What Soil Is Made Of

Working the Earth

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Working the Earth

Lena Gustafson

During the growing season, farm visitors are drawn to the lush and fragrant beauty of our garden. They delight in the peppery bite of just-picked basil leaves, the sweetness of baby carrots and the golden beauty of squash blossoms. They admire the prolific pole beans, plump tomatoes, and insect-free leafy greens. But they rarely acknowledge the most valuable commodity on the farm, the source of all that flavor and nutrition and pest-resistance, right under their feet: an abundance of deep, dark, nutrient-rich dirt.

When we concentrate on what soil is made up of: manure and worms, decomposed animals and plants, we might get the mistaken impression that it is actually “dirty.” But we look past its unsavory beginnings to see the essence of soil, the minerals and microbes, a water-filtering, carbon-recycling miraculous substance. Its condition is the most important aspect of growing fruits and veggies in the garden. Since we choose not to use chemical fertilizers to boost our soil, we work on nourishing it all year long.

Even in the summer, when we demand so much of the soil, we are conscious of its health. Since all plants have their own nutritional needs, they take different minerals from the earth. By rotating where each crop grows, we avoid depleting supplies of vital nutrients. We also confuse the pests and diseases; slow-moving pathogens won’t survive if they can’t find their favorite food.

At the end of the growing season, we let the chickens and sheep in to graze on the garden leftovers, scratch up the soil, and add their manure. When the animals have had their fill, we always add compost to replenish those nutrients that the garden plants have used up, letting the rain and snow from winter storms work the nutrients into the earth. Soil structure is complex and delicate and can be easily destroyed by vigorous machine or even hand tilling. As much as possible, we try to avoid over-working the garden. We make paths to walk through, instead of compacting the beds; we have a strict “no shoes” rule in the garden, to reduce the impact of our steps (and to increase our tactile enjoyment of gardening). We apply a healthy layer of compost on top of the soil and let the worms and weather break it down and distribute the nutrients. But in the springtime, we just can’t resist hooking the tiller up to the tractor. There is a profound sense of accomplishment in seeing a field that was dry and gray be turned over and turn a rich and fertile deep blackish brown.

Then, finally, we get to plant our seeds and get that luxurious garden dirt under our fingernails. In spring, that intimate connection with our soil gives us sensory feedback necessary to make planting decisions. Is it warm enough for peppers? Is it too dry for carrots? I also happen to find the sensation of bare skin in the earth thoroughly delicious. Planting awakens my inner 10-year-old, blissful and barefoot, making mud pies and hunting for earthworms. There are scientific explanations for the gardener’s high: microbes in soil and pheromones that plants give off have stress-reducing, health-improving effects on humans. But I suspect there is more to it for me. In this disposable age, I take great comfort in the earth’s ability to reuse its nutrients.

My topsoil didn’t magically appear the first year I decided to plant peas. The dirt had been there since before I lived here, before people walked on this Island or the earth. And it continues to break down whatever we throw into it, the things we can’t use for any other purpose, digesting dead plants and animal feces, and creating fertile earth. Dirt is the end of the decomposition process, but then it is the very beginning of our life cycle—supplying the tiniest of seeds with everything they need to grow into plants that we need to live and grow, and that the animals we eat need. It is food for our food, and for our food’s food.

So we don’t just work the earth, we work with it, to keep it free from toxins and replenish what we take, so we can continue to grow tender baby greens and giant squashes, and wriggle our toes in its loamy decadence.