Thursday, April 5, 2007

Getting Dirty

When the world is covered with an impermeable layer of icy snow (with a crust so thick that a large man can stand on it without breaking through), it is easy for the gardener to anticipate the pleasures that springtime will bring. I spent much of my free time, in the last months, leafing through lush catalogs and gardening manuals, buying seed packets, and imagining a future full of possibilities, of beans, peppers, radishes, eggplant, and the incomparable, ripe, juicy, acidulous tomatoes of summer.

Sooner or later, though, every dreamer has to confront reality. My own reality has taken on a distinctly earthy tinge, in the form of a veritable mountain of dirt. The garden may aspire toward heaven, but it is anchored in the ground-up rubble and detritus of the mortal world. Anyone who wants to eke an edible harvest from this soil must ensure that it will provide the nutrients the plants will need to fuel their growth.

Therein lies my problem. In my 10-by-10-foot plot, I had to contend with a substance that was soil-like in appearance, but which was actually compounded of ground-up wood. The landscaper who created the garden last year dumped in wood mulch rather than soil or compost. I began to realize what was wrong after many of my spring seedlings began to turn yellow and wilt, but by then it was too late to start over. I dug some soil into the roots, sprinkled slow-release synthetic fertilizers, and watered the plants with liquid fertilizer. By the end of the growing season, I had harvested a few dozen tomatoes, perhaps half a dozen cucumbers, and a scattering of bush beans.

This year, I was determined not to make the same mistakes. I borrowed a capacious wheelbarrow from my neighbor, and transferred load after load of the bad garden soil to the flowerbeds, where it would do less harm. My body is solidly built, but that sort of work is much like snow-shoveling: it hurts all the more because it uses muscles that aren’t regularly used in any other normal activity. I ached for days after the first attempt to empty the garden.

Another landscaper filled the void with one and a half cubic yards of compost that she claimed would grow anything. “I slipped when I was standing in the truck, and told my workers, ‘I just fell down the shitpile!’” the landscaper said, chuckling. The workers piled the dirt higher than the edges of the raised garden box, unintentionally creating another day’s work for me: the extra soil would again have to be transferred to one of the flowerbeds. If the landscaper was right about the soil’s fertility, the dried blood and bone meal I bought as organic sources of nitrogen and phosphorus will also be dumped among the flowers.

But before I plant my spring peas, I will use my cheap consumer testing kits to make sure there are at least some nutrients in the soil at the start. To those who claim that gardening is a form of therapy, I say, “Bah!”

Gardening is all about grubbing in the dirt, killing bugs, and smashing the guts out of tomato-eating caterpillars. It’s not a gentle hobby; it’s a blood sport and an exhausting occupation, a struggle against the vicissitudes of nature and a competition with every other living thing that eats vegetables (which includes most of the animal world, except the carnivores). Its rewards are scant compensation for the effort involved.

Success in the garden is no wondrous miracle of gentle growth; it is an achievement won through intense physical labor and mental calculation. Even on a small scale, a garden puts grit behind your fingernails and a sunburn on your neck.

If you want therapy, buy a scented candle instead.

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