Grit Blogs > A Long Time Coming

Romancing the Soil

A photo of Shannon SaiaConventional relationship wisdom has some old standbys, the things that everyone knows that a relationship cannot last without. You know what they are: communication, commitment, patience, being friends, blah blah blah. They all basically point to the fact that in order to endure, a marriage must be built on a strong foundation. 

The same is true for the garden, and anyone who has been married to their garden for a long time will be happy to share their wisdom with you, and let you know how it is that their relationship with their garden was able not only to last, but to flourish. I’m not exactly long-married, but my garden and I have been together for five years now, coming up on the seven year itch, if you will, and I’m starting to understand what all these other, better gardeners are talking about. And like all of my other deep, private thoughts and epiphanies, I feel compelled to record this one here. You ready? Here is the gardening wisdom that I’ve been collecting of late: 

It’s the soil. 

It’s the soil. 

It’s the soil, stupid. 

That last one is particularly harsh, and yet I have actually read something that said that, more or less, in an online gardening discussion thread titled something like, I love gardening but I suck at it, wherein people like my good self can commiserate. But some people don’t understand what it means to commiserate. Some people think that people looking for moral support and a shoulder to cry on are actually looking for answers, and they feel compelled to provide them.   

But how much help is it, really, to tell someone like me that I need to pay more attention to my soil? I mean, what does that mean that I’m exactly supposed to do? Part of the problem is that building good soil – like building a good relationship – takes time. It’s no one thing that you do that makes the difference, it’s everything that you do. And any “difference” that you may manage to bring about can take awhile to see. 

The truth is that I’m not that good at growing plants. I hardly ever feed anyone. I went through one bag of tomato tone a few years back, and every time I opened it I had heart palpitations and became consumed with my own inadequacy. I have no idea what I’m doing! Is it too close to the stem of the plant? Is it enough? Too much? Of course I read the directions but still I feared I was doing it wrong. And then, as often happens in relationships, inadequacy becomes defensiveness, and defensiveness becomes attack and the next thing you know I’m chastising Tomato – why can’t you just get your nutrients from the soil like a normal plant? Why do I have to spoon-feed you something every few weeks?  

Why indeed. 

I bought a bottle of fish emulsion from my favorite nursery, on the advice of one of the experienced gardeners who works there. I used it once or twice – like the time we killed off Cucumber watering his leaves at the height of summer with diluted fish emulsion which he did not need and did not appreciate – and then I stuck it under my kitchen sink and thought little more about it. 

This year I pulled it out and tried to use it on my greens. I actually had a fantastic spring. I had broccoli, chard, spinach and peas all verdant and burgeoning and wonderful. So I decided to leave the fish emulsion outside with my other gardening things. It was fine, until I went looking for it this fall, as I was getting Broccoli and Kohlrabi settled into their carefully prepared soil, and it was nowhere to be found. I wandered around the garden, under the carport, in the sheds, and back into the kitchen to peer, dolefully, under the sink. What the heck did I do with that bottle of fish emulsion? I swear I had taken it outside and left it under the carport with my tons of empty plastic pots and seedling trays and empty plastic bags from Big Box. 

Finally I located it. That is, I located something underneath of our old, broken-down white box truck in the back yard (don’t ask, and no this is not going to be a “you know you’re a redneck if” joke). It was a white plastic bottle without a label, slightly crushed, with strange holes in the side of it. I picked it up and turned it from side to side, and smelly fish emulsion ran out onto my hands. It took me a few moments to realize that the holes were tooth marks, and that moving the fish emulsion outside had been a fatal mistake. Probably attracted by the intense fishy smell, the dogs had gotten at it. There’s no telling how long ago this had happened. Apparently it hadn’t hurt whichever one of them had done it. But it might explain those several days awhile back that my Cocker Spaniel was drooling uncontrollably… 

Hard to say. 

And don’t even get me started on compost. My first compost pile contained a season’s worth of food scraps, dead vegetable plants (with and without vine borers, seeds, and who knows what else), gigantic weeds pulled haphazardly and far too infrequently from the summer garden, at least one dead snake, at least one cardboard box, and a very flimsy and unsatisfactory tomato cage. Oh, and at one point, LOTS of yucky grub-like organisms that sprang into existence there and had the time of their lives. As a matter of fact, I will even go out on a limb here to say that about the only thing that wasn’t in it – ever – was compost. 

Another tenet of organic gardening is that healthy plants do not really get attacked by insect pests. This is another of those things that just sends me over the edge. It’s hard to take. It’s like having to send your child for therapy – and pay through the nose to do it – so that you can have the privilege of being told that the child’s problems are all your fault. 

And I hate it when things are all my fault. 

As a novice gardener, for years I only heard “blah blah blah blah” whenever anyone started talking soil composition and tilthe and ph – get thee back away from my virgin ears! The science of soil was overwhelming to me, and it’s still overwhelming to me. But something has changed for me this year, as I pull up the next-to-last of my summer garden. I’m starting to formulate a “soil plan” that I’m hoping might amount to something by the time I’m ready to put plants in next spring. Here’s how it started. 

In late July, I was in Big Box for compost – I buy their bagged manure compost because it’s cheap – when I happened to see that they had fall transplants set out for sale. Of course I fell all over myself getting to them. When you read about sowing fall vegetables the seed packets all say “sow in late July”, so of course in late July I start thinking that I ought to have broccoli growing in my backyard, and Big Box – who knows their customer – is happy to oblige. I wasn’t there to buy transplants, and Big Box isn’t even where I usually buy fall transplants, but here I was, and here was Broccoli, and here was Kohlrabi rubbing shoulders with him and hinting about a threesome and what can I say? It had been awhile since I’d been with Kohlrabi and I love Broccoli and he knows I can’t resist him, so I threw caution to the wind, and it was on. 

I was already thinking about soil at this point. I mean, this is my fifth year of gardening, spring and fall, and I can’t help but think that my soil might be getting a little, well, tired. Do I rotate my crops? Yes, more or less, in a bare-minimum, lazy kind of way. I don’t plant potatoes or tomatoes in the same place twice, and I haven’t really had a whole lot of problems with disease or anything. I do mix compost and sometimes peat moss into my garden soil. And yes I know I’m not supposed to buy peat moss because it’s not “sustainable”, but I’ve only recently found that out and am not sure about a good substitute yet.  

Anyway, so I prepared a bed for Broccoli and Kohlrabi. I put them where the beans had been this spring. I mixed manure compost and peat moss into the soil, and stuck them out there. It was still hot as hell in July, and they frequently wilted in the afternoon, so I tried to water them everyday. At first they were doing really well. 

But then the harlequin beetles arrived.  

And I’m not talking one harlequin beetle either. I’m talking tons of them, and constantly mating. Before I knew it, my broccoli and kohlrabi bed looked like a No-tell Motel for harlequin beetles, with a day care attached, because there were teeny, weeny, itty bitty ones munching too. 

I immediately went into smushing mode. I made a few trips a day out there, picking the beetles off of my plants and pinching them between my thumb and my forefinger. It was nasty, brutal work, but the majority of the beetles seem to be gone now. And Broccoli and Kohlrabi, you ask? How are they faring? Well, they didn’t start out looking unhealthy. But they sure look unhealthy now. 

But here’s where I’m going with this. I have some cabbages on the other side of the garden that were not attacked. I got them at Big Box the same time that I got Broccoli and Kohlrabi, and they’re still doing fairly well. I planted them, too, in soil that was mixed with manure compost and peat moss. So what’s the difference? 

Well, Cabbage’s neighbors are all marigolds. They haven’t been dead-headed in awhile, and they’ve been beat to hell in a few bad storms, but they’re basically still healthy plants. Broccoli and Kohlrabi, however, are living right next door to some pretty sad-looking cherry tomato plants and some peaked-looking peppers, which is to say that I can’t help but wonder if I would have had such a bad time with the harlequin beetles if I had planted Broccoli and Kohlrabi somewhere else. I mean, I think these sad hangers-on from summer were already bringing the bugs in. I even saw harlequin beetles on the tomato plant, and tomatoes are just not their usual fare. 

I have since added more broccoli, some Brussels sprouts, some lettuce, and various greens and root veggies to the garden, mostly in my new raised beds, and some in Cabbage’s side of the garden. I bought some compost to plant them all in because, as I said, I thought the garden could use it. And here’s where things took a sharp curve for me and I began to stumble and slide down the slippery slope of garden ardor, because the thing that has my heart pounding outside this September is Leaf Gro soil conditioner. Have you seen this stuff? Leaf Gro is not flashy. He doesn’t show off, but you know that he’s rich just by looking at him. It’s in the way he carries himself. It’s in his well-made but unpretentious, classic crumbly-black clothes. 

I had already kind of come up with a composting-in-place plan. I’ve been working my way around the garden where things aren’t planted – and won’t be planted – until next spring and summer – and spreading my kitchen scraps directly on the soil. I’ve then been collecting a few big buckets of dead Bradford pear tree leaves from around the yard, and covering the food scraps with the leaves. I figure that by next summer it ought to all be good and broken down. I mean, I may not have the observational acuity of a scientist, but I do know that never in my life have I raked leaves in my back yard, and that the leaves from our four trees always break down and sink into the soil, every year, without fail. 

So I was pretty happy with that plan, and now I’m thinking I may take it one step further – lasagna style. I am absolutely infatuated with Leaf Gro. If I could afford to do it I would have my entire garden covered with him right now. And again in the spring next year too! But in the meantime, I think that I can handle a few bags a week, and I may start spreading Leaf Gro over my kitchen-scrap and dead leaf soil lasagna. 

It can’t hurt. 

The important thing is that I’m starting to think about my soil. I’m making an effort. Like every other effort I’ve ever made in the garden, I expect both failures and setbacks. But Albert Einstein said that no problem can be changed by the same level of consciousness that created it, which is to say that if I want things to be different, I must be different. If I want to romance Broccoli and Kohlrabi then I must romance Soil.  

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 small cover image the best laid plans 

I have two gardening books available at Amazon - Confessions of a Vegetable Lover and More Confessions of a Vegetable Lover. E-book versions are 99 cents each! 

But I also write about people. I have a new novel available as an e-book - the print version is forthcoming. In The Best Laid Plans a woman trying to plan her way out of childhood heartbreak expectedly falls in love. Available now on Amazon! 

nebraska dave
9/16/2012 2:29:06 AM

8:48 PM 9/15/2012 Shannon, it is the soil that makes the garden. I found it useful to bury the semi composted material in the garden bed. What I do is pile the yard debris up from the last leaf/grass mulch to start the process over the winter. By spring it's well on the way to become compost but not nearly finished. Then I bury it under the top layer of garden soil about four to six inches. The process completes over the course of the garden year slowly releasing the nutrients needed. I haven't used fertilizer on my raised beds. I have another source of excellent garden fertilizer. My good friend has horses. Like 20 horses that produce an abundance of you know what. I've considered hauling a few loads of the good stuff out to Terra Nova Gardens. Is there such a thing as too much love for the soil. I think maybe so. I planted radishes in my raised beds this year and the tops grew to three foot tall with a radish the size of a pea. That indicates too much nitrogen Oops. Have a great day in the Maryland garden beds.