In one of the Facebook groups I follow related to market gardening someone recently posted a question about soil prep, but with a wonderful typo, “How deep should I dig for soul prep?” In my experience, this is by far the better question.
My first garden was a 4×4 raised bed in our mostly shaded backyard in Atlanta. Bones had a book called Square Foot Gardening that I read cover to cover before embarking on my gardening journey. I planned my little garden out meticulously, on graph paper, hoping to cram as much into that tiny space as possible. A small corner of our yard got a decent amount of sun, but had a large bush growing in it. Ever supportive of my projects, Bones spent a whole weekend digging out the deep roots of that bush to make way for my garden. We built up the bed, filled it with good soil, and laid out the square grid with string. A local community gardening project had their annual plant sale so we hitched up the trailer to my bike (we liked to bike around town in those days) and pedaled off to get our very first plants.
At the sale I picked out 2 tomato plants, a pepper, an eggplant, some herbs and some onions. I also grabbed several packets of seeds for green beans, carrots and spinach. We nestled the plants into the trailer, trying to secure them for the bumpy ride and then set off back home. The streets of Decatur can be quite a rough ride. Coming up a hill on a quiet side street I hit the edge of one of the infamous steel plates used to cover pot holes and unfinished construction on the roadways. Although my bike held steady, the trailer clipped the edge and tipped over, spilling my precious plants onto the street. We gathered them up, pressing the soil back in around the young starts, righted the trailer and set off again.
Once home, I carefully planted and watered, following the instructions from my book precisely. I dreamed about the bountiful harvest that awaited. I tended my garden faithfully over the next weeks, excited with each sign of life and growth. In the end, the harvest was not abundant. We got a few tomatoes, enough to make a few tomato sandwiches. Maybe a handful of green beans. No carrots, no spinach, no peppers and perhaps one eggplant. I’m not even sure why I planted the eggplant because neither of us like to eat eggplant! Turns out what I thought was decent sunlight was not nearly enough hours during the day to support vigorous vegetable growth. I also had much to learn about timing and seasons; carrots and spinach don’t do well in the hot Georgia summers. Still, tasting my first homegrown tomato had me hooked.
That garden was 13 summers ago. I suppose it is trite to say so much has changed since then, still it is true. We’ve moved twice, got married, had two kids, and changed jobs numerous times. What started as a 4×4 raised bed in my backyard hobby is now a 25 acre farm with 4 species of livestock, a half-acre blueberry orchard and 1/2 acre of vegetable production – a more than full time job. As impressive as those details are, they just scratch the surface. The change runs much deeper.
The garden is where I go when other places in my life become unbearable. I’d say it is cheaper than therapy, but I just ordered this year’s seeds and well, I might be better off financially if I just went to therapy. But nothing soothes my soul like working up a good sweat in the garden, the sun shining down on me, soil in my hands, complete physical exhaustion. I joke that some moms like a glass of wine at the end of the day to decompress after the kids have gone to bed, but I just need an hour in the garden weed whacking the paths to set me right again. I remember one fight Bones and I had, actually I don’t remember the fight it was probably trivial, I just remember being so angry I couldn’t think straight, so I headed down to the garden and weeded ruthlessly until the garden and my soul were free from the stranglehold and weeds and anger.
As someone who cares about the state of the world, longs to make a difference and gets involved in all the ways I can, I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Like the popular Facebook meme says, “My desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane.” My personal overwhelm does nothing to fix the world, in fact the overwhelm leads to a sort of paralysis in which I disengage from the causes I care so much about. I’ve learned instead that my best response to feelings of overwhelm is to either dig a hole or turn the compost pile. The physical exhaustion that comes from these two activities leaves little room for anxiety induced paralysis. Instead, I find the physical exertion allows my mind to wander in more constructive pathways. Each pitchfork full of refuse – garden waste, leaves, soiled animal bedding, manure – gets turned, exposed to heat and microbes, and eventually broken down into something useful, full of life.
I can’t solve the world’s problems, sometimes I can’t even solve my own, but I can turn a compost pile. With that compost I can grow healthy food to feed my community. With that compost I am caring for the 25 acres of this earth I am blessed to steward. With that compost I am reducing my negative impact on this earth with less waste, less tillage, less fossil fuel consumption. With that compost I am keeping nitrogen heavy manure from entering and polluting our watershed. With that compost the demons of anxiety and overwhelm that so often rage inside of me are quieted allowing me to be present for my kids, for my spouse, for my friends, for my community. With that compost I turn the anger and fear into words of hope and encouragement for my congregation.
So how deep do you have to dig for soul prep? If I ever finish digging, I’ll let you know.