I TURNED THE SOIL last Saturday. It was a pleasing ritual, putting a spade in the ground, turning the earth over and staring at a chunk of the planet.
I saw rocks, roots and worms. My kid, who came along to "help," scooped up the rocks and tossed them at a wash tub hanging on a distant fence. Target practice.
I picked up the roots, remnants of the glories and follies of last year's garden, shook the mud loose and tossed them in a wheel barrow.
I found the worms irresistible. I had to pick them up and let them crawl on my palm. As they crawled, I eyed their midsections and tried to figure out what kind of year it is going to be for the garden. A waterman once told me that, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, plump oysters are a sign that good times are a-coming. I feel the same way about garden worms. Plump ones, like the porkers I found last Saturday, mean fat tomatoes are not far behind.
Worm-based forecasts of good times are a stretch. But mucking around in the mud, in a gardening sort of way, makes you optimistic. In a year when we have had more than our share of rotten weather, I find myself seizing on any sign as proof that sunnier times are ahead. A fat cardinal pecking in the backyard, a dove cooing on a fire escape, a cherry tree blooming on Centre Street, a pony-tailed jogger plodding along Walther Boulevard, reassure me that renewal is at hand. That the seasons will change.
Statistics say most Americans live in urban areas. Here we marvel at tall buildings, prowl museums, hear remarkable music and generally feel civilized. But when you visit a garden center on a spring Saturday, you quickly realize there is still a lot of farmer in us.
At garden centers, mountains of mulch tower over the parking lots. Trays of blooming geraniums and marigolds sell faster than bags of salted peanuts at the ballpark, perhaps because the flowers are cheaper. On weekends teen-agers toss heavy bags of gardening supplies into a seemingly unending line of station wagons, vans and sedans with their trunks open. A few days ago, these cars might have been carrying the kids to school, or clients to lunch. On weekends the back seats get folded down, sheets of plastic are placed in trunks, and these urban machines become "farm vehicles."
Call it a vestige of our agrarian past, call it a link to populist nature, call it something to do on weekends. Whatever you label it, there are a lot of folks who like to get down in the dirt and grow stuff.
I am one of them. I enjoyed myself as I dug up the plot my 11-year-old son and I rent in a community garden in Druid Hill Park. It was still March and I felt morally upright about working in the garden so "early" in the season. But as I walked past other plots, I saw signs that other gardeners had been at work well before me. One of the disadvantages of working a patch of ground shared with other folks is that no matter how proud you are of your efforts, you can immediately compare your work with those of some nearby super-gardeners and feel lacking. Last week, for instance, a few super-gardeners had not only turned over their plots, but had fertilized, planted and staked. Rows of crops -- lettuce, I guess -- were neatly marked by mounds of dirt and strands of string.
It was easy to feel like a slacker. But my spirits lifted when I caught a whiff of the aroma coming from a mound of straw dotted with horse manure. It had been dumped outside the garden fence and, according to custom, it was available to any gardener who wanted it.
I remembered the advice of Harry Truman, a former president of the United States, and more importantly a former farmer. When speaking to a lofty gathering, he said that in his view the secret to successful farming was: " Manure, manure and more manure." Some of the ladies in the audience were offended at such talk, so the story goes, and asked Bess Truman to encourage her husband to clean up his language. Mrs. Truman reportedly replied that she had already spoken to her husband about the matter. In the original version of the speech, she said, the president had used another word.
Following this presidential directive, I loaded up a wheelbarrow with the steaming, aromatic straw, and spread it on my garden plot. My kid, a city boy, complained about the smell and threatened to boycott the garden until the aroma went away. I should have told him that before the plants can grow, the soil has to be fed. I should have reminded him that in gardening and in life, decomposition can be a prelude to resurrection.
Instead I told him that the smelly straw was good for the garden. It would make the worms even fatter.
Pub Date: 4/06/96