The foundation that matters to the serious gardener is the soil. The price of the plant, the big-name recommendation for the fertilizer, and even the pedigree of the watering can mean nothing if the soil is not properly prepared.
With our hearts filled with hopes and dreams we purchased our 1/4 acre homestead. We imagined a lush green lawn interrupted by smiling flower beds, stately trees waltzing in the wind, and frequent visits from chatty neighborhood birds.
The builder knew the value of topsoil. He scraped it all away and left us with a blank canvas of hard-pan yellow clay. It was there in that chunky yogurt I coined the term shoe-sucking mud. Standing in one place for longer than ten seconds would mire one’s feet and extrication required great force, often at the expense of leaving a shoe behind.
My first attempts at grass farming were unfulfilling. Breaking the concrete-like earth to remove bricks, boards, plywood and other assorted construction items led me to question how anything could grow in that soil, but dandelions loved it.
The state fairgrounds held huge piles of organic material from the livestock exhibitions, and the newspaper ad offered loads to all comers, free of charge. Wood chips and manure? Bits of hay? That was surely the remedy for hard-pan clay. I borrowed a huge tiller to turn hope into the lawn.
I discovered that horse dumplings are little organic gift boxes filled with seeds from every noxious weed known to man. All those weeds germinated, flourished, and reproduced, but the grass refused to grow.
The successful grass farmers on my street aerated and distributed grass seed liberally in the fall. Pre-emergent treatment was applied in late February followed by multiple applications of fertilizer in the spring. The fertilizer triggered kudzu-level growth dictating a full mowing every four days. For some reason the grass clippings were bagged and deposited in plastic bags for the trash man to remove.
The heat of summer baked the lawns but rather than allow the grass to go dormant, the grass farmers watered heavily and continued mowing. Additional chemicals were scattered to control weeds that survived earlier assassination attempts. As fall arrived the vicious cycle started again.
The hamster wheel of lawn maintenance was not one I wanted to occupy.
The secret to improving the soil in the lawn is to define the paths and keep feet and wheelbarrows between the lines. We introduced varieties of plants with staggered bloom-times and differing growing habits.
I learned to compost and marveled at the contribution that black gold adds to soil. The earthworms must approve as they’ve taken up residence among the plants. Sweat and time went into the process, but the clay eventually became soil my Grandpa Miller would have been proud to claim.
Thomas Jefferson was a soil lover, too. His gardens at Monticello have been restored based on Jefferson’s writings and diagrams. Jefferson’s personal logs of his gardening escapades have been collected, carefully researched and published as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book. In a letter to Charles W. Peale in August, 1811 Jefferson wrote,
“I have often thought that if heaven had given me a choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden…though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
(Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts, page 461)
Uzziah became king of Judah at the ripe old age of sixteen. His accomplishments were astounding, and his administration lasted fifty-two years. In that time one love remained constant for Uzziah.
…He also had plowmen and vinedressers in the hill country and the fertile fields, for he loved the soil.
II Chronicles 26:10 NASB
The king kept his fingers in the soil. There’s something therapeutic about turning a garden bed and catching the rich aroma of possibility.
Dirt is good stuff.