In the dirt
By Christine Tailer
I have always felt at home with dirt on my knees, not because I am particularly messy, but rather because so many good things seem to happen down on the ground. As children, we’d play on the front stoop and sidewalk out in front of our city brownstone. My little brother would line up his green army men and toy cars, and I’d line up my trolls. We’d then stand back and lob marbles from a distance trying to knock the other guy’s army down.
As a college student, I studied archaeology and with shovel and trowel in hand, I’d carefully unearth the treasures of peoples long gone. My first real employment was as an archaeologist. My job was to talk with farmers and with their permission, survey the prehistoric sites on their farmlands and record the site locations on topographic maps that I filed with the Ohio Historical Society. I treasured the people I met, and the sites I recorded. I still have my my first shovel and trowel from those days. They are now over 50 years old, but I no longer use them tools to study the Ohio River valley’s prehistory.
During the years we raised our children in the city, my shovel and trowel mostly stayed in the corner of our basement, but ever since our move to the creek valley, they have once again been getting a good workout. Yes, I am happily back down on the ground, kneeling in the dirt. My dirt working collection of tools has even been steadily growing.
I still use my trusty shovel, but now I use it to remove rocks from my garden. If shovels could smile, this one surely would. It is so thankful to be put back to work. When Greg uses it with all of his strength to unearth a particularly stubborn rock, I caution him to use it carefully. He laughs. “It’s only a shovel Christine,” but not to me. It is my friend. Its handle has been worn smooth by my hand.
Then, my old trowel still slides comfortably into my back pocket, just as it did all those years ago. These days, however, I do not use it to gently tease the earth away from ancient artifacts. I now use it to pry back the garden soil so I can carefully drop a vegetable start in behind it. When I remove the trowel, the start remains. I carefully tamp the earth down around the young plant, making sure that its roots are all covered before I pour a bit of water from my old galvanized watering can around it. I found my trusty watering can at a country yard sale.
Not only have I acquired an old watering can, I now also have a wonderfully old three-sided hoe, a gift from a friend. It is perfect for unearthing stubborn weeds. I love the ease with which it allows me to work the garden, and I treasure my friendship as I hold its wooden handle firmly in my grip.
Then, one of our neighbors gave me another magical tool, a hand-held plant setter. When I am planting a long row of garden crops, I often chose to use the setter. All I need to do is set my plant in the shoot and listen as it drops to the bottom of the setter’s tube. I then press firmly on the well-worn handle and gently twist the machine, so the bottom of the setter works its way down into the soft garden soil. I then press a lever, perfectly situated by my thumb, and the jaws at the bottom of the setter open, and the young plant drops into the soil, exactly as it should.
Even though I do not kneel in the dirt when I use the setter, my hands are still deliciously covered with soil, as I remove the starts from their tray and place them in the shoot. Every now and then, I pause my planting rhythm, lean the setter up against my legs, and wipe my hands on my jeans. I wonder if this is because my hands really need wiping, for they will once again be covered with soil as soon as I set the next plant, or if it is more a matter of proper gardening fashion to have dirt on one’s pant legs.
Then, there is my dibble tool, a simple “T” shaped device with a handle grip and a pointed tip. Once again, back on my knees, if I only intend to plant one or two starts, I simply press the tip of the tool into the worked ground, slide the young plant into place, and voila, I have an easily planted start. I smile to think of my mother who gave me the tool years ago when I first started gardening in the creek valley.
So yes, I have always felt happily at home with dirt on my knees, though never, in all of my wildest dreams, would I have ever imagined the variety of the wonderful tools that would become my dirt-working companions today.
Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com.