Is Soil a Dirty Word?

People tend to see gardening as a hobby — an activity — but I think it’s primarily a relationship. Many gardeners speak of the importance of feeling part of something larger than themselves … This feeling of being part of the web of life.

                                             ~ Margaret Roach, quoting Dr. Sue Stuart-Smith

The web of life seems to have awakened in our yard. Green sprouts are pushing up through last fall’s leaves — that we intentionally left to provide safe haven for overwintering bugs and tiny critters. I’ve ordered and received this year’s seeds and am eyeing the compost pile to see how much work it will take to break open the pile, capture the good stuff, and spread it on the garden beds.

Writer Elizabeth Waddington observes, “Soil is far more than just dirt. Treating soil like dirt is one of the worst things we can do. If you underestimate the importance of soil in a garden, there is little chance of creating a successful and productive garden which can stand the test of time … Soil is a living ecosystem, teeming with life. Soil is made up of its mineral constituents, organic matter, air, water and living organisms — from earthworms and larvae to nematodes and microscopic bacteria and fungi … All of these elements combine to create a precious world that is essential to life on earth.”

However, March is still late winter in Colorado and April is often our snowiest month. I can’t get ahead of myself this year; last year’s planting in late April was not successful. But I can get going on the compost; a few dumps of wet snow will probably do a better job of mixing the nutrients into the older soil.

Waddington adds, “Taking a regenerative approach to soils, and truly appreciating the soils below our feet, is essential for a sustainable way of life. As gardeners, we are custodians of soil on our own patches, however small.”

I enjoy the exploration of the compost pile. Much of the material is a black, slightly gooey mass. Some spots are still relatively dry and not very decomposed, allowing me to still discern the chunks of vegetable peelings from the mown grass and leaves. There are always a few sticks or large seeds — avocado or mango or something unidentifiable. There are worms and other crawlies, and the occasional mouse fleeing from their burrow’s destruction. But mostly, I find the compost I’m looking for.

Writer Sami Grover says “With more and more people divorced from the process of growing their own food, or even gardening, it’s rare to find folks who understand the truly incredible thing that soil really is … And if you take some time to get your hands dirty in a good, organic garden, or walk around in the woods after a rainfall, you start to get a sense of the magic that exists in our soils.

Margaret Roach quotes Dr. Sue Stuart-Smith, “Gardening is an accessible form of creativity, and allows us to bring something new into the world … I do think of gardening as a form of play — in an adult way. In the garden, we can grow hope.”

And we need to be able to hope about the Earth’s future. As Waddington notes, “Without the complex web of life in healthy soil, the world’s terrestrial ecosystems cannot survive … Soil degradation is a major contributor to global warming. But repairing our soils has the potential to aid in tackling the climate crisis. As gardeners, we have a responsibility to safeguard the soils on our own properties, and we all have the duty to avoid contributing to harmful systems which further degrade the world’s soils.”

Maybe I can’t affect large swaths of land like farmers and the agro-industrial complex, but I can pay attention to my own backyard. (Don’t tell anyone, but it’s fun and rewarding, too!)

Additional information:

Elizabeth Waddington, Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Soil in a Garden, March 24, 2022, TreeHugger

Sami Grover, Soil Is Not Dirt. Why Words Matter in Protecting Our Earth, October 11, 2018, TreeHugger

Margaret Roach, Cultivate Your Well-Being, Seed by Seed, March 20, 2022, The New York Times

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