I love dirt. The feel of it as I plunge my hands into rich soil. The smell of it after a summer rain. The sight of it covered by vegetables and herbs tapping into its nutrients. I have a connection with dirt that is deeper than what can be found under my nails, or ground into the callouses on my hands. The instant that I am working with dirt something otherworldly, spiritual if you will, begins to happen. It’s like I grow roots and I am grounded.
I suppose that does make sense because what is dirt but the remnants of all living things that have gone before? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and all that. Working with dirt is like having the Ancestors talk to you.
When I was a child we lived close to one of the most fertile lands in Canada, called the Holland Marsh. My dad used to load my sister, mom and I in the car and just go for a drive on the rambling country roads in that area. The fields are irrigated by a series of canals and the soil is so rich it is black. My dad convinced me that “sharpie fishes”, aka sharks, lived in the canals and my mom would scold him and say, “Mac, don’t tell her that!” I am pretty sure that, to this day, I still believe there are sharpie fishes in that dark water.
In high school I was friends with one girl whose family farmed part of the Marsh. There were two types of people there – Dutch and Italian. She descended from the former. Her dad was stern and chose to hardly speak English but he always had a twinkle in his eye. Her mom had an easy laugh, an apron covered in flour and a hug that left me breathless. Being a town kid, I marveled at how dinner came from the ground and the coop, straight to the table.
I grew up in a tiny neighborhood of a small historic town. Marg, a woman who lived across the street, had a wonderful backyard garden that she puttered around in. I can still taste those tomatoes 20 years later. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Hope, converted his entire generous backyard lot into a tiny version of the farm he once owned. He was persnickety and a pain, but also generous and treated us to a variety of vegetables. Corn never tasted so good. Mrs. Bell, whose own lot backed onto his, loved to grow lilacs and other flowers. Their smell was intoxicating. She and Mr. Hope were usually at war over the property line and one day the air was blue when she discovered he had hacked a good part of a lilac bush that had overhung their mutual fence. I had no idea an old lady could cuss like that.
Four years ago I made the decision to have a garden. Now, the Billingsley family and its members by blood or marriage, are known for a few things, most of them infamous, but they are not known for possessing green thumbs. Undeterred I pressed forward and with Darrel’s assistance, an 8 X 8 ft raised bed was built. Our property is located in the Tanana Valley, home to the land of silt on permafrost. Even in the middle of the summer frozen ground can be located less than two feet down. Most excellent for black spruce, swamps and mosquitoes, but not for gardens.
We had to haul in two loads of garden soil which was the first time in my life I have paid for dirt. I was like a pig in, ahem, dirt when the soil arrived. Darrel, not so much – “We are buying dirt?”
I carefully planned out the map and planted my seeds. And waited. And waited. And waited. I learned that waiting for vegetables to grow is sort of like watching water boil. It rarely happens when you are looking. Sure enough though, seedlings emerged and things, including weeds, actually began to grow. I don’t think I will ever tire of the marvel. I make a small hole in the dirt, or a shallow trough, drop a seed, keep the dirt moist and something good grows.
Gardening here has not been without its challenges. Moose like vegetables. Mine is a low budget kind of operation and electric fence was out of the question. No problem. With a little ingenuity I put four corner poles in and strung four strands of carpenter string around the garden. Then I tied short pieces of flagging tape on the string which flapped around. Thankfully my neighbors are richer than us and have actual electric fences that local moose have had encounters with. And thankfully moose aren’t very bright and assumed my McGyvered fence was the real thing.
Rabbits, or more accurately snowshoe hares, also like vegetables. Peas and beans in particular. Last year my trellised peas and beans looked so healthy. I was so excited to see the blossoms and then the start of the veggies. Darrel has become very accustomed to me coming into the house and being over the moon about something vegetable related. Then came the evening I stomped into the house declaring war on rabbits.
My vision is pretty challenging and has been for a couple of years. I have severe double vision which is turning into quadruple vision. The result is that I miss a lot of things like, oh, the bloody rabbit had eaten my peas and beans. I think he knows I can’t see well because he started the buffet about four inches above the ground, right where the bottom of the dark trellising started and then ate as high as he could reach. I don’t know how long it was like that but long enough for me to see, on a hands and knees inspection, that he had taken a number of rabbit dumps while enjoying his dinner.
Aphids like gardens too. Last year was bad but I discovered the miracle of soapy water sprays. I tried introducing ladybugs into the garden but that doesn’t work well in the land of the midnight sun. The idea is to release them just before dark so that your garden is their home. Ladybugs come in packages about the size of a small lunch sack and there are approximately 1,500 of the aphid killers in each package. I have tried the ladybug thing twice with the result being I have set 3,000 ladybugs free to roam Alaska. My neighbor was so excited one day because she said she had ladybugs in her garden. I just gritted my teeth.
Weather is another opponent. Our summers are becoming as unpredictable as our winters. One summer it was so hot and dry we were on standby evacuation because of fires. The next summer was so rainy and wet we had ducks in the low spot of our yard. Last year I had somehow managed to successfully start cucumbers – I am a cucumber killer – and had carefully hardened them off. I checked the weather and sunshine and warmth was predicted. I lovingly transplanted my baby cukes and then it happened. In one instant the sky blackened like it was the end of times and the heavens opened up with wind, rain and hail.
This year I have two greenhouses. Well greenhouse might be a bit too formal for what I have. Getting back to the lack of money theme, Darrel and I were able to get creative and use mostly what we found or already have here. There is now a hoop house over the raised bed made of 2 x2’s. PVC pipe, plastic sheeting, zip ties and used dog snaps.
My expansion this year is hot peppers and apparently I have an addiction. I have a ridiculous number of hot pepper plants – jalapeno, beaver dam, serrano, scotch bonnet, padron, anaheim, hungarian hot wax, tobasco, habanero, ancho, cayenne, serrano and probably a couple I forgot. Peppers need heat, more than we are definitely getting this summer of rain and chill. So, the unused 6×6 kennel has been turned into a pepper greenhouse with plastic sheeting, zip ties and baling wire. Ugly but functional. There is a lesson in that to be sure.
I love this dirt. It grows the vegetables I will get to can in the fall. It is a place of peace when the storm of my health threatens to drown me. This dirt grows good things.