Curses! Soiled Again

THE REAL DIRT

June 27, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Creating a new garden requires careful planning. For instance, it helps to have the right supplies. Here is my checklist:

(1) Seeds.

(2) Spade.

(3) Sun.

That's all I need to start a garden. The soil, I take for granted. Who doesn't?

Soil adds stability to a gardener's life. Think about it. You may lose those flower seeds and that favorite shovel, but not the soil. Never the soil. How can you misplace something that is always underfoot?

Soil is one thing gardeners can count on. The sun may disappear for days, but not the soil. It sticks by us -- or to us -- in the worst of times: Witness my mud-caked boots by the basement door.

All soils are not the same, of course. Some are better than others, but I've never seen soil so poor that it couldn't be repaired. Throw in some fertilizer and compost, and even the shakiest ground can be turned around.

That's what I thought until last month, while digging a new garden, I unearthed the Dirt From Hell.

The proposed garden, an herb bed, would replace a grassy patch alongside the house. The garden would bring the kitchen herbs within reach of the cook who, until now, has had to -- clear out to the vegetable patch to gather fresh spices.

Having an herb bed close to the back door would significantly alter my lifestyle. Now, for instance, if I wanted chives for my breakfast eggs, I could pick them in my underwear.

Giddy with anticipation, I stepped on the shovel and broke ground. Clunk. The shovel sank 2 inches and stopped.

I frowned, picked another spot and dug again. Clunk. Each try produced the same results. Here a clunk, there a clunk, everywhere a clunk-clunk.

Nonetheless, I struggled on at a worm's pace. Nary a worm here. It was miserable soil, full of rocks, cement brittle and several hard, tarry blobs that resembled debris from an oil tanker spill. Except that we live 200 miles from the nearest beach.

In fact, what I'd struck was an old driveway.

Chagrined, I examined this mound of "dirt.". Herbs thrive in poor soil, it's true, but to grow them in the Dirt From Hell would be planticide. So I hauled the debris, a full truckload of junk, to the dump.

This solved one problem but created another. The new garden was now a bit short of soil -- 20 wheelbarrows short. The herb bed was just an herb pit. Where would I find good fill dirt?

First stop: the compost heap, a cold, slimy mass of grass, leaves and eggshells. No help there.

A more promising source of soil was the vegetable garden, into which I've pumped more than 50 truckloads of horse manure. What became of all that manure is a mystery; the soil level in the vegetable garden is 1 inch higher than the rest of the yard. Or it was, before I moved some of the dirt to the herb bed.

Five wheelbarrows down and 15 to go.

That's when I knew what I had to do. I had to buy dirt, lots of it. It wasn't a 10-pound bag of potting soil I needed. It was more like a cubic yard.

It was also embarrassing. Gardeners are supposed to be able to manufacture their soil. I have a compost pile. I even live on a hill. You'd think I could find the dirt there, but no, I have to import the stuff.

Imagine my chagrin at having to pay for someone else's real estate.

The topsoil cost $28 at a local garden center. As the dirt was dumped into my truck, I felt a failure, like a cattle farmer buying steaks at the supermarket. Ashamed, I drove off wearing sunglasses and scrunched down in my seat.

If my garden had sunk to a new low, well, so had I.

I sensed the neighbors watching, laughing, as I rattled up the driveway and began shoveling madly, from the truck to the yard. I felt like crawling into that depression and pulling the hole in after me. But gradually the pit disappeared, and a garden arose.

Now there are herbs flourishing where the driveway once stood. Chervil has replaced the cement. Thyme has replaced the tar blobs. The topsoil has become part of the family. And the only time I'm embarrassed is when I'm caught picking chives in my undies.

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