Thoughts on Dirt

Three years ago last April, I stood in line at a local plant nursery listening to the garden chatter around me in awe.  A man complained about clay soil, a women spoke knowingly of “amendments.”  She had a bagged product she used, it was “like magic” and turned her clay soil into something worthwhile.

I didn’t know what clay soil was.  I didn’t know what an “amendment” was.  You mean, you could add something to your dirt…and turn it into another kind of dirt?  I was going crazy trying to bite my tongue- what WAS it that you added?  How much?  How did you get it in?  How did you know you’d succeeded?  How did you know what kind of dirt it was to start with, and how did you know exactly what magic substance to add to fix it?  Oh, and when they started talking alkaline and acidic soil…they totally lost me.  Gardening must be an occupation reserved for the elite I thought: the knowledgeable, and those with vast quantities of disposable income to use on….dirt.

This was also before I knew that (ahem) you could plant a garden in your yard.  In your own dirt.  It didn’t have to come in a plastic sack.  Seriously, I had no idea vegetables could be grown in the ground.  It sounds so dumb to say that, I know.  Just what did I think farms were?  Obviously they were foreign places, with dirt much more exalted than what I walked on.

It’s funny how much I’ve learned the past few years.  I can honestly say that for the last 3 years,  I’ve spent at least 2 weeks every winter/spring spending HOURS daily poring over gardening books, blogs, how-to websites, you name it.  I’ve spent a week at a time studying companion planting, trap crops, and veggie rotations.  Year-round gardening, square-foot gardening, square-INCH gardening, gardens in pots, gardens in beds, gardens in buckets.  I’ve studied it all.  Wild foods, heirloom foods, genetically-modified foods.  And yet, every year, I find myself drawn back into my studies.  Some people drool over seed catalogs, I salivate over my library catalog.  (I’m pretty sure we have one of, if not THE best library system in the country.  I’ve been able to order every book I’ve ever looked for, to pick up in the “hold” section downtown.)

HOWEVER, I still don’t have a successful garden to show for all my work.  Last year was the bumper year for tomatillos and plums.  The year before, we had chard.  So, you know….if anyone was feeling intimidated about mad growing skills over here, don’t be.  Ha.

As I write this, my husband is outside wrestling (literally) with a large rototiller.  I thought I knew what clay soil was until I got here- we don’t even have soil, just CLAY.  The kids grab handfuls of it and mash it around to make balls to throw.  Clay and rocks is what we’re building our garden on.  Since I want wide paths for my wheelbarrow anyway, we’ve settled on keeping the clay for the paths, and we’ll cover it with a good-looking mulch.  (Nice thing about clay is that not many weeds grow in it!  But the ones that DO grow…sakes alive, are their root systems vicious.)

Veggies will be in 2 or 3 raised boxes, the clay hollowed out a foot or 2 and replaced with good garden soil.  Once my husband finishes rototilling, it should be easier to get the clay out of the box spaces.  At least we won’t need a pick axe!

We managed to dig out an 18-foot by 4-foot section along the driveway, that’s currently host to a dozen tomato plants, a border of bush beans, and a sprinkling of purple alyssum.  (I also sprinkled the alyssum in the gaps between the paver steps, hoping to soften the edges.  We kept the kids busy for an hour or so filling those gaps with dirt, cupful by cupful.)

Here’s hoping to a lush Fall garden!


4 Responses

  1. Came across your garden blog while looking for something to read about gardening. With clay soil you need to add lots of amendments. Such as grass clippings, compost and shredded leaves. After several years of doing this the soil will be workable.
    Enjoy reading your blog, hope you have a good harvest this summer.

  2. I can’t wait to see the pictures!

    Oh, I second the comment above for making your own soil. We do this as well – compost on top of the soil instead of in a bin. You do need to add some soil and maybe a little sand if it’s all clay, but it vastly improves the soil the natural way. I think a version of this is lasagna gardening…you’ve probably read about this. We even add old bills, statements, junk mail, etc. I soak them in a bucket of water and squish it into a mush before adding to the garden. The worms love it. : )

  3. You will reap much from your reaping. Hope the project is still going well!

  4. I second adding organic matter to the soil. Sand will help only if you have lots of organic matter, otherwise you just made cement.

    The problem with lasagna gardening in Seattle is the lack of drainage and number of pests that love our wet soil. What you don’t want to do is mulch. You create an environment that weevils, miners, symphlans, snails and slugs adore. We don’t have the luxury of letting our soil dry out enough to drive those pests down deeper like other climates do.

    I’m so excited for your beds! I highly recommend getting logs or anything you can to raise them up so you can get some loamy soil and then starting a HUGE compost pile so you always have stuff to add to it. Grass clippings and leaves are great! Start small and look at it as a work in progress. The main thing you are finally on your way!

    xo, Annette

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