My fingernails are still reeling from dirt exposure
A few weeks ago, when I so brilliantly hatched a plan to illustrate my transition from city chick to Laura Ingalls Wilder (sans the sensible shoes) by growing a portion of my family’s food in my brand-new suburban-style backyard, I did not account for how much of my time in the garden would have to be spent in the actual dirt. So, when I spent all day yesterday out in the stuff, mulching and composting the precious few survivors of last summer’s “Die At the Hands of Holly” gardening experiment, I had forgotten to realize how much I hate it.
I hate dirt. Number one, it’s dirty and impossible to get from underneath your fingernails, number two, it is constantly moving and shifting with creatures and pieces of stuff and there were several moments yesterday, as I was tentatively loosening the hardened soil around my no-kill lavender and rosemary plants, that I believed I was hallucinating and saw Lost Boys-style maggots undulating right in the dirt in my very own hands. This is not a lie, people, I thought I saw maggots that looked just like udon noodles in my backyard’s dirt.
I screamed. My 2-year-old was standing right next to me, and asked calmly, Mommy are you scared? Did you see a monster? I wanted to say, yes, yes I did! But then felt pretty silly when I showed him what made me scream. He was delighted to find about 100 rolly-polly bugs, some tiny and greasy-looking snails, and of course, earthworms, all squirming in the soil that I’d turned over, aching to get back down under the surface.
It’s kind of shameful to say you really don’t like dirt, especially when you want so badly to be authentic and have a beautiful garden. Screaming when you see a worm is the same as standing on a chair when you see a mouse, it’s kind of cheesy and shows a real lack of toughness, a lily-liveredness that would surely cause my rocky Scottish ancestry to flush with embarrassment.
But that doesn’t make me like dirt any more, and after the wormy/maggot incident I walked back to the shed and got myself some big work gloves and came back to do work. I couldn’t feel what I was doing in there, but that was okay, because I couldn’t feel the dirt, either. Problem solved.
A loathing for dirt is tricky, and for more reasons than the obvious ones - like how it will come in handy when growing my vegetables. I stare at my perfect little seedlings in their sterile little cups, sitting inside and full of maggot-less dirt, and I start to think about getting dirty. Like how I would avoid the outside as a child, I would rather have sat inside and read a book on a nicely made bed. Or, how I would not run a relay race or play kick-the-can if it was muddy because I might have gotten dirty. It’s a slippery slope, because thinking about sitting inside for my childhood also reminds me how I disliked playing games with my sister and the neighborhood children, how I was much happier to sit off to the side and watch, or be in charge, but as far as stepping in and getting my hands dirty…
I read recently that eating a little dirt now and again is a good thing. Babies who eat a little dirt have stronger digestion systems and better antibodies. It turns out that being too clean is not good for your health.
I know that the last few years I spent locked in my little apartment in NYC with two babies were not good for me. I began to long to see nature – green and red and blue and purple and birds and even bugs. Sometimes I think I’d be thrilled to trade all the nature in Texas for a night out at a good Brooklyn restaurant, but mostly I am happy that I am around nature now. I cry a lot less, and the muscles in my neck have ceased playing catapult with my head.
In a blog like this one, a loathing for such an essential and integral part of growing life on this planet as dirt can either be a) a wonderful obstacle to overcome and learn from and will make you cry tears of joy and understanding when I have that breakthrough right in front of you and I post something to my Facebook page like Holly Kinnaird Korbey really, really likes dirt!, or b) a real nightmare once all the bugs come out this summer.
Seedlings, or precious baby plantswho deserve unconditional love
The fact that the seedlings are continuing to grow despite my interaction with them is giving me a good deal of early, if unearned, confidence. It is February, after all, but I’m starting to feel a bit like Ms. Green Jeans over here, with the gardening gloves and the little green shoots everywhere. It looks like the carrots and green peppers are taking longer to pop than everybody else; that’s okay, I know how they feel. I will give them their space. Although it’s a long way off, I feel very excited about vegetables to come. I am looking forward to seeing them hanging ripe on the vines, but even more, I’m excited to watch them move from one stage to another, from seedling to stalk, then from flowering to edible vegetable. Seems similar to how I feel with my children (especially the continuing-to-flourish-in-spite-of-me aspect). The most beautiful kind of voyeurism is to witness that kind of astounding growth.
My two little sons and I are taking care of those little babies, we check on them obsessively (“Mom, have they grown?” “Not in the 20 minutes since you last checked.”), and we are breathlessly awaiting their next big move. Even though they’re silly little seeds, and we don’t need them to produce in order to survive (except maybe to survive our liberal guilt), it is still a wonderful feeling to wake up in the morning and see them under their little dome, humid and warm and comfortable, perched on top of the clothes dryer. Every day brings progress, and I’m feeling very GenX about the instant gratification the seedlings have given me so far.
I mean, look at them: they remind me of little boys, their skinny legs, necks too long, awkwardly kind of flailing themselves toward the direct sunlight. Who couldn’t see they’re on their way to something great? I do. I see it with the eyes of a mother.
My husband is slightly upset with my new, profoundly spiritual love of gardening, even though I must point out that it’s not technically gardening, since I have yet to actually venture out to the garden. He’s mostly upset because I have not made the same connection with our miniature schnauzer, and we’ve had him for 6 months. I had to remind him, gently, that the seedlings do not crap all over the yard.
The seed-starter kit, with the pellets before they popped and became gen-u-wine soil.
I’ve always leaned housewife. I like home, baking my own bread, sewing creative buttons on things, scrubbing mold off the bricks on our house (I just did that the other day, too, with vinegar - to amazing results). My husband calls it my “Amish gene,” and he’s close to right: I’ve got a pragmatic, Scottish ancestry, a simple folk with ruddy faces and rough elbows who scraped pennies and churned butter on rocky hillsides. Mix this with my GenX, Brooklyn hipster tendencies, and you’ve got a double whammy: a cheap-ass with nothing but a shovel looking for a gardening experience that’s totally pure and authentic.
No surprise, then, that I’m beginning my vegetable garden from seed.
There’s no other way to do it, if you’re going to do it right. Buying a bunch of starter plants from the garden store (like I already did a few days ago, see Wednesday’s post) is the easy way out, right? (I mean, right?) I want to start a garden from the very beginning – the real experience, the very start. And the start, as we all know, is the seed.
Our seed choices had to meet two important criteria in order to make the cut for the backyard garden: they had to be easy to grow, and we had to like eating them (which is a challenge with two little ones on the mostly “white” diet – cheerios, macaroni, and mashed potatoes). We ended up with zucchini, yellow squash, green onions, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, and cantaloupe. The kids agreed to eat everything but the radishes, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and yellow squash.
I’d done a bit of reading about planting vegetable gardens (my brother passed on the very helpful website Square Foot Gardening and I’ve been pouring over the Mother Earth News), and it seemed that since we haven’t yet built the beds to house the garden like the ones pictured here (our backyard soil is really terrible, plus we’ve got kids and a nosy dog), the best way to yield ooooh-fast! results that would keep my excitement level up was to get a seed starter.
This one pictured above, by interestingly-named garden company Burpee, was $7.99 at Home Depot. You water the little pellets and the soil pops up and fills out the little cups instantly (not authentic gardening in any way, but it was a lot of fun – this is one of the coolest things about being a hipster: you get to decide which experiences are authentic). Then we dropped the seeds in, covered them up without smashing them (well, they smashed a couple), and placed them away from direct sunlight. Then, three days later, look! Look what happened!
Real plants from seeds
We have made little plants! We created them, we gave them life. For only $7.99! How satisfying. It was such an exciting moment to see them under the little plastic greenhouse roof – like one of those incubators they use for babies in the hospital - poking their little noses out of the dirt. The radishes came first, and now the squash are starting to peek out, too. My older son said, “oh, wow, they’re babies!” And they are. Our little babies, to tiptoe around, and whisper to.
We’ll grow you, little babies. I promise this will be an authentic growing experience. Don’t worry, mama’s not going to kill you this year.
This is the backyard as it looks right this moment, February 19, pre-garden, pre-bounty, pre-wonderfulness - there it is, folks, our little patch of the American dream. What's nice about the yard is the high fence, so no one on the outside can see its internal crappiness. See those chairs sticking out, left? I got those at Target for $10 a pop. And the black firebowl with moons and stars on the right was a gift when we moved in. The blue goo on the half-moon concrete is just chalk; it will wash off the next time it rains.
It's kind of small (and there' s a big patch off right that you cannot see in the photo that contains the bones of everything I have killed) and crappy but we love it. Perhaps sometime in the near future - let's say September? - I'll take another photo and it will be the garden's big "reveal," and it will make you cry or laugh or both with sheer amazement.
Spiky succulents that I bought enthusiastically on the first sunny day of "Texas spring", around February 8.
I am sitting in my sun room, looking through the slightly foggy windows at my backyard garden. I see possibilities. It’s looking really dead right now, with all the leaves gone off all the trees – a pink crepe myrtle that will probably die soon; two mini Japanese maples, a green and a blood-red; a pecan tree that’s still hanging onto a couple of dreary leaves. The grass is no-color and has the consistency of straw; the blades are trampled down into the clay, looking like a giant’s footprints have pressed down the whole yard. What strikes me most about our backyard is how monotone it looks, like a giant grayish-greenish-brownish mess. Like the kinds of drawings my sons make when they use all the crayons.
The backyard has its deficiencies, and I see that now – I did not nearly a year ago when we moved in. It was our first backyard since my husband and I had been children - both of us had spent our entire adult lives living in city apartments in Boston and New York. Our very first backyard! Our kids called it "the park." We loved the backyard, and the smallish patch of grass surrounded by overgrown old trees and shrubs looked really good to us, most likely because we didn't know any better - it wasn't asphalt, and that seemed wonderful. The backyard represented to us a piece of our American dream that had been missing. It wasn't until months later - around June - that I looked around at our neighbors' lovely landscaping and decided the back yard needed improving.
I went to the garden store and bought a few plants, and a few herbs, and came home and stuck them straight in the ground. I watched and waited. The Texas sun scorched nearly everything when July came, including my hens and chicks, planted with desert soil in shallow pots just like they told me to at the gardening store. Everything burned badly under the extreme penetration of the sun and the dry heat, and weakened. Every day I went out to the patio, the lovely ‘70s semi-circle concrete patio, to check on my poor herbs and succulents and trees and bushes, but they all seemed exasperated with me. They looked parched. So I watered them. I watered and watered and appeared to all the neighbors I’m sure like a preacher bound for a heavenly ocean somewhere, trying to revive plant life bound for the fires of hell, just out there dumping gallons of water on my plants in the middle of July, in the middle of the day, hoping, wishing, praying they would come back to life. I even spoke to some of them – no nicknames or anything like that, I’m not that dopey - just whispered their proper names, “dear basil, please come back, please come back to me.” They were too far gone to respond. I doused them with more water, this time at sunset, like my mom had instructed me to do. The ground was so hot and so dry, the water ran right off the top of the clay soil in little streams, little rivers, and bypassed my plants altogether, and headed for the plush safe haven of the grass.
This is a very flowery way of saying everything I planted died. Well, almost everything - the rosemary’s still standing, but that was here when we moved in. Does it count, since I didn't officially plant it, but I didn't kill it, either? I spent many evenings last summer on the internet, trying to find answers to what I was doing wrong – too much water? Not enough? Did I fertilize enough? Is it too embarrassing to say that I didn’t do it at all? Ugh. So I forgot to fertilize. I was supposed to fertilize.
It’s February again, and I’m looking out at the backyard, thinking of the possibilities. The great and horrible thing about being me is my almost endless well of optimism: I’ve been to the nursery, and I’ve come back with more plants. I’m going to grow this year, I’m determined.
Here is the short list of what I’d like to grow: succulents, herbs, and some food. More specifically food - squash, zucchini, radishes, carrots, onions, tomatoes and maybe strawberries, if the squirrels don’t get them.
Can I do it? I am totally confident in saying that I am not sure. But, I will try.