It was one of those moments when I realized that all of my efforts as a gardener were paying off. It wasn't the simultaneous blooming of a well-orchestrated border, or a compliment from an admiring friend. Rather, I was simply tucking a new plant into an existing bed - my trowel easily penetrated the soil revealing at least a half-dozen earthworms. They were wriggling uncomfortably, exposed as they were to the sun and air, and I felt a bit sorry for my intrusion. However, their presence provided great satisfaction, for they were a sign that the soil was alive, that the foundation of my garden was solid.
There is joy in the good earth. When I am working compost or fresh soil into a planting bed it is hard for me to resist scooping it up in my hands simply for the tactile pleasure of it. I was raised to deplore dirt collecting under my nails, but you know, you really can't be a gardener and keep your nails clean. Crumbly, dark, fertile soil is simply irresistible. A friend recently told me that she is intoxicated by the scent of the earth that wafts up when she waters her garden. You see, I'm not alone on this one!
Nearly twenty years ago I used to work for a small nursery in the Houston area. During my first day on the job, one of the long time employees, a diminutive, grandfatherly figure from Mexico, taught me the pleasure of blending soils together for potting plants. He would take some peat, course sand, perlite, shredded bark, and other materials and mix them together with his hands. He smiled as the blended soil fell from his fingers, "La receta de la cocina," he informed me. "The recipe of the kitchen," indeed, it looked good enough to eat.
It took years of effort to build the soil in my garden, and the job will never be completed. Every year I top dress with my own "recipe" of leaf litter, compost, and mulch. I also apply organic "soil-foods" that encourage the plants as well as the earthworms and other critters that keep the soil healthy. I learned years ago that the benefits of shortcuts, like heavy applications of fertilizers, are short lived. I have to keep reminding myself "it's the soil, stupid."
I am fortunate that my courtyard, the central feature of my garden, is essentially one huge raised planter. That offered me the opportunity to import soil of my own choosing. Our little condominium building was built on fill, and over the years, the original concrete courtyard sagged and cracked because the site had settled. About fourteen years ago, I convinced my fellow homeowners to let me tear out the concrete and replace it with the garden that now exists. It took numerous truckloads of soil and compost to fill my "planter" but the effort was worth every shovel full.
Here in Central Texas, the dirt beneath our feet is typically some gunky clay or hardscrabble caliche. Because of this, I encourage many folks to follow my example and build large raised planters for their gardens. Creating the right soil blends for these spaces can almost be as much fun as choosing the plants themselves.
There is deeper work to be done, however. The work of enriching our inheritance - caliche and clay though it may be. Wendell Berry, my favorite poet, sums up this work in his poem, "Enriching the Earth." He writes, "I have stirred into the ground the decay of the growth of past seasons and so mended the earth All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth, not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness and a delight to the air, and my days do not wholly pass." The earth, when lovingly tended, reveals its delight. What does your trowel reveal?
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