We Who Buy Bags of Dirt

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

I spent an inordinate amount of time this morning attempting to purchase what I hope is the final bag of potting soil I need for this year’s “garden.” What I thought would be a quick and convenient stop in the midst of other chores, became, instead, a series of interactions with numerous store employees apparently necessary to the process of transporting a two-cubic-foot bag of ‘Black Gold’ from the no-public-access, chain-link parking lot pen where it is kept, to the actual checkout counter where I could pay for it. In past, would merely wheel a shopping cart to the garden center of the store, throw the dirt-bag in, and be on my way–well, after paying for it, of course.

Such has become the plight of the urban gardener. Okay, not really. That was the only time this year I’d experienced such an involved dirt-buying process, since that was the first time I’d stopped by that particular store for soil this year. And, I don’t know if I can really call myself an urban gardener. While I did buy that particular bag of soil in Seattle proper, I live in a rurally suburban (suburbanly rural?) area a few minutes north of the city.

Just to give you a sense of the rural flavor of the decades-old ‘development’ we moved into, the neighbor who owns rather large swaths of used-to-be-farmland to the south and west of our house still keeps ‘free range’ chickens—so free range that when we moved in, the chickens were very much in the habit of hopping the fence and making a mess of our yard. Our rather excitable part-Blue-Heeler mutt cured the chickens of that habit in short order.  In the meantime, we’ve grown accustomed to the ever-present sounds of clucking, which guests to our home often find rather amusing and hard to ignore.

Joy: Chicken chaser extraordinaire

Joy: Chicken chaser extraordinaire

That same chicken-owning neighbor also has a rather picturesque (read: abandoned and decaying) “canning shed” on the lot to our west, complete with rusted-out, ancient farm equipment, providing a lovely home to numerous small animals, of those varieties which are attracted to collapsing wooden structures.

The canning shed next door

The canning shed next door–do you see it?

We live within walking distance of many other neighbors who keep chickens, goats, horses, and cows, mostly in small numbers.

Still, I started my more-arguably-urban gardening adventures, of the vegetable-growing variety, back when we lived in the north end of Seattle. At the time, said ventures were mostly confined to attempts to grow pumpkins to be used for jack-o-lanterns, a fun project for myself and the then-elementary-school-aged kid.

But, each year, some new plight would befall the pumpkins…neighborhood cats thinking the cleared patch of dirt was an amazingly generous bathroom I had installed expressly for them…squirrels enjoying just enough of a taste of the young pumpkins to cause them to bleed out and die (the pumpkins, not the squirrels)…various forms of plant blight. We were lucky if, by the end of the growing season, we had a pumpkin or two large enough to accommodate the knife and a candle.

The first growing season we spent in our current digs, I had what I thought was a good thing going in terms of pumpkin patches. To the east of our house, I had cleared a patch. Several plants were going. Birds were kept away by rubber snakes (and the removal of the garish birdhouses the previous neighbor hung in the carport—birdhouses for which she left express care instructions–sorry, Vera, not your house anymore, not your birdhouses anymore, and not my intention to regularly clean a bunch of bird crap out of a carport and off of my car–and, yes, I just accused somebody of garrishness after stating that I deliberately place rubber snakes in my yard). Squirrels generally steered clear of the property because of the dogs. Few-to-no neighborhood cats were prowling about. No serious plant diseases.

And then…the sun shifted.   Well, actually, the earth tilted just a bit too far (although still within normal parameters) leading to that same chicken-raising, canning-shed-neglecting neighbor’s large stand of pine trees denying my pumpkins access to direct, glorious sunlight. The pumpkins didn’t die. They just had their growth viciously stunted.   I ended up with a small crop of apple-to-grapefruit-sized pumpkins. I drew jack-o-lantern style faces on them with a sharpie, and went off to the supermarket to buy carving pumpkins.

The following year, I attempted to address the problems of shifting light by doing some container planting, up on the back deck. Plant blight took the small number of pumpkin plants that year.

But something slightly revelatory (well, to me anyway) took place that year. On a whim, while shopping for pumpkin seeds and containers to grow them in, I picked up a few extra pots, and some tomato starts. Despite knowing nothing of how to grow tomatoes (I’m still not particularly knowledgeable—I just read and try different things) we got quite a few ‘Lemon Boys’ and ‘Early Girls’ that year. And, as those who grow their own tomatoes know, the difference in taste and texture between homegrown tomatoes, and store-bought, mass produced tomatoes is as vast as the gulf between the concept of trickle-down economics and reality.

The next year I added more varieties of tomatoes, learning an important lesson about “days to harvest.”

The year after that, I added more varieties of tomatoes, and a few varieties of peppers, and abandoned the idea of pumpkins altogether. Each year, I’ve expanded the container-garden to where we can count on a good crop of multiple varieties of tomatoes and peppers, a decent batch of cucumbers, some snow peas and green beans, and some hit-and-miss with different types of squash.

Each year, as spring arrives, I get into gardening mode, buying seeds and starts, adding new pots and new varieties of plants. M enjoys the results, so she endures the mess and my enthusiastically-delivered, but surely-boring explanations of various things going on with the plans.

A few years back, we added a greenhouse to the effort—one of those walk-in, metal-frame with netted-plastic, collapsible/moveable kind. I’m still trying to decide if that made a great deal of sense in terms of the actual amount of time it adds to the growing season (basically just a few weeks at the beginning and the end, when we could realistically just move the still-producing plants inside the house, although the light situation would be tricky).

This year, we purchased a rain barrel—which I am still waiting to install, as we also, in a case of bad timing, treated the roof for moss at about the same time. A recycled olive barrel full of diluted herbicides is not, I assume, a particularly good water source for growing vegetables and fruits.

Down on the farm

Down on the farm up on the deck

I’ve also gone back to attempting to grow pumpkins again this year. I mentioned this to the (now-adult, and learning wood-working) kid one night, explaining to her that I was contemplating building a simple, 8’ x 4’ frame for the front yard (hopefully out of reach of the neighbor’s pine shade). At the time, I had already gotten multiple varieties of pumpkin seeds into a seeding tray, and was trying to decide on a good strategy for where and how to transplant them.

The kid asked me to sketch out my idea for the frame, and asked me several questions about my insistence on certain aspects of the frame. A few days later, while I was at work, I got a series of text messages from her about varieties of wood and my willingness to front her a bit of cash. I arrived home to a completed, 8’ x 4’ cedar frame, complete with stakes, parked on the floor near the back sliding-glass door—something that would surely just be in the bought-some-wood-didn’t-get-around-to-the-actual-building phase if left up to me.

So, last weekend, I finally cleared the ground, set in the frame and soil, and got my pumpkin and squash starts in. I also have multiple kinds of squash, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, and snow peas in movable containers, all started from seeds. Once again, I waited too late to grow my tomatoes and peppers from seeds, so bought starts, some of which are still waiting to get into their more permanent pots–hence, the dirt-buying trip this morning).

I suppose I could wax philosophic about the zen of gardening, or the joy of producing one’s own food, or maybe the health and mental health benefits of making space for a little bit of nature in one’s immediate surroundings…or maybe about how my and M’s grandfathers (well, actually M’s step-grandfather) were both committed to pretty significant gardening operations (not container-based). But, really, I engage in all the work of raising these plants because it leads to some very tasty food…well, maybe not the pumpkin patch…that’s just tied to my lifelong obsession with Halloween.

At any rate, it will be interesting (well, to me, at least) to see whether the pumpkin plants survive the shade, the rabbits, moles, squirrels, and birds, and produce anything that can be turned into a jack-o’-lantern.

But, whether we’ll be working on pumpkins grown in my front yard or purchased from Safeway, the carving party is already set for October 25.

Happy Halloween…I mean, happy gardening!

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