D Is for Dirt

garden-three-soils-1“Dead and buried” goes the phrase.

But any gardener knows that buried does not mean dead. What goes on underground we usually don’t see and is easy to forget, but is surely as lively, interesting, and complex as what goes on up top in the sunlight. From the plant’s point of view, both parts of its life–in the air and in the ground–are equally important and each contributes with the other toward the whole plant’s survival and prolonging its species. Since we’re usually more interested in what’s going on above ground–except in the case of root plants like beets, onions, carrots, and potatoes–we tend to think of the roots as supporting the stem, leaves, flowers, and fruits, and not the other way around.  But roots can’t survive without the breathing of the leaves, just as the leaves can’t survive without the minerals taken up through the roots. Just as the land itself can’t survive as a home for plants without the roots holding the earth together amid drought, winds, and floods.

Our preoccupation with certain plants’ prettiness and tastiness makes us disregard the basic life-giving role of the plant parts we want to make prettier or more tasty for us. That thinking also lets us ignore the value of plants that aren’t obviously pretty or tasty according to our narrow standards. And no living thing  is less obviously pretty or tasty to most of us than dirt

Not until I got serious about planting did I begin to appreciate dirt as the living, breathing, incredibly varied thing it is. I’m still far from understanding even the basics of the mixtures of elements, compounds, textures, and moistures needed to make different plants thrive in different temperatures and times of the year. That’s a big reason why I rely so much on the plants themselves to tell me day by day how they are doing.

A Lesson: Poke a Finger in the Dirt 


If, for example, I plant a tiny seedling of arugula in September in the same spot where I grew a tomato plant in the spring and summer, I’ll usually fill the new hole with a mix of compost and the existing soil, plus water, to give the seedling a boost to get started. Then I’ll keep an eye on the seedling and the ground around it each day–maybe more than once a day–to see if the plant is taking up the mineral-rich water and growing firm. If, in the September heat in the high 80s, the ground seems to dry out quickly and the seedling wilts, I’ll poke a finger in the nearby ground to see if the dirt just below the surface is still moist. One thing I’ve learned is that the dirt in the sunlight may not be a good indicator of the moistness of the dirt just beneath, which is markedly cooler.

Just last week I discovered that a mild yellow pepper plant that I’d been watering in its pot every other day June through August, and whose soil seemed dried out on the surface before each watering, was actually floating in thoroughly soaked soil a few inches down because the drainage holes in the pot had become clogged. I’d ignored my own rule of testing the soil below the surface, and it was a wonder that the plant had stayed green and productive of fruit despite the swamp that was growing underneath.

Knowing that the soil beneath the surface may be significantly wetter than the soil in the sunlight can keep us from our tendency to overwater. Just as in human nutrition, more food often does not mean better health. I’ve learned this lesson better and better as the years have gone by, with the result that I’ve used less and less water during the summers with each passing year, even as our garden has grown in variety of plants. And saving more water year to year is a smart thing in our drought-ravaged climate.

Eating Dirt: Love That Umami

Gardening means messing around in dirt. Poking my index finger in the dirt to check for moisture beneath the surface is the dainty act that follows from the much more intimate acts of digging holes, pulling out rocks and roots, hand-mixing residual soil, compost, and fertilizers, and mucking about in the mud. Mud-caked shoes, grit-embedded knees, dirt-smeared clothes, black fingernails, and the lovely mixture of sweat and dust all over the body and hair are consequences of this intimacy between humans and the dirt to which we shall all return. Indeed, if we are what we eat, and if what we eat derives its own nutrients from the dirt, then not only are we in a sense eating dirt, but we are even now made up of dirt.

Am I exaggerating? Well, sure. I mean most of us are not the folks who actually eat kaolin clay in the southeast US and other parts of the world. But keep in mind that one of the five main flavors of our favorite foods is the mysterious umami. Not sweet, sour, bitter, or salty, umami is that, yes, earthy flavor that we crave in meats, mushrooms, chocolate, coffee, and fermented foods from breads to cheeses to beer, red wines, and countless other foods. So while we may not think of ourselves as digging our mouths into a heaping bowl of peat, clay, sand, leaf mulch, or humus, we are drawn to the smells, textures, and flavors of the earth in less obvious forms. (See our post “C Is Also for Coffee” for another take on umami.)

And if you do garden, you must admit that you just love mucking about in the many types of dirt that you will encounter, and that nothing smells better to you than dirt. And the more you love the smell of dirt, the more different aromas of the various dirts you’ll come to recognize, and there will be no end to the joy you derive from getting down and dirty.


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