Thoughts on Dirt
Updated: Mar 17, 2020
Did your mother ever tell you about the stork that brings babies? I always thought a better story would be children growing in a garden; tucked in neat rows like radishes, or curled up inside romaine lettuce, or dangling like lemons just waiting to be claimed.
My garden hypothesis makes more sense than the stork ever did—storks subsist on frogs, fish, insects, earthworms, small birds, and small mammals. As the Hans Christian Andersen stork story goes, the large birds rescue newborn babies from marshes, depositing them safe and sound on the doorstep of a welcoming home. It seems highly improbable that the stork would deliver said “small mammal” to the stoop of a quiet abode rather than eat that baby for dinner. Word on the street is that newborns are fairly flavorless though, so we’ll leave that stone unturned.
Gardeners can accurately claim an elevated degree of purity, simply because they grow their own food. Trading the convenience of a GMO-laced apple for the labor of fighting with dirt is a necessarily satisfying payoff. Plus, a strawberry that lives on its vine until fully ripened will always taste better than a berry that was picked raw and left to ripen in a crate in the back of a semi, in a large bin under fluorescent lights, or in your fridge beneath last nights leftover meatloaf.
Life cycles begin and end every day and we often fail to notice them. Gardeners, however, know many things that that the rest of us don’t. The perfect time of year to sew a row of carrots, for instance, or how much to water tomato plants. How the sky offers subtle indications of rain, or which varieties of lettuce rabbits are especially fond of. The most intriguing thing gardeners have an intimate knowledge of is which type of dirt the begonias, fennel, or corn require. There are apparently many types of dirt that are good for growing different things. If you walk into a garden center at Lowe's or Home Depot, you will find countless varieties of dirt for purchase, a baffling phenomenon to say the least.
I’ve always found it odd that people purchase dirt, because dirt is literally everywhere, or so it seems. It may be more accurate to say that dirty things are everywhere—dirty streets, dirty people, dirty cars, dirty shoes. Sandy dirt, muddy dirt, frozen dirt, rocky dirt. My recent, prolific use of the word “dirt” may be troubling to some scientists, farmers, gardeners, or straight-up informed citizens who know that there is an important distinction between “dirt” and “soil.” Master Gardener Penny Pawl of Napa County writes, “You can't just put your plants in dirt and expect them to flourish. Remember: there is a difference between soil and dirt. Dirt is what you get on your clothes and hands while working in the soil. Soil is made up of elements that have been decomposing since the earth was created.”
Apparently, there isn’t much farmable soil/dirt left on planet earth—the layer of soil covering the earth is only a few feet deep, and the surface of our lord-and-savior-mother-earth is barely 25% land to begin with. According to an online lesson plan for 3rd graders, scientists estimate that only about 10% of the earth is covered with soil that is useful for farming, and a big chunk of that 10% is not used for farming but for homes, highways, schools, and other man-made structures. Further, some types of soil are so rare that they’ve been listed as “endangered” by whichever organization has the credibility to do such a thing.
Dirt is also vaguely interesting because it’s made of decomposed life. Someday when I die, I would not like to be placed in a death box, but to be planted like a seed, allowing my body to slowly decompose back into the earth from which it came. Morbid, huh? Dirt is primarily composed of tiny bits of rock, decomposed plants and animals, and the waste of living plants and animals. The more diverse the plant and human population, the richer the dirt (soil). Life nourishes dirt, and dirt nourishes life. What a fabulously beautiful metaphor.
I didn’t write this blog post with the intention of espousing the benefits of soil (or dirt), but I’m 700 words in with no takeaway. So, here’s how to start a community garden, if that’s of interest to you. If you’d rather not leave the comfort of your home, learn how to grow vegetables in containers HERE. For a complete guide to container gardening for beginners, go HERE.
P.S. What runs around a farm but doesn’t move?