There is something incredibly enticing about spring dirt. It has the ability to do so much more than get packed up under your fingernails – even if you wear gardening gloves. Maybe it’s the moist earthy smell that floats up as the sun finally starts to beat down. Or maybe it’s the honest hard work that reminds me of the muscles I forget I have. It could be the promise that with a little time and energy, fruits, veggies, herbs, and spices will begin to usher in the sweet and juicy summer. As I look out the window, at the frozen tundra of my backyard, I dream of spring.
I’ve always loved the feeling of dirt between my fingers. Some of my earliest memories are of the rustic ‘farmette’ my parents owned in New Hampshire. There was plenty of dirt there, from the kitchen garden to the pigsty. I vaguely remember our grumpy pair of goats, Rambrandt and VanGoat, bleating in the barn. Ducks and Canadian geese congregated around the little brook that ran beside the driveway. Behind the house were a few hives full of honeybees that my mom tended. And yes, there were pigs in the sty, just the right size for me to climb up on and ride around until they bucked me off into the mud.
I even recall my first taste of fresh parsley from the patch that grew up under the shade of a tree in the front yard. I don’t really remember the kitchen garden they had. I’ve seen pictures, so I know that it was a good size. There’s also photographic proof that the cucumbers were nearly as big as one-year-old me.
My husband’s not much of a gardener, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t love straight-from-the-backyard-garden produce. He just prefers grilling it to growing it. He is pretty handy, and, to his credit, puts up with some of my crazy “don’t throw that away, I have an idea” plans. Take, for instance, the chemistry lab-frame that I rescued, painted, and now use as a garden trellis for sweet peas and cukes. He thought I was crazy when I dragged it out of the car and asked, “Isn’t it perfect?” Of course, at the time it was grimy and in need of a fresh coat of paint. Now, he admits that it’s actually kind of neat.
And then there was the time a few springs ago, when I pointed out a pallet of scrap wood on clearance at the local hardware store and exclaimed: “That wood is perfect for raised-bed gardens!” He furrowed his brow, did a few quick calculations, and then bought enough wood for two raised-bed boxes. They turned out splendidly, and we now have four of those raised-beds in our backyard, hip height, and perfect. I was 6 months pregnant when they were installed, and I loved that I could easily plant and harvest, even with my growing belly.
Each box has a theme: root and vine; salsa; salad and herb; trial and error. The sweet peas and cucumbers climb the reclaimed lab-frame trellis over onions, carrots, green beans, and radishes. The beefsteak and cherry tomatoes rise up like a mountain behind the banana, jalapeno, Serrano, and bell peppers. Tufts of lettuce punctuate the space between the thyme, sage, basil, and dill. And then there’s the trial and error box: a place to screen plants I’ve never been brave enough to try before. I whole-heartedly admit that I’m still a novice at kitchen gardening; thus, the trial and error box. Last season, we were rewarded with a few small heads of cabbage, some kale, and a kohlrabi root. Sadly, the broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens didn’t fare so well. Trying out new plants is half the fun. I can't wait for the gardening catalogs to arrive in the mail; a sure sign spring is coming, despite the forecast of continuing snow and cold.
Genetics and Green Thumbs
I was born with Brachydactyly Type D. It’s a fancy medical term used to describe my short, stocky, mis-matched thumbs are completely ineffective should I ever need to hitch a ride. It’s genetic, and if the Internet is to be believed, ‘clubbed thumbs’ are a completely harmless physical trait that can affect up to 3% of a population. Genetically speaking, my parents are to blame for my ‘clubbed thumbs.’ I like to think they are to blame for my ‘green thumb’ as well.
In July 2012, my husband and I welcomed our own bundle of joy into the world: an 8 lb 9 oz baby boy who doesn’t appear to have gotten the genetic short end of the stick…er, thumb. As I study his little hands, I find myself thinking back to my childhood, remembering things like the smell of sun-warmed mint and harvesting dill for homemade pickles. I think about how rewarding it is to plant a seed and then watch as the tiny cotyledons push themselves up from the moist black dirt, ready for the sun. I’m still pretty mesmerized by it all.My son is still too young to appreciate the miracle that comes from the combination of a seed, soil, sun and water. Plants grow so fast…and so does he.
Plant a Seed
I am a Midwest transplant. My husband and I, both from the East Coast, have planted roots in a home of our own. We don’t have pigs for my son to ride or ducks for my son to chase. And as far as the family petting zoo goes, my son will have to make do with a house cat and two energetic beagles. The good news is that we have plenty of dirt.
There are a ton of garden ‘experiments’ I want to do with my son – the same ones that my parents did with me. I want to grow carrot-tops and avocado pits suspended over glass canning jars on the kitchen counter. I want to add food coloring to water and stick a few stalks of celery and carnations in it to show how plants transport water through capillary action. I want to sprout beans on a dampened paper towel in a baby-food jar so we can watch the roots grow. I want to grow edible mushrooms in a tray under the kitchen sink. I want to take my son outside and let him really get his hands dirty.
It’s not just the plants and what they produce that I want my son to marvel at. I hope to hear him giggle as he feels an earthworm wiggle in his palm. I’m looking forward to seeing him watch in fascination as a caterpillar goes to town on a leaf. I can’t wait to show him the rainbow the sun makes when watering the garden in the late afternoon sun. These are the things I remember from my childhood. These are the experiences I want to share.
The best thing is: these memories aren’t expensive. They don’t have bells or whistles, batteries or buttons. They are full of fresh air and dirt. For the price of a few packets of seeds, I hope to give my son something priceless: memories. I hope that over the years, he’ll have happy memories of his first taste of parsley or helping his dad make salsa from the tomatoes and peppers we grew and harvested from the garden. I hope that he learns to appreciate the miracle that a seed can bring, and the value of patience and hard work. And deep down, I’m also hoping that despite his ‘normal’ looking thumbs, he won’t miss out on the gift of a ‘green thumb’.
So, with the threat of 6 or more inches of snow and negative temperatures that seem to never end, I find myself thinking of spring. I'm ready to dig in and get my fingers dirty. Only 49 days until spring!