Saturday, March 26, 2011

Some Dirty Memories

I love dirt. I love the loamy, earthy scent of it and the friable feel it has in my hands. I can't remember a time when I didn't love that smell and if I could figure out a way to bottle it, I'd always carry some with me. Just a whiff of fresh turned earth and I'm back on the southern Minnesota plains where I was born and raised. In my mind I see that black soil, freshly furrowed, ready for planting. I know it's spring and most likely the violets are blooming in the farm's drain channel so I scoot over there to find the sweetly delicate blooms. They're so small it always takes me a while to spot them. After all, it isn't like they infuse the air with their scent. But step on one or pick one and that miniscule flower releases a fragrance so mesmerizing, it should belong to the grandest flower God ever put on this earth.

I am convinced that you can take the girl away from the farm but you can't take the farm away from the girl. Not even if she moves to Southern California. The soil where I live is pitiful and it's taken me years and years of ammending the crushed granite, impermeable clay into what looks like Minnesota loam. The results have been worth it. My small yard has produced eggplant, carrots, lettuce, green onions, parsley, jalapeno and green bell peppers, bush beans, potatoes and tomatoes.

Not in large quantities, mind you. But enough to help with the grocery budget. I grow my vegetables in weird places. Sometimes I plant lettuce or swiss chard among the flowers or alongside the bushes. Sometimes I grow bush beans along the concrete block wall that runs the width of my back yard. The potatoes grow in a very big green pot outside my back door and each fall, when the leaves die naturally, I dig up about five pounds of assorted small potatoes. The interesting thing? I never bought seed potatoes. I just planted those that began growing sprouts before we could eat them. I cut each potato--some red, some white, some yams, etc. into fifty-cent size pieces, making sure each piece had an eye. I didn't even wait till the piece dried a bit. I stuck them in the big green pot and let them do their thing. This is the fourth years they've reseeded themselves, or perhaps grown from tubers forgotten at harvest time.

Several years ago I bought two tomato plants from the nursery. The brown blight got to them and I had to destroy both plants. Yet somehow one of those tomatoes got left behind--or at least some seeds from a dropped tomato--and a big healthy plant came up last year and gave us tomatoes all summer and quite a bit of the winter. Now it's blooming again. I think it's morphed into a permanent tomato plant--the gift that just keeps on giving.

It's the same way with my large onions. Seeds planted at least five years ago keep producing more onions than ever. Each year I let a couple of those big onions go to seed and when the big puffy balls are ripe, the wind disperses those miniscule black seeds all around the garden area. The parsley I grew from seed two years ago has done the same thing. What didn't get picked went to seed and now I have parsley ready for use and it isn't even the end of March.

Add to all that, the fact that the orange tree still has at least a dozen summer fruit that have finally ripened and a whole army of walnut-size green oranges that will become next autumn's crop.  My Philippine mango tree is about 4 feet tall now. I started it from a seed that my husband's Filipina nurse insisted would grow. I planted 3 seeds. Two grew. One got so strong it shaded the other to death. Talk about survival of the fittest.

The odd thing about my garden is that nearly everything in it has come up on its own--self seeded from plants of the past. As you can imagine, what I call a garden doesn't resemble any garden you'd see anywhere else. There are no straight lines or furrows or clustered plants. It's strictly a hodgepodge--for wherever it comes up, is where it stays. In the beginning, I tried moving the plants so like-kind would all be together. I only made that mistake once. Whenever a seed plants itself, I have decided is the place it prefers. They absolutely hate being transplanted and for me to do so, meant the death of each seedling. And yes, it's true that there may be onions growing next to the ornamental plants or carrots along the sidewalk. I don't care. My yard; my life; my garden.

This year I plan on doing what my dad always did after we moved to California. I do not remember that he ever bought seeds once we lived here. Dad always planted the vegetable refuse. Nothing ever got thrown out. The carrot or potato skins went into the compost pile as did the egg shells and coffee grounds. Often times if we'd sit down to a cantelope so sweet we'd all marvel at its taste, dad would grab the seeds out of the refuse bowl, wash and dry the seeds, then plant them. He did the same with anything else that we deemed the best we'd ever eaten. Most of the time, veggies appeared as though by magic as dad spread the compost around his garden. Seeds that should have died in the composting process managed to put down roots and grow into all manner of squash or tomatoes or beans.

Strangely enough, I have two bush bean plants in my back yard right now. They are in bloom and while I won't get many beans from two plants, it will be enough for me now that I'm alone. I planted bush beans two years ago. They did not do well. Somehow two plants managed to come up in a completely different part of the yard than from where I originally planted them. My husband always told everyone that I had a green thumb the size of the Jolly Green Giant. After years of growing many different plants, I came to agree with him. A plant fresh from the nursery would say "grows to 4 feet" but once I got my hands on it, Jim would have to get a ladder to trim back the tops.

I take no blame. I believe the difference is years and years of trying to get my soil to look and smell like "real" soil. The kind I grew up with. The project has been a great success. I can now dig anywhere in my yard and bring up shovels of black, loamy, friable soil with earthworms squiggling through it. What a pleasure. To be outside on a soft, sunny day, garden trowel in hand, digging in that wonderful dirt always makes me happy. I've often been asked why I don't wear garden gloves. I laugh. Gloves shut down my connection to the soil. We never wore gloves when gardening. We touched the soil, inhaled its pungency, let it run through our fingers, thankful that once again we'd have enough fresh vegetables to feed our family all summer and enough left for mom to can for the winter.

Oft times, when the wind is just right, there comes a scent of warm hayfields and fresh wheat where none exist. It lasts no longer than the blink of an eye. Other times, I catch the scent of rain drawing near and realize my green empire will be taken care of without my turning on a spigot. Every so often I see myself as the blond-headed child I was, searching the drainage ditch for violets or walking the width of the wheat field just to get to the two apple trees dad had left to grow there or pleading with dad to pick a huge bunch of lilacs from the four giant bushes that grew alongside the roadway. Violets and lilacs. My two favorite flowers in all the world. Remembrances of my past.

Tomorrow it will be exactly one year since my husband unexpectedly graduated to Heaven. You either know or can imagine what this past year has been like for me. My children and friends have been great comfort, but it is a pen pal from the Iraq War who inspired me to get up and start moving. He said something like, "It is time now for me to get back to normal, everyday activities. I'm making a choice to help myself get well. I'm going to get back to the land. I'm going to plant a garden and grow my own food."

When I read that email, something inside rose up in me and I felt a tingling run through my own soul. When I was a child, everyone had a garden--whether they lived in town or on a farm. Our parents called them Victory Gardens and what with food and nearly every commodity rationed, producing anything for the dinner table was a necessity. That is the rationale I grew up with. But because of my dear war-weary friend's comment, I realized that I too, would find my own well-being in getting back to the land I have so long loved. It will be my healing place.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L. Keith
All photos are the property of the author and may not be used without permission

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely post. I wish I were there to see your beautiful garden!