Posts Tagged ‘soil’


Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:


Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?


Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.


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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.


Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.


Another one. When you see these…


(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.


(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission



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Blackberries, Silverton Farms, Toms River.

I can’t speak for you, but for me, supermarket shopping for produce in February is onerous at best. It’s been months since the sun made a respectable appearance, local offerings are few, and the produce from Chile is a little too coiffed, like that slicky QVC-type hawker that Bridget Jones’s mum had an affair with.* It’s like they’re trying to pretend they’re not tiny, expensive and lacking in nutrition, which was sadly lost two weeks ago over the Atlantic. The supermarket tries to keep the dismal at bay with bright lights and piped-in music, but it just makes the setting feel more hollow.** Admittedly, the rest of the year it’s not much better. Even now, at the height of the growing season, to me it feels hollow. It might as well be February.

Produce shopping at a farmers market is much more satisfying. You can buy lacinato kale that was in the ground that morning. And it’s only traveled a few miles to get to you. Best of all, you get to meet the people who grew, or baked, or somehow else concocted what they’re selling. They aren’t wearing name tags or uniforms; usually they’re in old jeans. The female growers rarely wear makeup or do up their hair. There’s a sense of integrity, of pride of ownership—a quiet brashness of what you see is what you get, refreshing in today’s endlessly tidied up and sanitized world.

But for the best produce shopping experience of all, I choose pick your own. If you haven’t tried it and think you don’t want to, listen: it’s more enjoyable than you think. As long as you’re wearing shoes that can get dusty or a little muddy and you’re wearing sunblock and a decent hat to keep the sun at bay, you’re good.  A bottle of water wouldn’t hurt, either. And if you go to a small farm, even better; there’s a chance you’ll have the whole blackberry field to yourself.

Pick your own is a five-sense epicurian feast. Remember, farmers aren’t in it for the money. What you’re about to take part in is something ancient, something all at once enormous and humbling, something farmers—despite the labor and precarious nature of a life lived like this—treasure. The connection with the living things offering you their fruit, the gratitude, the simplicity, the peace that taps you gently on the shoulder—all are a big part of what makes this work worth it for them. And it can do the same for you, just for an hour or so one morning.

See the variety in shape and color and texture of what’s growing; the sparkle of dewdrops in streaks across the grass and across your feet (when was the last time your shoes were dampened with dew?); the sky with sun and scribbles of clouds; the geometry of the buildings, fences, plow and tractor tracks; moving, changing color in the leaves and the chickens that dot the yard; tight little immature red berries and fat glossy purple ones (to find the ripest, fattest berries, occasionally you need to lift the canes carefully and peek beneath them).

Hear those chickens scolding each other; the wind rustling leaves in the maple trees a few yards off and several more yards up; the whirring of bees busy doing their thing (and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them); cicadas singing over and over again to a crescendo before dropping the note; cardinals calling to each other; the rustle of tall grass as you make your way down the path.

Smell the green of the blackberry leaves (yes, you can, especially on hot days); the sweet pungency of fruit that’s fermenting into schnapps after the rain dropped it to the ground Tuesday evening; the richness of the soil that crumbles like devil’s food cake; the freshness of the wind.

Feel the dew on leaves growing in the shade; the basket handle under your arm; the prickly canes (being careful of the thorns; much like bees, respect is warranted); the difference between berries that are ripe versus almost ripe (you want fruit that is firm but not too firm; it should be a bit yielding, dropping fairly easily into your fingers when tugged); your blood pressure slowing down to mellow yellow.

Taste the sweet blackberries, flesh and juice…as well as the gift of this morning.

* Okay, he was Portuguese, but the point still stands.

**Whole Foods is a notable exception.

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