for wanting to kill anything on their property–what is up with that? I remember buying different types of violets and the nursery for our old house in Pataskala, and one woman looking down at the lovely little plants in disgust. “I don’t know why anyone would pay money for those damned things–I spray Roundup on them in my yard!” Why? I love nothing more than yards carpeted in part with violets so that in the spring they are vivid blue with blossoms and smell incredible!

    What kind of person is such a person who cannot see the beauty of that?

    Argh!

    Becke–I agree. It is sad that people do not exchange bags of produce over the back fence anymore in our modern “neighborhoods.”

    That, in fact, is part of what my friend Juan, who is Spanish, said was so odd about the US–neighbors did not know each other. In Spain, all the kids play together and the neighborhoods are alive every evening with people outside, visiting. Sharing gossip, gardening tips, vegetables and fruits, and kid-rearing advice, while the kids ran rampant.

    I explained to him that when I was a kid, there were parts of the US that were like that, but it isn’t the same anymore. People became fearful, or something–I don’t know, but I find it sad.

    That is what I like about Athens–there is a real community feeling here, and people work hard to nurture it.

    Renu–we are kin of the spirit, I think.

    I have always wanted to visit India, and in my imagination when I was a child, it was a place of magical gardens. I am glad to hear that my dreams and visions of childhood were not incorrect!

    But you are right–the most beautiful sight in the world is to look out and see green leaves against a clear blue sky…and luckily, I have been priviledged to see that most of the forty years of my life. (And when I haven’t been able to see it–I have been lucky enough to be able to -create- it.)

    Comment by Barbara — May 9, 2006 #

  14. I was pointed to this by a friend, and thank you. I’m moving cross-country in a month, and one of the things I really want to do is have a garden full of things I can use, and that are pretty besides. Things like this remind me of the joy that’s intertwined with the work.

    Comment by Xtina — May 15, 2006 #

  15. This is as local as it gets

    I’ve been an enthusiastic, if only randomly successful, balcony gardener for about five years now. My first year – the one where I was most enthusiastic – was the most successful and I managed to harvest a few dozen tomatoes and three misshapen zucch…

    Trackback by Too Many Chefs — May 15, 2006 #

  16. I am glad to help inspire you, Xtina. Welcome to my blog!

    Comment by Barbara — May 15, 2006 #

  17. Mu absolute must is mint, basil and tomatoes. I recently planeted some strawberry shrubs too so this summer is going to look great!!

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