Garden Notes: Good Dirt

There’s rain in the forecast, and the clouds have gathered overhead, but as yet, no rain is falling. This is the time I have set aside to work in the garden, and though the weather does not always cooperate with the best laid plans, I don scarf and jacket and gloves, gather tools in a battered wheelbarrow, and set out. For those not familiar with the space, the demonstration garden here at Mountain Feed is the strip of land that fronts the store, paralleling Highway Bordered by sidewalk. It’s a lush space, now, even in winter, when the summer crops have disappeared and the stalwart brassicas, lettuces, and arugula hold court.

It hasn’t always been this way. The soil originally was composed of compacted highway fill, decomposed granite and gravel that underlies the sidewalk, and clay hardpan. It’s been the work of so many people, and so much compost, to bring it to the state of leafy plenty it abides in now. Two compost bins sit side by side, both full to the brim with compost; today it’s time to empty the older one, to make room for all the new greenwaste to become soil. As I unwrap the simple wire frame of the compost bin, I’m feeling the presence of all the other folks who have worked to make this garden what it is. All the trimmed leaves, spent stalks, veggie starts that passed their prime, everything in this bin has passed through the hands of my coworkers, co-creators in this garden space. The dew-wet leaves, the raised mounds and drip irrigation, each piece in the mosaic put in place by the shifting team, past and present, that has made this space what it is.

Scoop off the top layer, the dead leaves and straw that were placed on the top of the pile before we bedded it down to age. These go straight onto the other pile, to perform the same function; trapping moisture and interstitial air spaces, for beneficial bacteria to feed upon. We tend not to turn our compost here; the reason to turn compost is to get air into the pile, which is essential to the proper breakdown of nutrients; however, if the pile is built from the beginning with the intention of trapping air within the pile, there is no need to turn it. We trap air in the pile by layering fresh and dead materials, especially ones of differing texture, in layers atop each other; leaves and straw are especially good at holding trapped air between their stalks.

The wheelbarrow rolls smoothly along the sidewalk; that’s one benefit to working along the highway, the flat, smooth sidewalk is easier to maneuver on than just about any other other garden path. There’s benefits and down-sides to working along this stretch of road; the reflected heat from all that concrete makes for early ripening of many a summer vegetable, but the odd beer can and cigarette butt find their way in among the plants as well. I have to laugh; underneath the huge cardoon plant is an empty Corona bottle. I’ve just gotten through testing a recipe for deep-fried cardoons; the batter is made of buttermilk, flour…and light beer. Beer makes a nice pairing, too, but out here, in its raw, vegetative state, the cardoon certainly does not need an empty beer bottle for company; there’s not even enough liquid left in the bottom to trap hapless slugs.
Someone chains their bike to the stop sign among the young lettuces while I am weeding. It can be a rough life for plants in an urban space (and yeah, I guess I just called downtown Ben Lomond urban; it’s, ahem, a matter of degree); still, the garden thrives, and feeds not only the employees here, but others, as well. As I kneel, muddy at the knees, shaping the freshly dumped compost back into new raised mounds, a woman walks by. “Hey honey, "she calls. “What’s gonna happen to that little pumpkin?” I look at where she is pointing and there sits a small, deep orange Kabocha squash. “ Someone will eat it,” I say. “Are you hungry?” She nods and I pluck the little squash from its withered vine, give it over into her hands. “I’ll keep the seeds,” she promises. It’s still firm and whole, even months after the vine that nourished it has broken down into strands of brown thready fiber. More carbon for the new compost pile. Squash are amazing.

The zucchini is still flowering, still fruiting, even here so near to the Winter Solstice. The root of the vine is withered; the squash will not last the winter, but still, it is an impressive effort, nonetheless. I tuck some compost around the base of the plant, less because the squash needs it, than to feed the next season of growing things that will supplant the Golden Dawn Zucchini. Still, I like anthropomorphizing a little, imagining that the spritely old squash is enjoying a late meal of garden nutrients.

There’s a surefire way to tell a good gardener, or even an aspiring gardener with a love of the soil. Show them some nice compost; chances are, they’ll say something along the lines of, “That looks good enough to eat with a spoon.” Somehow it’s true. We don’t mean it in the literal sense (grit, worms, etc) but the smell comes off of fresh earth and good compost is deeply nourishing; it tugs at our animal senses. Bethany, another gardener, comes over to the fence as I am digging. “I came over to get a smell,” she says, and breathes deep. She’s been baling Christmas trees to ride atop cars for a month now. “Even Christmas trees are starting to smell like, just trees,” she says. “I needed a smell of good dirt.” We breathe in for a moment, appreciating.

Mila is not here today, but I think of her as well, today, when I am done moving compost, and weeding in another patch of the garden. Everyone has their own gardening style, and she and I, though we share a love of the same plants, fall on what might be defined as opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m a sentimental gardener; she is practical and neat. I come upon a patch of bachelor buttons that have sprouted up in a pathway. They’re relics from a batch we planted years ago, to fill wedding bouquets for another dear friend and former employee, Molly Rose. They pop up here and there, out of season, whenever, and wherever, the wind blows them. A more practical gardener might not spend 15 minutes weeding the grass shoots from among the small green leaves, but I do. I try to bend the path around them, cut back a ceanothus on one side to make room for the new wiggle in the path—but I can see, after all my efforts, that they are just in the way. I dig them up, taking care to get all of their tiny taproots, and tuck them in corners, among the vegetables. There’s scabiosa seedlings popping up everywhere, too, that will flower pale lavender. And this color pairing reminds me that there’s a huge patch of cerinthe, and another of purple-leafed shiso, taking over and growing far too closely together, in another part of the garden. Even though they are all months from blooming, I can see them as they will be. That’s another common trait in a gardener, that most gardeners share, the tendency to see things through the sometimes rosy goggles of what might be, and not just the spindly stalks of the unimpressive present. It also comes in handy for placing plants in the right places; we must think not only of what the plant looks like now, but what it will grow into in several years. Mila’s great at that, too; I am always trying to fit too many plants into a small space. But here in the winter garden there is plenty of room, so I scoop up little plugs of the purple and blue flowered cerinthe, the dark leaved shiso, and tuck them all together with the scabiosa and bachelor’s buttons around the fig tree, the back fence. Mila might think I am being silly; we have enough of these seedlings, and this first and foremost a vegetable garden, and not an ornamental one; still, I think she and I will both appreciate the way the bees will buzz around the blue and purple blossoms, months from now, when the sun comes out again.

I know Renee will appreciate it; she’s begun keeping bees, and loves to watch them with her cup of morning coffee, when sun and time allow. There’s a girl who will appreciate some floral flair. I grin to myself, thinking of a photo I once took of Renee’s hands, scarlet red nail polish, black crumbly dirt clinging to every finger. Those hands have done a lot of work on behalf of this garden. Maybe some phacelia seed should get sprinkled out here too; bees love phacelia, and the pollen is blue, a rarity in the plant kingdom. Maybe, maybe. I keep working. Spread straw around the new soil, to warm and keep the mounds from slumping. Maybe this year we will innoculate some wet straw with oyster mushroom spawn, try to catch a crop of pleurotus ostreatus before the summer heat kicks in. The oyster mushrooms need temps below 50, and a moist environment, but other than that they are not too picky; I’ve seen them grown on wood chips, wet straw, coffee grounds. Ryan would like that, and others who work here, too; there’s a lot of mushroom foragers in our crew right now. Maybe, maybe. There’s a coffee shop across the street, maybe the blueberries would like some grounds, too, come to think of it. Maybe. The cars speed by. The clouds deepen and evening comes on. It’s time to go; a woman walking her dog passes by, and I recognize her from earlier in the day, when she complemented me on the state of the garden. “It always looks so good out here,” she says. I accept her thanks on behalf of all who have worked to make this space what it has become, humbly and with gladness, with dirt beneath my nails, mud on my jeans, and the good smell of compost all around us. Only now does it start to rain. Perfect timing.


Over to You

It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you grow beautiful, sustainable, gardens wether you have sprawling acres of farm or just a tiny plot along the highway. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.