Tending the Soil

A Monday afternoon in late February, and the temperature on the front porch hovers just above freezing. Even so, a ring-necked turtle dove, ready to begin some spring-time business, has been calling all day, “Coo-coo-oo-cook, coo-coo-oo-cook.”. His isn’t one of my favorite birdsongs, and the urgency in his voice sets me a little on edge.

Oh, it’s true, I like the drowsiness of winter mornings and the spaces the season leaves on my calender, but I have to say, I’m not reluctant to leave this winter behind. It’s only that my sense of urgency is different from the dove’s.

His is all about being out there, above ground, and in the heat of making more of himself. Mine is subterranean.

I’m considering foundations. In life, I’m thinking about those stories I’ve told myself for just about ever, stories about unworthiness, limitations, and struggle. Those foundational thoughts, color my perceptions, and give rise to my crop of actions. I’m calling most of them into question.

When I transfer these current musings to gardenhood, I think about soil, soil being the foundation of the garden. Its content and pH color foliage and flowers and determine the proliferation above its surface. What’s above the surface in every garden gets most everyone’s attention, mine included. What’s below the surface, however, makes most of the upward show possible.

Turns out, that the soil on the flat corner lot is depleted.

Late last summer, right about the same time my family and I were getting Dad’s mind and body evaluated, I took a couple of cups of soil to the dirt doctor. She ran tests. She gave me the sobering results. She also gave me a prescription and sent me home with supplements and instructions.

Like the news about Dad, the diagnosis of my soil’s condition really shook me. I thought I knew my soil. I thought it was basically sound. It looked dark. It crumbled somewhat easily. I had assumed that a layer of mulch would invite the worms to dinner, and soon, the presumably adequate soil would be black gold. The lack of real knowledge about the soil and the holes in my logic made me question my gardening qualifications.

To my credit, I was more than willing to eat my humble pie. The competent soil doctor armed me with bags of stuff and a plan. One weekend, I dug all the plants out of a bed along the chainlink fence. I forked in compost and various supplements. I raked out clumps. When plants went back into the bed, their holes received a dusting of mycorrhizae.

As Dad’s condition declined, there wasn’t time to redo more beds, but in the remaining weeks before hard frost, I saw a marked difference in the vitality of the plants above ground. Walking past the bed, I could even smell the life of the soil. The raised surface of that bed has reminded me all winter about the goodness underground. The experience has been smoldering, transmuting the feelings of shock and embarrassment into visions of healthy soil.

Dad left his earthly life nearly four months ago. I’m reentering mine.

It’s a year to begin the productive areas of the garden, the spaces for beans, squash, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, and more. Before the beauty above, however, there will be bounty below. In me as in the garden, I’ll take my time and tend the soil.

Letting Things Be

It’s getting close to cut-back time in the gardenhood. Close, but not quite. I need to rest in winter’s processes a while longer.

Most of the neighbors swept their leaves into plastic sacks months ago. Their yards are as tidy as winter allows. The only rake I touched pulled the leaves from a patch of lawn under the front yard crab on to the shade bed. Otherwise, I’ve left every stalk to blanch and let winds gather last summer’s canopy around dry stems and slumbering rosettes.

Frankly, it’s a mess.

The garden hasn’t developed winter interest. It’s sparsely planted and immature, lacking the textural carpets, architectural elements, and focal points that carry garden aesthetics through a brown Colorado winter. Even so, I couldn’t bare the thought of taking anything down.

There’s a very practical benefit: Everywhere the leaves have stayed, the soil remains moist and frozen. This, despite no snow for a month. I checked just yesterday, when the temperature flirted with 60 degrees, and the sun came and went behind April-dressed clouds. It comforts me to know that below the unkempt surface all is as it should be. Life continues.

I’ve needed to be with the garden as it is, to hang fussy habits in a crowded closet and rest. I find it quieting to watch the red cabbage, which never flourished in depleted soil, as it discolors and droops. The once proud iris leaves prostrate themselves and pale. Seed heads topple and spill. Stems crack and bend at strange angles.

Observing all this without interrupting it for pretty’s sake has been a tonic for grief-frayed nerves. Following last year’s departure and falling away, I’ve had some healing to do. Many friends have experienced great loss, rough transitions, and trauma as well. I seem to feel each one with them, more acutely than before. The garden, in its dormancy, soothes me by its example: Nothing is defeated, only submitting, changing, returning to earth.

Twenty years ago, on a Pacific beach in Nicaragua, I found shell after shell worn to pink and cream translucence. Held up to the sun, warmth and light shown through them, making them feel alive in a way, surely transformed from the husks of protection they had once been. I was inspired. I wanted to become translucent, too. Then, I was struck with terror, understanding the enormous forces involved.

Some while ago, a previous gardener tossed handfuls of small shells into the long parking median turned street garden on this flat corner lot. Now and then one surfaces, dirty, in tact. Taken away from pounding surf and constant tides, hidden in the soft darkness of the soil, they won’t ever polish thin enough for sunlight to shine through. I like to imagine how they got there, but I don’t envy their fate.

So, this winter, I’m witnessing the forces of nature in the garden and the forces of life in myself. Despite the tumble-down appearance of both, all is well. Below the surface, we are waiting for spring and very much alive.