Playing in the Dirt

It’s raining today, but I’m not as bummed out as usual. I can’t explain how it happened, but I’ve experienced a budding interest in plants, flowers, and, to be frank, dirt in general. I have somehow learned to love plants, growing things that are either edible or nice to look at, and enriching my soil—of all things. When I want to make my wife Julie nervous, I call them my plants “crops.”

“Crops” just sounds more serious, more permanent. But don’t take me wrong; I’d make a lousy farmer, the chief reason being I hate working on engines and just about anything mechanical. I still don’t know how our lawn mower will respond this spring after I did zip to prepare it for the winter.

Can you imagine if my livelihood depended on maintaining a large John Deer tractor?

My recent infatuation with dirt and planting stuff is most likely a mix of two things. The first is Barbara’s Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which documented her family’s heroic struggle to eat locally, and primarily home-grown food for an entire year. To be frank, I never gave much thought to where my food came from, so long as I could find a grocery store.

Thanks to Barbara I learned about the meat industry, the benefits of organic food, and the energy required to support our current food infrastructure. Of course it’s not as simple as “Eat local and you’ll save the world,” but in many circumstances it sure helps. If anything, I’ve learned to only buy certain foods if they are grown organically. For example, apples suck up the pesticides. Imagine drinking a shot glass of pesticides with that apple each day.

And then Barbara drove me to start shopping at local farm stands and farmers markets. While these aren’t the places to save a buck, I learned to pick up select items at these markets. Of course when you spend some time hanging around farmers and finding out how your food is grown, you start wondering if you should give it a try.

But really, why stop at growing a few crops such as tomatoes and lettuce? Having just purchased a plain ranch house surrounded by a sea of grass and two meager bushes, I decided it was time to start investing in some flowers. It began ever so modestly with a few pansies who sweltered in the summer heat. However, a few elderly women caught wind of my new home and started dropping off bags and bags of perennial flowers they had removed from their own gardens. Unfortunately I had no place for these offerings, and so the digging began.

It started with two flower beds in the back yard and one on the side of the house last year. The flowers thrived and are now springing up. Of course that spurred some further ambition that has now extended to the sparse front of our house. On a warm spring day I dug out a 20 foot by 3 foot flower bed, peeling back the grass and laying down some fresh top soil. I followed with the signature pansy mix. Under a fluorescent light in the guest room we have some cosmos, flocks, and bunny tails—yes, flowers called bunny tails—waiting to be added. It should be a very full flower bed by the time we’re done with it.

But why stop with a massive flower bed out front? We’re also working on tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, peppers, and lettuce for a brand new garden out back right next to the blueberry bushes we planted last year.

I think I have a problem.

I should be clear about this: I really never cared all that much about growing my own flowers or “crops” until last summer. Now I’m spending entire Sundays tearing away grass, dumping in dirt and mulch, and sticking a divider around the flower beds. What happened to me?

In my more romantic moments I tell myself that I’m reconnecting with the earth, with the way things have been until the industrial revolution or perhaps the interstate system forever changed the way we transport food. I feel like I’m not really doing anything all that novel or new, something that thousands of people do and have been doing, but somehow I’ve been missing. And perhaps this “missing out” is what drives me. I’ve been missing out on something so normal, so natural for a human being: working the earth, growing flowers, and tending his own food.

I can’t imagine what I used to do two springs ago.

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