June. Rain. And all our young plants are in the ground, soaking up the water, waiting for the sun.
Behind the fence that defines our protected zone, the garden is starting to look organized, beans and potatoes are up, and there have been greens for weeks.
Still negotiating with the red clay that holds up the trees on our place in Virginia, we pushed and pulled and dug and hoed and carried and tilled and spread, again this year. Three years now, since the deer fence went up, and, Spring! We have been working in the garden.
Chores follow weather. We planted early greens in our most developed bed and started chiseling out the clay, marking a clear trail while adding height to the bed itself. Bed excavation paused when mowing began, and after that we tilled in weeds and opened the ground, revealing again the possibility of garden beds that lives in our vision.
Thomas Jefferson, whose historic estate is not far from here, waxed eloquent about the land in Virginia.
“I have been in the enjoyment of our delicious spring,” he wrote, “the soft genial temperature of the season, just above the want of fire, enlivened by the reanimation of birds, flowers, the fields, forests and garden has been truly delightful and continues to be so…indeed my experience of the different parts of America convinces me that these mountains are the Eden of the US. for soil, climate, navigation and health.”
Thomas Jefferson to Count de Volney, February 8, 1805
The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress
We take pleasure in the natural beauty of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, our home these past few years. They may be the Eden for climate, navigation and health. But soil?
We surmise that the soil encountered, when European agriculturists first farmed the land of Virginia, might have been more fertile that what we find now. Surely the years have not been good to the land.
I myself am finding little soil at all on our place, just a lot of hard red clay.
When the clay is wet, it tends to slurry, when it is dry it lies stonelike, hard and sharp. When first tilled, the heavily grazed fenced plot we hopefully began to call our garden turned up entirely hard red clay.
As gardeners, we set in to soften, and while we hauled in leaves hay, straw and compost, our co-authors in the garden – wild plants, worms, bugs and micro-organisms – were busy themselves, transforming at nature’s pace the clay to soil, a transformation I witness in the brown edges on every shovelful I lift from the garden, edges that grow thicker as the years go by.
Now, after three years, my overturned shovelful of dirt shows that the transition from clay to soil is well begun, over an inch deep in many places.
The compost, continuously brewing under our management, brings animal power and texture to the clay, but nature’s other workers, plants and tiny animals interacting with clay, compost, and water in the ground, actually produce the soil.
Spring rains had postponed tilling so that the garden, grown up in wildlife over the winter, became ever more a zone of mixed wild plants that clearly took seriously their responsibility to keep the earth protected with well rooted green soil builders.
Toward the end of May I set aside the hoe, trowel and shovel I’d been using in my early spring planting. This day, clear, sunny, hot, was the day I called out the slashing power of our gas-driven mower.
Keeping the trail mowed in the garden, with inner trails connecting the perimeter path, shows visitors where to walk, and it helps with the general containment of the incredible and generally hostile plant growth that we meet. Many pokey plants – brambles, roses, horse nettle, Virginia creeper, dance round about in our life with the milkweed, perilla mint, pokeweed, dock , grasses, clovers, and poison ivy, few of which appeal to any of us, human or four-legged, to eat and some of which threaten the mouth of the grazing animal, as well as the soul of farmer, and the hands of anyone coming in to clear the way for safe passage.
And all on hard clay so like to rock that often I do a finger-straining crumble test to see if a clump is clay or already hardened to actual rock. It can feel as though one is watching millenia in a moment, working in the transitioning ground of our garden.
In the field, I pull dock blossoms, and some milkweed, and relentlessly trail the fast moving perilla mint. It is me against them, and I know they will win. I maintain a respectful attitude and try to explain that they are bothersome to animals who need a place to feed. We aim at balance on a pretty rickety playing field.
In the garden, we also rely primarily on hand work.
Except for spring tilling, we try to maintain a personal relationship to the weeds, the plants that will persist in growing in the way of our garden. So for most of April, as we watched them take over, beautiful, strong rooted many seeded wild plants mixed with volunteers from last year’s garden, we bemoaned the lack of good gardening days and laughed at the abundance of rooted things that were growing in the garden without our help.
Now the mower we use is a hand push mower with a gas engine that makes a racket and powers a rotating blade and leaves behind a cloud of unpleasant exhaust. We don’t use it much. But this day I pulled it up out of the garage, hauled it to the garden, yanked on the pull and pushed that mower up one row and down another, with a little manicure around the compost piles. I hit lumps of clay and the whole garden is on a slope, so mowing was hard work, and it was sunny and hot. I called a halt after my single pass and told myself I would mow the bottom part of the garden, where the poison ivy is, another day.
The flowering plants danced a power dance of spring, even as I mowed down their neighbors and warned as I went by that they would have to leave too, as soon as we could properly take care of things ourselves. After once around, I shut the mower off and hauled it back to the garage. I got a drink, then with the camera headed back to the garden.
This time my walk was non-violent. I wanted to get pictures of the beautiful flowers that caught my eye while I mowed.
Before we moved in with our horses, the paddocks on our Virginia acreage were dotted with white and purple clover. Those plants have left the fields and taken refuge in the garden now, discouraged by the heavy hooves and relentless teeth of our equine landscaping crew. Pushed out of the barnyard as well, the clover now thrives on the garden side of the fence.
The clover holds and nurtures the ground and adds sweet power to our soil building.
I walked down the path I had mown, a path still rough and sharp in places, and I found the flowers, growing all around the garden.
While these wild plants offer beautiful announcements of spring to our garden, they are busy underground where soil is forming in the midst of the network of roots and living trails tunneling through the clay.
And now, June has arrived, the wild flower garden moved on. We dig holes in the oldest beds for transplants, deeply satisfied to see the shovel turn over deep brown crumbly soil.
The ground in portions of our garden has transformed in the three years we have asked it to be a food and flower garden. Awestruck and grateful, we are tending, hopeful again with every new garden season.