Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earthy Not Earth Day

Well, it wasn't technically Earth Day, but on Sunday we made a vegetable garden.

We didn't plant seeds. We didn't buy seedlings. We took a hole in the earth and filled it with compost and dirt, with a little help from the neighbor's Bobcat.

The project began about four years ago when we chose the sunniest section of the yard for a vegetable patch. We live in mid-Michigan, which has hard-packed clay, nearly pure sand, and occasionally beautifully rich soil located seemingly at random. Our sunny patch turned out to be the first variety.

You can make pottery out of this soil. All spring it's gooshy; by summer it's rock hard. My husband painstakingly dug out a rectangle about 40 by 60 feet and two feet deep. We began to line it with rocks for drainage and about the time we contemplated adding pipes, the whole project got out of hand.

So for the next few years it was the Clay Pit, which is much more fun than a sand box because the things you build are nearly permanent. The kids would get out there with pickaxes and shovels and a hose, creating rivers and mountains and dams and whole undulating landscapes. They'd be at it for hours, returning to the house in shoes caked with inches of clay. I'd warn their friends' parents that their kids would come home really dirty but tired and happy, and they did. I highly recommend a Clay Pit in your yard if you have children.

This year, to my kids' dismay, I insisted on creating a garden. (Luckily the Clay Pit is so big that I only commandeered half of it.) We had some rock-hard clay mountains left from the original excavation and two big old compost piles to work with. It really did take a Bobcat to break apart the clay mountains, which we layered with more-or-less rotted compost in a giant brown lasagne. My husband operated the Bobcat; I loaded and unloaded the compost from the tractor's trailer; my daughter learned to drive said tractor. My son helped spread the clay, which was the most difficult job, disappearing at odd intervals to work on his own project, digging a drainage ditch and lining it with clay. He always has marched to a different drummer.

I became closely acquainted with the compost pile. We are lazy composters, taking grass clippings and weeds and waste from the perennial beds and dead leaves and, well, piling them up. That's it. We don't mix it or water it or maintain a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Unsurprisingly, the result is not a homogenous mixture of soft, crumbly, dark brown soil. It's more like flattened mats of leaves, pockets of dry-as-dust grass, curiously wet and slimy areas, and poofs of white powder (mildew?) that rise in clouds when I forked into the pile. Compost has many faces, all wildly intriguing but none very pretty. Crawling through the whole mottled mess were lots and lots of fat earth worms, so something must be going right inside our Compost Failure.

Next weekend we'll dig into our older compost pile that lives in the woods on the other side of the yard. The innards of this pile actually look like compost should, nice and soft and rich and loamy, kind of like a great big brownie. If the weather is good, we should be able to put a nice layer of this stuff on the new vegetable bed and rake it smooth. We may even get out the electric fence kit I got for my birthday back when we first dreamed up the garden. (The deer here are satanic.)

Oh. What will we plant? I know it sounds nutty, but a part of me doesn't want to plant anything at all. I am so pleased with the building of it, with the dirt and rotted this-and-that, the layers of earth, that I don't want to mess up its simplicity and purity. Maybe I'll just have a dirt garden.

A gratuitous flower photo. After all, it's spring. :-)


Anonymous said...

I just planted some Heirloom Purple Tomato seeds I saved from a tomato I got from Kathy and Denny Bordner last year. If any germinate I'll give you some! It was really purple and DELICIOUS!

Priscilla said...

The stinkin' deer ate my tulips, which were just starting to open up! Grrr.