Wednesday, April 18, 2012

For the Love of Garden Dirt

Freshly tilled lower herb garden, 4/18/12
I spent a good portion of yesterday on my knees in the garden, getting my hands dirty.

We moved to our little homestead-wannabe-farm almost a year ago.  We were in a hurry to get a garden going, because part of the reason we had looked for so long for property was to be able to grow our own food.  We had grand plans of gardens and animals and being completely self sufficient.  By mid May we were sleeping here, although some of our stuff was still at our old apartment.  We spent some time going back and forth, finishing that move out cleaning that never seems to end, but mostly, we were here, making this place our home.

We wanted to try no-till farming.  More because we'd spent every dime we had ever stashed in savings in our down payment and the costs for moving here, than because of a desire to be more green.  We couldn't afford to rent or buy a tiller.

We started digging.  We quickly found that we had some hard packed, compact, rock hard soil.  In two weeks, we managed to dig four rows.  We tried watering the dirt, and learned why the grass that grows naturally here is shallow-rooted.  The water would sink in an inch or so, and then run off.  By mid-May, we were already staring 100 degree temperatures in the face.  It wasn't pleasant, or easy, or anything other than backbreaking labor.  While nothing worth having is easy, at the pace we were going, we'd be ready to plant by August.  We expected freeze warnings within the first few weeks of September.

We finally hung it up.  I did get onion starts and potatoes in the ground, and neither grew.  I was sad about the garden, and felt like a bit of a failure.  I ignored that fact that, as hot as it got, a good amount of our crops would have bolted in the heat-or failed to grow much at all under the harsh sun.  I spent the winter learning more about gardening, trying to find the best time to plant in our freezing-one-day-and-steaming-hot-the-next weather.  Weighing the risk of a late freeze against the risk of planting in 100 degree heat.  While I'd had a garden before, this was the first time we would be truly dependent upon it to feed our family.  The money spent on seed came out of the yearly grocery budget.

I had planned to start planting on April 15.  Our date of last freeze is in mid May, so I knew I'd run the risk of a freeze, but I figured I could protect against that, and it was better than planting in mid May, when those tender shoots could be coming up under torturous, rather than nurturing, sunlight.  The two weeks prior to that mid April target date were mostly cold.  A few days our temperature never got above freezing.  We had snow.  And wind.

I finally started tilling two days ago.  We did buy a tiller, a smaller 43cc. unit that sounds like a chainsaw on steroids.  It's not tilling quite as deep as I want, but I'm solving that problem by tilling the entire garden area, then digging my rows and tilling in the rows themselves to get down deeper where the plants will be growing.  We could have gotten a bigger tiller, but I'm not sure I'd have been able to handle it by myself.  So we're making due with what we have, and finding ways to make it work.  My husband is working six days a week, and my oldest son is deep in the midst of track season.  Around here, we've learned to take care of things without the men folk, out of necessity.  We drove past a friends house on Sunday while on our frantic grocery shopping rush on Mr. Sullivan's only day off, and her husband was tilling the garden.  I was jealous.

Tilling the 15x15 lower herb garden plot took over a day, between cooking dinner and helping with homework and bathing kids and working here.  I would go out and work for an hour at a time, then come in and do dishes or flip laundry, then sit down and write for awhile, or answer emails, or any of the million other things I call work.  My first pass over the garden plot barely even turned the dirt.  The tines bit in but there wasn't a lot of earth moving, which was probably my fault.  When you see those commercials of the people tilling with that really expensive tiller on TV, it looks effortless.  It is not.  By the second pass, I had a better idea of what I was doing, and you could see some turned earth.  I almost finished the second pass when it was time to go in to cook dinner.  My arms felt like they weighed 100 pounds apiece.

Just a few of the "harvested rocks" from the lower herb garden
Yesterday, I got nice and deep into the ground.  I lost a bit of time prying rocks out from beneath the tines.  I'm pretty sure a fairly large percentage of all the rocks God ever made were in my garden.  With each pass of the tiller, the color of the dirt was more and more rich, going from the sunbleached tan of the hard pack to a darker reddish brown, full of potential.  After the fourth pass, I called it good.  I didn't think I could get any deeper with the tiller, small as it was.  I sat down to begin "harvesting rocks".

Running my hands through the dirt felt glorious.  The perfectly turned, lushly colored, cool earth felt so good in my hands.  As I sat there with my hands in the dirt, I felt relaxed, but energized.  The kids started coming home from school, and we had fun harvesting rocks together, playing in the dirt and feeling the richness in our hands.  Reaching deep into the dirt, feeling it moving and flowing, then hitting the hard pack underneath and knowing that the work is not done.  I'll still need to till the rows once they are dug.

I've always had plants.  Tending them and caring for them has always been a labor of love.  Seeing an aloe vera plant or even just a pretty fern flourishing in a pot in a sunny window has always brought me a measure of pleasure.  But sitting there, in that plot of smooth dirt full of promise, and I felt good.  Realizing that this is so much more than a labor of love, but a labor of necessity, though still done with love.  I felt in touch, with myself, with my children who were sitting around me helping, with all of the mothers who had put their hands in dirt before me, with the same hopes and dreams, that they will grow a garden full of healthy food for their families.  With God.

Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed and I was feeling grateful for the quiet time, I was feeling a bit weepy, and couldn't figure it out.  Hormones?  Exhaustion?  No.  An overwhelming sense of relief.  We've taken a few more monumental steps to achieving a major life goal, that began when we bought this homestead that has become our home.

If you've read here for any length of time, you know that finances are a constant issue for us.  Our grocery budget is ridiculously tight, and fresh produce is something that I have to pinch and scrape to have.  We stock up on things when they are on sale, and I provide the healthiest meals I can afford to provide for my family.  To us, this garden represents more than a labor of love.  It represents the only opportunity we'll have to make our meals with organic fruits and vegetables.  It represents months of fresh produce, and more months of produce that we preserved ourselves, giving us the knowledge of exactly what is in our food.

It represents hours of family time, working side by side to pull weeds and harvest rocks.  Hide and go seek in between rows of corn.  Butterflies visiting potato flowers.  Honey bees on pollen patrol.  Plenty of opportunities for giggling, silliness, and maybe even a few long talks with my children who are growing up way too quickly.

I can't wait to get dirty again today!


  1. Wow that is a lot of work. My best wishes to you for a big harvest and a plentiful garden. It will be worth it all in the end.

  2. Lovely post! I know when I plant a seed, watch it sprout and grow, then provide food for us, it touches something deep in my soul and gives me a feeling of profound happiness and contentment.

  3. I love your blog! It is so inspiring. We recently started our first garden and its amazing to watch it grow.


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