Down to Earth: Making Dirt


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Sometimes I feel like a god—not the invincible, “able to move heaven and earth” kind of god, but just a minor creator inside my own fences. I’m the official Creator of Dirt for one tiny patch of garden on this Earth.

In the winter months, when not much is growing in the herb beds, I repair, replant, and replenish. My main job, though, is to continue making dirt. (Call it soil if you want, but in my realm I call it dirt.)

Sixteen years ago, when I first walked into the space that is now garden, I found rocks as large as tennis balls dotting the ground. Saplings as big around as my wrist grew like weeds. Old tools, cans, discarded garden hose, and roofing tin from the nearby barn were everywhere. Digging down 10 inches, I found hard, stubborn red clay. “How can I ever grow a garden here?” I asked a crow that watched me from the persimmon tree above the fence.

I gathered and hauled away the refuse, chopped down the weeds, and cut, dug, and pulled up the saplings. I hauled out countless wheelbarrows of rocks and wheeled in countless wheelbarrows of barnyard manure. I plowed, dug, and tilled, but years of neglect and misuse had left little fertility in the soil.

When I began growing herbs as part of the vegetable garden, I built my first raised bed. In doing so, I created a boundary between growing space and walking space. The new raised bed excluded everything that wasn’t part of it. It also left me with a pathway between the bed and the next growing area, which caused me to speculate whether I would ever feel good about having a piece of ground that was idle and unplowed.

The electric company had begun chipping tree trimmings and piling the chips in a dump in town. When I asked if I could haul them away—an unusual request in those days—those in charge eyed me curiously for wanting what they considered trash but said, “Sure, haul away as much as you like.”

I decided to use wood that was likely to decompose quickly, such as pine, elm, and silver maple, rather than hardwoods that would compost slowly. With every trip to town for errands, I brought back a load of wood chips and spread them on my long pathway next to the raised bed.

I soon realized that I liked working next to the raised bed best. It was higher than the other beds, and with the mulched pathway, it looked nicer and felt cleaner. I began turning more of the garden into raised beds. Instead of decreasing my growing areas, I found that by concentrating them, I had more productive space. I added more herbs and, little by little, the herb collection grew from a few dozen plants to a few hundred, yet I still grew more corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables than I could use.

Meanwhile, I was hauling more loads of wood chips. The garden took on a look of refinement and order. Pathways were comfortable to walk on. Weeds hardly grew through the mulch. The cat lounged on the cool wood chips beside me, keeping me company while I worked.

A neighbor came by one day and said, “You’re sure wasting a lot of space with all those pathways,” but the wood chips, first laid down 3 inches deep, had become large, flat compost piles that quickly turned to black dirt. After less than twelve months, I had to till the pathways and remove the excess soil. Suspecting that its nitrogen had been depleted during decomposition of the chips, I added fresh chicken litter (straw and manure) from the barn, mixed it well, and built new raised beds.

Each year as I added more pathways, I found that I was having to till up the old ones and find a place for the newly created soil. I built beds higher and made new beds outside the garden, and still the soil accumulated.

The volume of dirt accumulated so rapidly that I replaced some of the pathway mulch with hardwood chips to give a longer-lasting path and less dirt. But cedar proved to inhibit plant growth, and oak stimulated the growth of mushrooms as well as some fungus diseases, so I quit using either in the garden.

This year, torrential rains came and washed my mulched pathways into the pasture. Maybe it’s a reminder that I’m not much of a creator after all. I’m only one of many links in the long process of turning wood into dirt.

Even if I’m not the one who is really in control in my garden, making it all happen, that’s all right. The winter garden is the perfect place to reflect on the whole process, and meanwhile, I’ll go about making more dirt.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.