Hands in the Dirt


Introducing my daughter to the joys of gardening.

Ah, spring is here. One day you lay down a layer of topsoil and manure for your new garden or lawn and the next day the wind blows it all away. So you go back to Ace and get some more, and there you find your neighbors, friends and co-workers in the aisles browsing flowers, succulents, garden art and fruit trees.

My three year old daughter and I also like to wander the garden section where we browse the selection of new flowers. After our tour of the new flowers I purchase some bags of topsoil and manure at the counter and Danielle gives my daughter a handful of pellets to feed to the fish in the pond, while Ben and I load several bags of topsoil and manure into the back of my Subaru.

When the car is loaded I find my daughter, sprinkling the last of the pellets into the pond, watching the fish rise and skim them off the surface of the water.

When she has watched the last fish eat the last pellet she’s ready to go and follows me back to the car. The car ride home smells like composted topsoil and manure, a smell that takes me back to my youth, where I grew up on a large, self-sufficient farm in a small town in central Utah. On our 120 acre farm we grew our own wheat, barley, oats and alfalfa. We raised cows, pigs, chickens and horses. In our garden, we raised corn, peas, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes potatoes, carrots, green beans, strawberries and raspberries.

Some of life’s greatest values and lessons are learned firsthand from gardening and farming. Faith, nurturing, hard work, and the fine discipline of failing and trying again. And, of course, patience. As a farmer or gardener you get to witness first-hand the cycle of life, and play a role in its success. And when all the hard work is finished, you literally get to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

Because of those great virtues and lessons, I’m trying to instill in my kids a love of gardening. My daughters come from a long line of farmers and gardeners. Their grandpa Law was a farmer in Utah. Their great-grandpa Stephens is a farmer in Ohio. Their father, me, was a farmer until I moved away from home after graduating from high school, and their grandma Law is a long time master gardener. Dirt is in their DNA.

Farming and gardening are great ways to observe the changing of the seasons, and the movements of the celestial calendar. Gardening and farming pull you outside where you get to witness a long line of butterflies flitting over the corn stalks like kite tails, newborn fawns curled up in a hayfield, birds building their nests, and bats exiting the hole in the barn roof like chimney smoke.

One of the greatest virtues that farmers and gardeners learn is a reverence for it all. The soil, the weather, the process, the feeling of hope when you plant the seeds, the hold-your-breath-and-pray feeling of waiting for the crops to survive and mature, and that thankful relief feeling of getting the crops harvested and stored away for winter.

There should be a word for that feeling, that truly holy feeling of deep gratitude, relief, joy and thankfulness a gardener and farmer feel when the harvest is safely in the barn, the silo, the pantry, the cellar. After the long back-breaking hours, the sunburn, the blisters. After you and your crops have survived drought, frost, hail, insects. Thankful isn’t a strong enough word. Nor is gratitude, or relief. The word miracle probably comes closest.

For all the hardships inherent with gardening and farming, the endeavor does hold many rewards. Eating a fresh tomato and cucumber sandwich from vegetables grown and harvested from your own garden is certainly one of life’s truest pleasures. And digging your hands into the cool, spring dirt is pretty great too.

My oldest daughter and I got a little taste of that reward-at-the-end-of-the-work feeling last week. I have been slowly constructing/creating/conjuring a Meditation Garden next to our house. When we purchased our house the sideyard, where our Meditation Garden will soon be, was an ugly mess of gravel, overgrown with goatheads and foxtails. I have previously removed all the goatheads and foxtail and dug up and sifted out all the gravel, which was intermixed with sand for the top six to eight inches of ground.

It’s been a lot of hard work, but also very enjoyable and rewarding. I did most of it on Saturdays while listening to NPR and Jack FM, and as I worked I imagined the enjoyment my family and I would get from our lush little Meditation Garden (an important component of gardening and farming is imagining the end result). I pictured my oldest daughter, RuAnne Bee, flitting among the flowers, and my youngest daughter, Clover, chilling in the grass.

Finally, last Saturday morning, Roo and I finished putting down and leveling the topsoil. Then we sprayed it down with the hose. Roo had a great time walking back and forth on the damp, spongy soil in her bare feet. “I like the small of wet dirt, daddy,” she told me.

“Me too, kiddo.”

After the soil was sufficiently damp, Roo and I poured grass seed into a hand-held seed broadcaster. Roo was surprised to discover that the seeds were blue.

“That’s just because they’re coated with a fungicide,” I told her. “It helps them grow better.”

I held the seed dispenser and Roo turned the handle while we walked together down the sideyard, with our bare feet on the damp, cool, dark topsoil.

“They look like cupcake sprinkles,” my wife observed from the deck, where she held our infant daughter on her shoulder.

“And the ground looks like chocolate,” says Roo.

In the coming months we’ll be digging our hands in the dirt and planting more grass, flowers and maybe a few garden vegetable, and maybe, hopefully throughout that process we’ll also plant in our daughters the seed that grows into a love of gardening, and all the hope, faith, miracles and reverence that come with it.

Of course, it won’t grow overnight.  We’ll have to nurture it a bit.

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