Real Food

Re-gardening: Seeing soil through 21st Century eyes



Old habits die hard and in my case the right hand hasn’t always noticed what the left hand has been doing. While I know deep in my bones that we live in the 21st century and that gardening is a different animal than it once was, my hands haven’t always followed my head. We think somehow our soil offers eternal returns. After all, what isn’t green? Years and years of driving by verdant fields of beans and corn and picking tomatoes tricks us into thinking that our soil is kind of like the sun. It just keeps coming our way.

That’s certainly how I thought it would always be when I was little. In those days, our small farm was like a big garden with oats, hay, sorghum, corn (no soybeans in those days); the big red barn was for milking, chickens lived in their little white house. My mom’s backyard garden was about as big as our little house was square. Tractors, pickups, and manure spreaders from the l940s look almost like playthings for supersized children set beside today’s behemoths. Of course, topsoil was being eroded then too ­— plows and hoes were being freely used — but the ground was more closely attended to, touched, and thought about by farm families. That soil in northwest Iowa was black and readily dug no matter how deep the shovel went in. Worms everywhere. During childhood’s eternal now, I couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t always be so.

Jump ahead 60 years and here in the 21st century, even our rain patterns have changed. We get five inches more of rain a year in Indiana than in l892. It falls more sporadically: in spring and fall we have deluges. Hot, dry summer starts as early as late May. (Hello, 2023.) This is not what Midwest farmers and gardeners are used to: we want our c. inch of “normal” rain each week to keep crops and gardens growing as they should.

This longing is deep: I can find myself hoping for another visit by the long-dead Nikita Khruschev who, when he visited Iowa in l956, shoved his square, Slavic hand into the best growing soil in the world, and declared it amazing. Good ole days in the USA. Farms mattered: they were the pride of the nation. We were “feeding the world.”

Adult eyes see more. Soil’s troubles started way before the debacle of the Dust Bowl (which took an estimated 850 million tons of topsoil off the Great Plains in 1935 alone). Nonetheless, in the almost two centuries since the prairies were broken by plows in the l840s, we have inceed kind of managed to “feed the world” from here in the Midwest — or, in recent decades, it’s more accurate to say that we have produced food for the world’s livestock; the main way people eat Indiana’s two main crops these days is as ingredients in processed foods.

This extraordinary shift in farming and increase in production has come at mounting costs: 35% or more of the world’s topsoil is now gone; in many places it’s all gone. Finiteness is upon us. Knowing this, I have tried to garden responsibly for our time. Marc and I shrink our yard a bit each year by bringing in more pollinator plants and beneficial trees. Well and good. The vegetable garden though? Out there it’s been more or less 1955.

This spring it really felt discouraging. Out of habit, we’ve always had the garden tilled to speed up spring planting. This April as I scuffed at that crusty soil I had to admit it looked decidedly yellow, even rocky in patches. I ordered some top soil to spare myself the sight, but that sleight of hand felt just plain wrong. And then something happened!

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to visit a demonstration garden in Marion County. The modest garden guru who slipped out of his sandals to walk the straw-lined paths told us how he cover-crops, tarps, and handles succession planting. Kevin is tall so his flatland raised beds are four rows wide, and he can step over them. Shorter people might want three rows ….

Standing near a native plant pollinator bed, beside a couple stands of crimson clover, a deep, green bed of spinach and beets at my feet, it dawned on me that everything needed to do this is in our backyard!: wood chips from the Crawfordsville yard waste site, composted soil, last year’s leaves piled up … tools in the garage. All I had to do was dig — a lot: “dig down six inches and pile the dug dirt into a mound.”

Once home, I cancelled the topsoil order, got up early the next morning, and began digging trenches with a four-tined fork. Flattened liquor boxes — Oliver’s Four Roses, Dewars — form the base of my eight mounds. One underlayment featured a run of Captain Jack’s Rum, Wheatly’s Vodka, and Fire Ball Whiskey which “tastes like heaven and burns like hell” — kind of like digging itself.

Digging, delving, shoveling, piling, and smoothing — and then dressing the mound with a triple “frosting” of wood chips, composted soil, and last year’s leaves is hard work — sort of like a chain-gang/play-in-the-sandbox combo. For me this labor is satisfying and exhausting.

Real campesino work is something else entirely. Farm workers pick and pack at speed all day, every day, so we can eat California fruit and veg off season here.

As a recreational compesina, I think about doing this 8-12 hours straight for a lifetime. When rivulets of sweat run into my eyes and my back and shoulders burn, it feels an honor and a privilege to walk in farmworkers’ shoes for a thin moment. (This recreational farm worker, of course, can walk into an air-conditioned house for a drink; she can take a long siesta when it’s hot.)

Let’s work for more food justice. It helps to buy local. Eat and buy Indiana strawberries in May and June; otherwise get them frozen or canned. Same thing goes for fresh tomatoes in July and August. Indiana raises great melons. Wait for their season. Would you like to learn more about soil and how to keep it healthy? Slated for July 29 is a Backyard Garden Walk hosted by Community Growers of Montgomery County. See what your neighbors are growing in downtown Crawfordsville.

And don’t miss our Farmers’ Market each Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. There’s no end to good local stuff there. A little tin of Dandelion Balm (made by Lowe Farms) from there has saved my hands this week. See you in the garden and see at the market!


Dr. Helen Hudson provides her Real Food column to the Journal Review.