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The Zen of Dirt

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Springtime in Michigan is a busy time.

After another winter that has seemed colder, longer, and windier than the last (despite the warnings of global warming), the temperatures at last rise over the freezing mark, and the people of the Tundra celebrate. The snow melts; the grass greens and things begin to poke their heads out of the dirt. Suddenly the sidewalks in town are lined with market umbrellas, and those swimsuit displays at the mall don’t look so out of place.

This is my time, when I wake from the hibernation of winter and take in the sun. You haven’t seen me anywhere because I’ve been outside in the yard.

April and May are key months of the year for me. Although I live in an urban setting in a house on a city lot, I garden, and spring is my prime time. Grass is uninteresting to me. It’s green and living, sure, but I’m allergic to it and besides, you can’t eat it. If I’m going to spend money on watering, I want something beautiful to look at or something on my dinner plate.

Since moving to this house, I’ve devoted early spring to carving out more and more garden space from backyard grass. This year’s projects include expansion of the Asian garden. There are weeds to pull and bushes to trim. There is the yearly assessment of winter damage. Did the bamboo survive? Did the azalea? There are plants and trees to purchase, some for new space and others as replacements for the ones that didn’t make it. Every year I am amazed at how many bags of mulch and rocks can be hauled in the back of a Prius.

I’ve been stymied by the lack of decent gravel available for my dry garden. Either the pebbles are too big, the sand too fine, or the slag too gray.

Move over, Michelle Obama; I’ve been an urban gardener for years. I’ve inserted fruit trees into my landscape and have a bank of wine grapes. There’s a strawberry and raspberry patch. My vegetable garden includes tomatoes, peppers, squash, and pumpkins. My container gardens house cucumbers, lettuce, and chard along with geraniums and pansies. (Rabbits are fooled. They either haven’t noticed the lettuce or are too short to jump into the pots.) I thought last winter might have felled my herb garden, but it takes more than our ice and snow to kill thyme and oregano, and the lovage appears each year seemingly stronger and larger than the year before.

Spring has been temperate, not too warm. In fact, some days it’s downright chilly, sweatshirt weather. Spring mornings are the perfect time to get down to the dirt and weed.

Those Billy Mays infomercials selling super-weeders that are really glorified weapons on the end of power drills are as silly as Swiffer mops. To do the job right, you have to get up close and personal.

There is Zen in dirt.

My parents always had a backyard garden, and it was the kids’ job to weed. Our backyard was huge, almost an acre. There were rows and rows of corn, lettuce, and squash. The weeds on the Front Range of Colorado were monsters, tall distant cousins of the tumbleweed. There were also prickly sticker plants and plenty of dandelions. We had only our hands to pull them — bare hands, not gloved ones. We were paid a penny a weed, and we had to produce a root to get paid.

I hated weeding back then.

It’s different now. At first, our garden space was unruly, no more than a pile of rocks covered with uncontained growth, and the war against the Asian thistle, wild mustard garlic, and creeping Charlie seemed like a lost one. Overcoming years of neglect seemed overwhelming. Like weeding as a child, that first year was daunting and I almost gave up. But I’m on a mission and there is no giving up. Each year I get out and pull. Finally it looks like I have control of my garden.

With each turn of the spade, I find fat earthworms, telling me my dirt is still good. There are tomatoes sprouting from the seeds of ones that had fallen to the ground the year before. We recycle our container potting soil, and lettuce from the seeds of last year’s containers is popping up all over. The oregano didn’t just survive the winter, it’s taking over the east side of the garden.

In the gardening world, there can be no rushing, no multi-tasking, and no harried phone calls, only the job at hand. What remains is the bond between gardener and medium, the coaxing and encouragement from the person turning the soil. The silence of the morning is disturbed only by the chatter of squirrels and the chirping of birds.

When digging in the dirt, the problems of the world fall away. I can’t think of politics, taxes, or my faltering business. I don’t worry about the future. Instead I dream about the characters I’m working on, and of the zucchini I’ll harvest and the tomatoes I will can in the fall.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.