Mother Earth Living


By Staff

Soil, Beautiful Soil

Jo Ann Gardner

WESTPORT, New York–We all need soil–after all, it’s the medium
we use to grow the herby plants we love. But let’s be frank: soil
is boring. It’s the plants we lust for, especially in spring when
the first sight of unfurled leaf, swelling bud and fresh flowers
makes our hearts beat faster. This, not the plain ground beneath,
is what satisfies our gardening souls.

That may be, but as I have learned, a little passion for soil
will go a long way toward creating the kind of gardens we dream
about, full and lush, not only in the spring when conditions are
nearly perfect–gently warm and moist–but throughout the entire
growing season, through searing heat, droughts or torrential

As a conscientious gardener I always spread compost on my
planting beds in the spring and fall on top of the natural soil.
Such a virtuous feeling, this spreading of good stuff on the
ground, knowing you are creating rich, friable soil. I was
especially pleased with the job I’d done in creating a bed that
extended 2 to 3 feet beyond the network of tree roots in dry shade,
so I could plant the spring and early-summer herbs I love:
lungwort, cowslips, violas, sweet cicely and bistort–a plant I’ve
grown in sun and shade–in tight borders and naturalized in damp

But last summer’s heat and drought (weeks of searing sun with
temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s), when even plants in the
deepest shade wilted whether they were watered or not, jolted my
complacency. A shade border of pink astilbe, Japanese painted fern
and herb Robert that had filled out a bay beneath ash, oak and
maple made a pleasing midsummer picture–but not for long. Soon
leaves curled or turned brown, and herb Robert, a robust,
hard-to-kill ground cover, simply dried up and disappeared.

By chance I read George Schenk’s reissued classic (originally
published in 1984) The Complete Shade Gardener (Timber Press,
2002), and from the author’s remarks about ideal soil and what can
be grown in it, I suddenly understood where I had gone wrong.
Schenk tells us that there is a plant for every degree of shade and
every soil condition from hardpan clay to sand, but if you want to
grow a wider range of plants than tough ground covers, you must
create a thick soil blanket at least 6 inches deep on top of
existing soil. In other words, it’s not enough to amend existing
soil (or topdress it as I had done), you must build it up by making
it ever deeper. When you have created a deep base you can even grow
sun-loving plants in partial shade. By extension, I realized that
my plantings in full sun, which had survived drought but, under
stress were not deep enough, and those in dry shade had been
scanted even more.

“Deep, deep soil” became my mantra and last fall, before snow
curtailed garden activities, I spread 30 heaped wheelbarrow loads
of compost to all beds, in sun, partial shade and shade. What
drives this new passion for planting depth is the memory of
burned-up, disappearing herb Robert, a favorite ground cover. “Deep
beds” has a satisfying sound to it, a promise of better times

Spring, the best of times, brings new growth from the old, from
a hint of leaf and bud one day to a spreading plant, fully clothed
in new, fresh green finery, the next. We are, of course, enchanted.
Who can resist the return of such refreshing, innocent beauty in
our midst? But when I look down on the emerging flora, I admire the
deep, dark-brown earthy compost carpet that surrounds them, a
little rough but full of character with bits of sawdust and stray
hay; not quite decomposed manure, not yet earth. This is humus, the
result of decomposing household and farmyard waste, supplemented by
truckloads of animal litter from the local fairgrounds, dating from
more than a year to several months ago. It has a homely, comforting
look, and when I push my fingers into it, they go deep down to
below plant roots where it is cool, moist and protective. In
drought, it will retain moisture; in deluge, it will drain it away.
And because it contains manure, it will not only improve the soil
texture, but also feed the plants. When you begin to think that in
building deep soil you are creating a refuge for the plants you
love, this job will become a fundamental part of your gardening
life, and as satisfying as the most beautiful garden scene.


Pat Herkal

RIVERTON, Wyoming–Glorious spring! What a joy to be able to pick
herbs fresh from the garden instead of being totally dependent on
the grocery store or my freezer selections. Chives, sage, tiny dill
sprouts, tarragon and mint are now growing on the south side of the
house. Seedlings are planted under lights and in the greenhouse.
Soon, I’ll have a huge selection of fresh greens.

I have become an avid advocate of Slow Food, a movement started
in 1986 in Italy as a reaction to McDonald’s restaurants coming to
downtown Rome. Instead of uniformity of taste through the use of
preservatives, artificial ingredients and food additives, Slow Food
advocates work to preserve regional flavors and cuisines. Meals are
savored instead of being gobbled on the run. Herbs, rather than
artificial flavorings, are used to enhance dishes. Artisans prepare
food using time-honored techniques. Good food is a part of everyday

I try to serve fruits and vegetables in season grown as close to
home as possible. That is not always an obtainable goal in wintry
Wyoming, but I try to support growers and suppliers closer to home
when shopping at the local markets. We are lucky to have ranchers
in this county using organic, humane methods to raise sheep, cattle
and poultry.

I first learned about the Slow Food method several years ago
from the chef/owners of the Old Yellowstone Garage when they were
located in Dubois, Wyoming. Their meals were simply but exquisitely
prepared. They always used fresh herbs not only for the ubiquitous
garnish but to enhance the flavors of all of their dishes. In the
past year, the movement has been written up in many mainstream
lifestyle magazines, talked about on National Public Radio and
featured in beautiful books and cookbooks.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (Wyoming chapter)
reading group I belong to read a series called “Books that Made a
Difference.” Our first selection was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book,
Silent Spring (Mariner Books, 2002). Carson was one of the first to
speak out against the pervasive use of pesticides and herbicides to
increase food yields without thought being given to potential
serious effects on people, animals or insect life. While facing
severe criticism, she wrote, lectured and spoke to Congress about
the harmful effects of widespread chemical use.

My daughter graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in
November 2002. At her graduation, the keynote speaker was Steven
Saunders, a master chef from Great Britain. He is prominent in the
fight for organic foods and involved with Bonterra Vineyards, a
purveyor of organically grown wines in California. Saunders is
passionate about healthy, fresh foods simply prepared. He spoke
about supporting local growers, buying foods in season and
preserving what can be described as peasant foods. He stressed the
importance of introducing children to healthy homemade food both to
help preserve the family unit and to preserve our planet. He warned
against biogenetically engineered foods.

Our large chain grocery stores are now offering a larger variety
of fresh fruits and vegetables with a great amount of space
dedicated to organics. How wonderful. Even with global warming, the
growing rate of obesity and the proliferation of chain restaurants,
a healthier, more positive approach to food is becoming
increasingly common all over the United States. Good food is going

With the new growing season and spring bursting upon us, I plan
to renew my efforts to grow and use a variety of herbs and
vegetables. I will support the local farmers’ market and seek out
local growers. Last year, after some research, I discovered a
surprisingly long list of organic growers in rural Wyoming. The
food we serve our family and friends can be organic, sustainable
and healthy with the growing influence of growers, activists and
home cooks whose voices really do seem to be making a


Geri Laufer

ATLANTA, Georgia–In April and May, my herb garden is in full
bloom. Enclosed within a hedge of dwarf Yaupon holly (Ilex
vomitoria), a native medicinal shrub, the herbs are mostly
low-growing. Some of the biennial flower stalks rise to heights of
4 to 6 feet, but the majority of them are only knee-high. To give
height to my oval garden, my husband helped me to build an arbor at
either end, and I have planted them with herbal vines. I grow coral
honeysuckle, clematis and climbing roses, but my favorite vine for
this use is hops.

Hops (Humulus lupulus) are perennial vines that die to the
ground each winter. This time of year, hops break dormancy, sprout
out of the ground and grow rapidly, 6 inches a day or more. It
takes only about 10 days for the thin, hairy vines to clamber up my
trellis and spill over the top. In his book Perennial Garden Plants
(Sagapress, 1990), Graham Stuart Thomas uses the word “rampageous”
to describe their pattern of growth, and to this I might add
“stampeding.” The vines are twining, brittle at first and then
semi-woody by mid-summer. I find they need some direction or tying
before they find their way up the trellis unassisted. The coarsely
toothed, 3- to 5-lobed leaves are attractive, if somewhat

The type of hops I choose for my arbor is golden hops (H. l.
‘Aurea’). The leaves are a brilliant yellow-chartreuse in spring,
fading to plain green later in the season. I find they don’t scorch
even if grown in the hot Atlanta sun, and the leaves tend to stay
yellow longer. Hops are members of the Cannabidaceae, which also
includes cannabis, or hemp.

At the end of summer, the plants flower and to my eye they look
as though they are hung with green shrimp. The drooping female
cones slowly turn to a soft tan or light brown and are highly
decorative in autumn. In his Herbal of 1597, Gerard points out,
“The floures are used to season Beere or Ale with, and too many do
cause bitterness thereof, and are ill for the head.” Districts in
England, Germany and the Yakima Valley in Washington state are
known for their harvests of the bitter herb. In the United States,
herb nurseries such as Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon,
offer several named cultivars of hops, and Arthur O. Tucker, Ph.D.,
and Thomas DeBaggio in The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave Press,
2000) point out the relative merits and chemistry behind 18
cultivars for the benefit of gardeners and home brewers.

In addition to beer, hop flowers have long been used to stuff
sleep pillows for a soothing night’s sleep because of the lupulin
they contain. I dry the cones quickly, spreading them out loosely
on a sheet in my hot, dark, well-ventilated attic, and when they
are dry and crackling to the touch, they are ready for use. I add
lemon verbena and chamomile to the dried hops, and sandwich them
between layers of cotton felt and chintz or calico. Then I quickly
machine-quilt them into flat mats about 10 by 12 inches and slip
them under the bed pillows for a somniferous effect.

  • Published on Apr 1, 2003
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