The Scoop on Dirt
by Fred Wilhelm, Cobb County
In the “Good Old Days” we didn’t have electronic gadgets and complicated stuff kids today can’t live without. Believe it or not, we actually enjoyed each other, and being outside and enjoying any vacant lot or body of water we could find. They were our “toys”. Perhaps the most versatile of our “toys was plain old ordinary Dirt. Dirt was what we dug trenches in when our lead soldier armies were at war. It was what comprised our ball fields, what skinned our knees, dirtied our pants, what we got under our finger nails, and what we tracked into the house. It was where we found earthworms for our fishing bait, and where we may even have helped plant a small garden. We were told “Don’t worry about a little Dirt,– every kid will eat ten pounds of it before he is twelve.” A little scratch?—Just rub some dirt on it and move on. It was all true, and I have loved Dirt ever since. Many years later I came to attention when instructors in my Master Gardener course talked about the need to turn my Dirt into Soil. I was hooked, and learning how to turn ordinary Dirt into something worthwhile became a passion. I learned about nutrients, NPK, compost, manures, soil sampling and other neat stuff. I even added words like, Rhizome, and Apical Dominance to my vocabulary. Wow, this is great I thought! So, impressed with this new found knowledge, I forged into a gardening career not aware of how little I really knew about being a good steward of my old friend, Dirt. Since then, reading about the plight of our soil, and what might be done to preserve, protect and defend it has interested me. It’s not surprising then that an article in E-Magazine caused me to ponder a Soil/Dirt dilemma. In that magazine Tamsyn Jones wrote in an article with the title: The Scoop on Dirt:–It’s one of nature’s most perfect contradictions: a substance that is ubiquitous but unseen; humble but essential; surprisingly strong but profoundly fragile. It nurtures life and death; undergirds cities, forests and oceans; and feeds all terrestrial life on Earth. It is a substance few people understand and most take for granted. Yet, it is arguably one of Earth’s most critical natural resources—and humans, quite literally, owe to it their very existence. I’m sure most of us seldom give thoughts like that to the Dirt we see every day— taking for granted that it will always be there for us to dredge, pave, pollute, and use to its exhaustion. We give it little respect, and even our language maligns it as in “dirt poor, dirty dog” and other derogatory terms. That said, I investigated why we should really worship the dirt we walk upon. In his book on Dirt, William Bryant Logan called it The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth—our chemical processor. It bears our weight, carries our water. It is the stuff kids play in, where seeds germinate and where organic material finally comes to rest in humus—that great organic stew vat which it continuously returns to us. Without soil humans would be creatures of the sea. When we look at Dirt we don’t often think below the surface and consider its layers where thousands of organisms are doing their work for our benefit right underfoot. One could go on and on about how soil microbes work their magic helping plants by breaking down organic materials, the “fixing” of nitrogen in the soil, soil’s role in recycling carbon, the most vital element for living beings—the glue that holds everything together in fertile soil. Dirt/Soil is important stuff that warrants all of the TLC we can provide. Threats? You bet! Wind and water erosion cause soil loss and run off into the seas—a single rainstorm can wash away centuries of soil accumulation from neglected or poorly managed land. Most soil lost to erosion contains more beneficial nutrients than in the soil left behind. It often contains phosphates, pesticides and fertilizers that run off polluting our waterways. Excessive irrigation, compaction, and tilling, overly intensive farming, and just plain neglect can cause soil to become salty or more acidic—useless. Technology has developed pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides that promote better crop yields. However, chemical overuse can damage or ruin overworked soil. Then there is the promotion of the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemical products purely for reasons of profit. I’m ashamed to admit I sometime I may have been swept up in all of the advertising and thought– If a little of these new products is as good as advertised, a little more might be even better. Solutions? You bet! Fortunately there is much we can do to combat what might seem a helpless situation. Education is a good place to start: Educating ourselves and properly informing those who may seek our guidance in gardening. Study, don’t just look at the pretty pictures in those gardening books and magazines. Encourage the next generation to pursue careers in agriculture or horticulture. Manage our irrigation to save the soil and Preserve our water supplies. Conserve by using rain barrels, and other means. Feed our gardens new organic material regularly. Plant cover crops. Allow soil to lie fallow for periods of recovery. Compost, Compost, Compost. My space limited composting is now done in an ordinary trash barrel. I plant some for me, some for my neighbors, some for the pests and the rest for compost. I have a great little tiller—the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was so much fun to use, watching it chew up the earth, that for a time I became a recreational tiller.—No more! I have learned the wisdom of no–till gardening. IPM we have learned about. Well, let’s use it. Plant beneficial pest-deterring plants. Go organic, or partially so in our gardening. I used to think going organic was too purist–like for me. I don’t feel bound to be totally organic in my gardening, but limiting chemical use, and aiming in that direction most of the time is a worthy goal. As Master Gardeners, I know you are concerned too. Think about it—what else can be done to assure our old friend Dirt will remain at our beck and call in times to come just as it has for eons past? How does your garden grow?