Digging in the Dirt

So, to briefly recap my first post, there are lots of trees in our yard. Way too many for good gardening. To make things even more fun, the dirt here (it doesn’t deserve the name of ‘soil’) got itself mixed up with cement at some point, and in its desire to emulate that substance it resists tools with a stubbornness I might admire if I had any energy left over after a round of ‘digging’ that more closely resembles hacking away at, you got it, cement. In the back by the alley, we can abandon the metaphor, for the dirt there quite literally got mixed up with cement. Dig there (if you can) and you’ll find chunks and chips of cement. Also bricks, bits of bricks, and lots and lots of rocks. According to my ninety-year-old neighbor to the north, who’s lived there since the fifties when she and her husband bought the two lots north of ours from the then-owner of our house, a brick-making facility used to be on our block. The evidence bears her out.

That alley strip is so inhospitable that we decided to go for raised beds, which my husband built for me our second year here. Our first year we spent trying to fix up the house to the point where some bank somewhere would be willing to issue a mortgage on it, which meant taking on — or off — the shag carpeting from the seventies and below that linoleum from the thirties when the original log cabin was built, not to mention moving the kitchen, building a new floor in the addition, refinishing the finally exposed fir floors in the old part of the house, putting in new windows, repainting everything, and having the roof redone (the only thing we hired out) to fix the leaks under which the previous owner, in all other ways a great guy, had been parking buckets for ten years (thank god this was Montana, with its super-dry climate, or there’d have been rot to contend with not just a roof to replace). Talk about your fixer-upper.

Not much gardening got done that year, but by our second summer in the house we had the mortgage, and the gardening itch had to be scratched. Since only the alley (as amply demonstrated in the earlier entry) gets several continuous hours of sunlight, the raised beds were a priority. Steve used leftovers of the log siding that covers the seventies addition to the house. (The siding was a great choice aesthetically, as the new part of the house blends pretty well with the original log cabin, but as we have learned to our sorrow, it doesn’t hold a candle to real logs as an insulator.)

To fill the beds we had to buy soil, and in a misguided fit of economy I went for the cheapest earth advertised. The term "sandy loam" had been used in the ad; I probably could have won a suit for false advertising.& A friend (a lawyer, actually) suggested I return it, but in the grip of the encouraging claim in a gardening book that any soil could be made workable, I didn’t.

Over the five summers since, I’ve dug tons (and that may almost be true) of compost and peat moss and gypsum ("works like millions of tiny crowbars!") and crushed bricks ("great for clay soils!") into those plots, with the result that they are apparently earthworm heaven, but they still harden over the season to the point where it’s not only impossible to pull up carrots, it damn near impossible to dig them up.

My latest strategy is sand. Unfortunately, the situation’s so bad that digging sand in coats dirt clods while leaving them intact. There are clumps of clay in that dirt so dense that they don’t crumble when pressed, they just squash; they deform, like clay. The only way to break them up, I’ve found, is to rub them on a stone with a handful of sand. Now there’s a way to spend an afternoon.

So now you know my dream: to be able to pull up carrots. To that end, I will now go outside and squash a little more sand into a few more clods of clay.

One Response to Digging in the Dirt

  1. Wow I have to say it inspires me to read this. My soil is much the same and I have been working ittolife for a year now. It will be worth it!

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