In Defense of Dirt

When I get ready to spend time in my small community garden – anything that will require more than a bit of light weeding, watering or picking – I change into old clothes (preferably dark colors) and worn sneakers.

“Well, of course,” even a semi-astute reader might say, “you don’t want to get your nice clothes dirty.” And it is true – we’re taught from an early age that dirt is bad, dirt needs to be kept out of the house and even that something dirty can make you sick. As in “Don’t eat that – it’s dirty!” And there is, of course, sound reasoning in those lessons: one doesn’t want to stain a lovely yellow blouse with ugly brown splatters and there is plenty of evidence that ingesting something that might have come into contact with a germ-harboring location such as, say, a handrail on the subway, might likely result in catching a bug (as in the flu or a cold – don’t get me started on the bad rap that insects get!). However it isn’t really dirt itself that might makes one sick. I beg to convince you, dear reader, rather that dirt is the very life blood of, well, life.

Exhibit A is my community garden. When it was constructed five years ago, fresh soil was brought in for the raised beds and any dirt that might come into contact with food-producing plants was tested. My dirt was declared safe, fertile, perfectly balanced. And I used that dirt to plant tomatoes and peppers and kale and onions and basil and beets and a dozen other edibles – to varying degrees of success – in the interim. This past season I was really getting my timing and mix of plants down. I knew when I might have my best success planting seeds versus seedlings; I watered when it was hot (which was often) and experimented with shading techniques for the more tender shoots. The weather provided plenty of sunshine and a few drenching rains – my hose (or that of my generous neighbor) provided the rest of the needed moisture. So why, then did my tomatoes look anemic? How come my carrots grew in spindly legs rather than one strong root? What caused some seeds to sprout and full patches to lay dormant? It was my dirt. I had not appreciably fed or fertilized it in the time that it had been under my control. My tomatoes lacked the nutrients they needed; my carrots decided to divide and conquer in order to ensure survival. Sure their tops were bushy and green, but at the expense of its barely edible root.

Enter Exhibit B – my backyard tomato pots. In a moment of divine inspiration – or maybe because I was running low on dirt and didn’t want to spend another twenty dollars at the local nursery to buy something people spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of – I filled the bottom third of my tomato pots with half-finished compost from my home bin. It was a win-win situation: my bin was full and my tomato pots weren’t. These plants – some started from seed and others from the same greenhouse as those in my community garden – were monstrous. They climbed their trellis and produced dozens of firm, fragrant fruit. Even with significantly shorter hours in direct sunlight, these plants far out-performed their siblings at the garden. Considering the few differing factors – I blamed the dirt.

Which brings me to Exhibit C: my compost bin. I received my indoor composter for Christmas last year and had it filled about three quarters full within a month. But then the magic of compost kicked in (with help from my all-natural Bokashi compost starter) and it stayed about three quarters full until spring when I emptied most of its contents into my tomato pots. I was worried at first when I saw the white fuzz and smelled the fermenting, rotting smell. These things were bad, right? They were dirty! Well, yes, exactly that. It was the (controlled) rotting of the food and the microbes that broke it down into a dark brown substance that looked an awful lot like dirt that defines working compost. As the organic matter decomposes the liquid is released as compost tea (an elixir for plants, but rather fecund smelling, so beware indoor usage) and the remaining mass shrinks. So yeah, those who garden (should) know this: dirt is made from decomposed organic matter – or rather the end result of allowing fruits and vegetables (and other things) to rot and rot and rot until there is nothing left but dirt. Good, delicious, fertile dirt. And it is from this substance that seeds and seedlings and plants take their nutrients back so that they can create more fruits and vegetables for us to eat again. There you have it – the circle of life.

Of course what I have in my garden is a bunch of dirty dirt – dirt with its life force spent from too much life making. It’s old. It needs to be replenished, fed, rejuvenated. So I learned my lesson this season. My garden needs more food to help create my food. I’m going to feed my dirt with fresh, fully broken down compost and maybe some organic dirt food as well. I’m going to turn it good and deep to mix the top layer with the fresher dirt from six, maybe ten inches below the surface. I’m even going to test it, to see what it’s missing. And maybe look into crop rotation to use the food I am growing in my dirt to help feed the dirt as well as people.

It’s amazing, dirt is. So amazing that maybe next time I won’t think so much about what I have on when I work in the garden, but rather wear my dirt stains and mud splotches as a badge of pride.