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Gardening

The Dirt beneath our Feet

b.story 13.03 soil heart

Our kids dig in it.  Our plants grow from it.  And I am forever trying to sweep it off my front porch.  Dirt is that stuff that is smeared into our children’s faces and hands.  Soil, on the other hand, is the dark, soft, crumbly stuff that is rich in organic, living matter.  Our food and much of our shelter springs forth from soil, and whether it is vibrant and healthy or weak and degraded will depend on how we have cared for it.  Not to wax poetic, but I think that building healthy soil is one of the most important things we can do for our environment and yet we rarely pay it much attention.  That is until a big load of fragrant, rich mulch is delivered to our doorstep.  

b.story 13.03 Soil hands

I have to admit that even as an avid backyard gardener, I rarely paid much attention to the dirt beneath my feet.  Sure, I kept the weeds at bay and did my best to keep the soil loose and workable.  I admired the worms and spread mulch around the yard once in a while.  Later, as a mom I watched as my children stomped in it, built castles and moats in it and thoroughly enjoyed digging holes, building bug habitats and ‘making’ pies from the stuff.  

But, until I took a required class within the landscape department, I did not understand the true majesty of soil.  It is an interconnected web of material, minerals and organisms, each doing its part to sustain life.  Too much sand and water will quickly drain away, leaving plants thirsty and weak.  Too much clay and water will pond, creating an anaerobic condition where plants are not able to get the oxygen they need.  But topsoil consisting of a mixture of sand, silt and clay will provide the perfect balance for plants to thrive.  Certain fungi can bring disease to a towering tree.  Other fungi will can help bind soil together, break down pollutants and actually help the same tree efficiently absorb water and other nutrients.  Insects and rodents might be a pest to some, but their tunnel digging, poop laying nature benefits our soil in many ways.  

b.story 13.03 Soil Biosphere

Recently, my children have been experimenting with a ‘Future Farm’ kit.  This kit allows children to experiment with hydroponic systems utilizing different growing media.  One basin uses a sand base to grow seeds and the other basin allows a child to grow seeds in a manufactured soil blend.  Each basin is fed by a capillary system delivering water and nutrients.  I know you think I couldn’t possibly talk about arugula again… but here it is.  My children planted tiny arugula seeds in each basin and sat back to watch them grow.  I was amazed.  Within four days the tiny seeds within this controlled environment ‘hatched’ and spread forth their tiny green leaves.  I began to wonder if this was the future of farm production.

Much is said about the degradation of topsoil.  It is estimated that the United States is losing TONS of topsoil every year.  This loss comes about every time farmland is paved over for roads, subdivisions and any kind of development.  While I am an advocate for smart growth and preserving our natural habitats and farmlands, this article isn’t focused on that discussion.  With all the development creep our country sees every year, the primary reason we lose topsoil is due to erosion and poor farming practices.  Creating topsoil occurs very slowly.  It takes hundreds of years for natural organisms to create just an inch or two of topsoil.  However, a heavy wind or a heavy rain can blow or wash degraded soil away in one storm.  This means that it is takes ten times longer to build healthy topsoil than it is currently being eroded away.   This rate of degradation can have devastating effects on, not only our country’s food production, but also the water quality of our rivers and our natural eco-systems.

b.story 13.03 Soil daffodils

There are effective solutions out there.  And as homeowners, we can learn from the lessons our farming neighbors have experienced.  

  • One of the best things we can do for our soil is compost.  Composting takes our natural wastes and quickly transforms them into a highly nutritious topping for our gardens.  Applying a 2” layer of compost or even mulch around, not only your fruits and vegetables but all your trees and shrubs, will help prevent erosion, reduce the amount of water plants need and will add back critical elements to the soil.  
  • It is also important to consider the fertilizers we apply to our gardens.  Synthetic fertilizers strip the soil of all the living organisms that are so vital to its natural creation.  Instead, using organic or natural fertilizers not only protects and feeds your plant, but it also helps support the good bugs and living organisms within our soil.  
  • And thirdly, approaching the aesthetic of our garden in a slightly different manner will actually benefit our soil.  Leaving behind the leaf litter, grass clippings and faded perennial flower stalks will not only help hold the soil in place, but they will add nutrients back to the soil and provide food and shelter for the creatures in our gardens.  This garden might not be as tidy as one that has been stripped of its debris, but it will be a lot happier and a whole lot healthier.

b.story 13.03 soil heart

There aren’t many things that are less sexy to talk about than dirt.  But there are only a few things that are more vitally important to our lives than healthy topsoil.

While the Rest of the World was Sleeping

viburnum x bodnantense, Bodnant Viburnum, winter, blooming, viburnum
Once a week a girlfriend, Cxx, and I go for a walk.  We live in the same neighborhood and we both have children the same age (both of us being late-bloomers).  We both love ice-cream, are in a love-hate relationship with our bodies and struggle daily with the balance between work and family.  And we…

The Tree of Life

b.story 13.01.09 Tree of Life RedCedar6
Our neighborhood park has a wooded stand of towering Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees.  Long ago, my children abandoned the formal play structure for racing bikes down the walking paths and playing fort within the forest of trees.  The cedar tree in particular provides a leafy canopy, protecting and hiding its inhabitants, and…

The Scent of Fall

b.story 12.11.10 FallScent_Katsura_leaf1
The house is filled with the scent of burbling beef stew (my personal favorite is Ina Garten’s Beef Bourguignon) and roasting squash.   Outside, the day is crisp and cold and our breath hangs in the air for just a minute before wisping away.  The freshness of the morning gives way to the musk of…

Patience

b.story 12.04.26 Patience Tulip Magnolia
They tell me that with patience comes rewards.  Be they to your spirit, your treasure or your community.  Or to your garden.  However, I don’t tend to be the patient sort.  When I work I want to see progress made.  If it’s not immediate then I would like it to be at least incremental.  At the…

A Ray of Sunshine

b.story 12.03.12 daffodils miniature
My daughter got in the car the other day and announced, “It smells like summer.”  The day had been one of those extraordinary early spring days where everything is warm and feels of promise.  The car had that earthy warm smell that comes from sitting in the sun after transporting two active children.  Perhaps it…

Anticipation

b.story 12.02.08 Magnolia Tree
My son started developing his Christmas list in July.  Now, I realize to some, this might sound like a greedy enterprise.  However, for my six year old boy, the Christmas list becomes a fine-tuned art.  It might seem a stretch, but drafting the list is viewed as an opportunity to practice hand-writing and spelling, two…

Winter Blooms

b.story 12.01.30 Witch Hazel Tree
Those of us from the Pacific NW seem to be obsessed with our weather.  Furthermore, we are a fickle bunch.  Perhaps it is similar where you live?  Last year, after an unusually wet summer, we spent much of our winter complaining about the incessant grey drizzle.  This year it was different.  A playground chat actually…

The Hills are Alive with Color

b.story 11.11.17 maples5
From my shower, through a small window, I look out at a stand of trees. Gazing out, I plan my dinner menu, solve the design challenge that has me stumped, or daydream about white sand and sunny skies. It is a tiny peephole view where I watch the change in light and weather brought by…

Hidden Surprises

b.story 11.11.10 surprises
Have you ever walked by a corner, seemingly a million times before, and suddenly something catches your eye?  It could be something your eyes passed over many times before, but that something causes you to pause and really see it for the first time.  Perhaps it is a new bloom, creating a colorful spot along the path.  Perhaps…