Family Dirt

One morning, many years ago, while my sons were still in grade school, our family was sitting around the breakfast table, and the conversation went something like this:

One son makes a comment about periods, of the female kind. His brother responds by saying, “You shouldn’t talk about periods when you don’t know what they are. Uh, what are they, Dad?”

My husband, who is historically quick with a good analogy, said, “You know how your mom gets her garden ready to plant every spring? She weeds the beds, turns the soil, and smooths out the dirt. She does all this to get the beds ready to plant seeds. A woman’s body is like a garden. Every month, it prepares a lining in the womb for a seed to get planted. Depending on whether or not the seed is fertilized, the womb either keeps the lining or lets it go. When it goes away, that’s when the woman gets her period.”

Wow. That was beautiful.

Two weeks later, I was driving the afternoon lacrosse carpool of 7th-graders when something was said about sex in the way-back of the Suburban. Sex? My ears perked up. That’s when I heard my son say,  “All I can say, is don’t ask my Dad about sex; I asked him about periods, and he started talking about gardening.”

I think about that sweet conversation with longing and a smile that runs deep when I approach my scruffy garden every spring after a long winter’s absence. What to do first? When you raise vegetables, the first chore is to start getting your garden ready so you can get your peas in the ground around the first of March. How do farmers pick March 1 as the planting date? One method is to count back six weeks from the last average frost date which for our region is April 15th. Or, we can go by nature’s signals: when daffodils are in full bloom, plant potatoes, and when the forsythia starts to bloom, plant peas.

I knew the clean-up job would be more fun with company … My husband is a problem solver extraordinaire. My kids will tell you they grew up in a household where their Dad’s motto was, “Be a problem solver, not a problem identifier.” I grew up in a household with many problem identifiers, so ours was a perfect union. If I am manipulative in any way, it’s in the way I’ve learned to present projects to my husband as problems to be solved. I know I’ve succeeded when I see him pull out one of his pre-cut sections of an index card from his wallet. These homemade notecards are where he writes his to-do list. Once he starts making a list on these cards, I know the project is as good as done.

Here’s his list (the words in parentheses are mine):
Ethanol-free gas from Billy’s Corner (for tiller and pressure washer)
New spading fork (to turn leaves in beds)
Grass seed and straw (bare spots in yard)
8-inch galvanized spike nails (to remediate chicken problem)

Here’s mine: pea seeds, plants for front flower pots

Here is a picture of my husband installing spike nails into the railing of the vegetable garden fence. This is his solution to finding a way to keep our chickens out of the garden. He is using strands of fishing line, strung between tall nails, to work as an added “invisible” fence. The idea is to keep the chickens from flying up onto the railing, using it as a landing platform, and then hopping down into the garden. In the chickens’ defense –and the chickens must be defended — it is not their fault they don’t know the difference between a vegetable garden and a compost pile. Unfortunately, it only takes five minutes for six chickens to trash a garden.

Kitty was not happy with the chicken remediation project. She now has to slither along under the fishing line fence to get to where she is going, which let’s face it, is nowhere in particular. I consider that a very small price to pay to keep the chickens out of the garden. My friend, Kim Matthews, a massage therapist, says it probably feels good on her back, so no worries there.
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Good Dirt

Much of what I did to get my soil ready “to plant the seed” occurred last fall when I mulched the beds with leaves. I typically pick up bags of leaves from the homes of friends. You can see from the middle photo that the back garden was still very productive on November 16th when I spread the leaf mulch. In the beds where greens were still growing, I tucked leaf mulch in between the plants and those crops lasted all the way to New Year’s Day when I harvested them for “prosperity”.
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I got these bags of leaves from my next door neighbor. You can see steam coming off the bags just three weeks later indicating they already had started composting in the bag.
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I worked the leaves into the beds using a broadfork and a spading fork.

I use these tools instead of a tiller on established beds because I’m trying not to disturb the wormhole tunnels and root tracks left by old, pulled plants. These tunnels are nature’s way of building pathways into the soil that new roots in the future will follow as they grow. Remember, the looser the soil, the more extensive the root formation, and the more productive the plants will be.

Tools for loosening, turning, and leveling dirt: (left to right) Bow Leveling Rake,  Spading Fork, Johnny’s Broadfork, Mantis Mini-Tiller and Cultivator

I use our mini-tiller to mix up the compost pile which is filled with dirt, vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grinds, chicken manure, shredded paper, and leaves. The compost pile is one of the few places I still use a tiller and welcome the chickens and their chicken-scratching ways.

In the Master Gardeners of Davidson County program, we learned that dirt is made up of the following components: 50% water and air, 48.5% mineral matter (sand, clay) 1% organic matter (plant residue) and .5% living organisms (worms, fungi). If you think of dirt in terms of its components, it helps you to figure out what you need to do to amend your soil. You need microbes and organic matter in your soil to break down organic matter, and the microbes need water and air to do their job of enriching the growing medium for your plants.

Necessary Minerals in Soil:
Nitrogen is good for vegetative growth; it’s what make leaves turn green.
Phosphorous helps create new root growth and blooms. Blooms lead to seeds.
Potassium is good for stem and stalk strength, vigor and disease resistance.
Calcium is good for root formation.
Magnesium helps with the uptake of other elements.
Sulfur helps with protein formation and dark green color of plants.

Soil pH. The pH stands for potential Hydrogen:
Soil pH refers to the amount of hydrogen ions or acidity in the soil. As acid levels (Hydrogen ions) increase, soil pH decreases.The pH scale ranges from 0-14. Seven is neutral, <7 is acidic, >7 is alkaline. The average pH for Davidson County soil is 6.2, so our soil is on the acidic side, which is great if you are growing vegetables which prefer an acidic soil of 6 to 6.5. To increase the soil ph, you add lime. To decrease soil ph, you add sulfur. Plants need the pH to be correct so osmosis can occur at the cellular level allowing nutrients to travel from water into the plant.

Old Dirt

When my husband and I first got married, we lived in a third-floor walk-up on the top of Beacon Hill in Boston. We grew herbs in window boxes and tomatoes in buckets on the roof of the bow window of the unit below ours.  I’m sure when famed architect, Gridley J.F. Bryant designed our building in 1846, he did not intend for future residents to do this. God love our neighbor and building manager, Curtis Phelps for not putting the nix on our newlywed exuberance for gardening.
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When we bought our first home in Nashville, we built a garden, using a reclaimed fence from our neighbors, the Bartholomews, and bricks for a pathway from our neighbors, the Robinsons. The chicken manure for the garden came from our friends, the Hudson’s chicken farm.
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New Dirt

My garden beds are now ready to receive seeds and seedlings. The hardest work is done, and now it is time for the fun part: planting.
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I think Gridley J.F. Bryant, having designed the overall grid-based street plan of Back Bay in Boston, would have at least approved of the orderliness of my vegetable gardens, if not the placement of tomato plants on his bow windows. As for my boys, now men, they’ve learned their Dad knows what he’s talking about and he’s their first text when they need advice. I, on the other hand, am the first person people call for family dirt.

Other Kitchen Garden Stories
Eulogy for a Chicken
Herb Porch Pots!
Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
WWMD? A Bucket of Spring Veggies as a Centerpiece


Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

42 thoughts on “Family Dirt

  1. Wow, learned a lot of “dirt” this morning. We still have a few weeks to go in Michigan yet even tho it was 70 yesterday. I did spot some daffodils coming up, about 6″ high. I’m ready for warmth.

    1. When I moved from Boston to Nashville, the first thing I fully appreciated were the very long growing seasons in fall and spring. You have a few more weeks to plan and do other things (knit?) before you need to get busy. Keep me posted!

  2. Trust me, Quinn, he’s not your average bear. He showed up, unannounced and with no fanfare, at my front door on the day of the Great Nashville Flood of 2010 with a wet-dry vac, for my flooded basement. Incredible.

  3. Love the analogy of the bed-readying by your smart problem-solver. As the mother of boys, I also love the response your son gave to his buddies!

  4. Judy, I love this post for so many reasons. You are a writer with the gift of telling fun and interesting stories. Keep on writing…and posting! :)Lee


  5. Great blog, Judy. And I’ve had some interesting conversations over the years (mostly in the car) with our three boys, too. But Kelly’s response was perfect. I’m saving it to give to my boys when they are dads.Your gardening is so inspiring! Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  6. Great story – here in Minnesota we look at May 15, not March 1st. It’s a race to the first frost, I tell ya! We don’t have raised beds, do lasagna-style with no tilling either.

  7. Really enjoyed your post and look forward to more. My potager is in Indiana. Loved the photos of you as newlyweds with your windowbox gardens.

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