I’ve Been Thinking… about joy and dirt

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When I purchased my little 1890-built home in Winterset IA, 2016, I was thrilled. Within months of moving in, I hung a small barn board sign on my porch: JOY.

That’s all it said, but it said it well. Typically, I am a person of joy. I am grateful to be alive; to have a home; a family that I love; a faith that provides comfort, as well as joy; work that is a calling; friends I adore and a sweet little dog whose name is Amazing Grace. My life brings me joy.

Once the sign was hung, I had my huge backyard fenced in so sweet Gracie could run and play outdoors without danger or the possibility of getting lost. Using permaculture strategies (I know just enough about permaculture to believe I’m part of an earth-saving movement), I first analyzed, planned and then staked out a plot of grass that would become my garden. I layered cardboard and newspaper, followed by leaves and grass clippings, nutrient-rich soil, compost, and straw for mulch. I used the same process for my front terrace. The snows came, and my new garden was under development.

As soon as the soil could be worked (standard language in gardening manuals), I pulled back the mulch, added another layer of soil and compost and started planting. I got to see a few flowers out front and the four strawberry plants came in beautifully. As for the rest, well, it would either grow or it would die. No matter what, I was feeding the soil and that brings me joy. The garden plot did not fare much better. I ate a few tomatoes, had enough potatoes for a meal, and the kale was almost plentiful. One cannot live on kale alone, but I was cultivating healthy soil. So, I pulled up some dying plants, left a few in the ground, and began my layering process once again, in both garden plot and my front yard terrace.

This year, I again added soil and compost (lots from a previously unused dog kennel now serving as a compost bin), planted my seeds, starters, and transplants and covered them up with straw mulch. Much better this year, despite the long weeks without rain. Enough potatoes to actually weigh (#31 pounds) and sweet meaty tomatoes to eat every single day. I’m freezing and giving away basil, parsley, oregano and mint and finding great joy in the bright spots of color from the perennial flowers my daughter-in-law gave me. Oh my, the terrace still looked pretty sparse, but the too widely spaced yellow, blue, lavender and deep red flowers made up for it. A sudden stretch of serious rain plumped up the strawberry plants and brought new life to the Daylilies and the Hostas growing close to the house.

Not the prettiest garden around, but there are great things happening under all that straw.

On the flip side – my beans, peas, carrots, radishes and cucumbers really struggled and produced only a “eating while cleaning up the garden” snack. The cucumbers were hilarious. They grew fat, instead of long. The plants flowered, a little green poke emerged, and then…fat orange cucumbers with humungous seeds. Are you kidding me? Oh well, back into the soil from whence they came. My soil will continue to grow healthier as I drop everything back into or on top of it and await next year’s planting season to repeat the process once again. This brings me joy, so I had a local crafter create a matching sign that says GARDENS and hung it below my JOY sign.

Joy Gardens hopes for the future:

Eliminate all grass in the front yard and replace with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes so I can eventually pick berries from my own yard. Why the front yard? Because berry plants and bushes are pretty, and they do not require mowing. Plus, many people walk past my house every day. Retirees walking dogs, children and teens on their way home from school, the occasional exercise walker. Why not provide them with a little rest stop and a sweet snack. Am I worried about others eating up all my fruit? Not a bit. I do hope they save a little for me, but just the thought of my yard offering a treat to passersby brings me more joy than making jam.

I looked long and far to find the author of the quote I adapted for myself after seeing it somewhere many years ago. Sorry there is no credit line. If you wrote it, tell me.

“She who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits for food believes in God.” YES!

One more thought: Of all the gifts my mother ever purchased for me, my favorite is the garden sign I received Christmas 1982. Although there were a number of years that my husband and I were too busy enjoying summer camping, biking and kayaking to plant and care for a garden, the sign is in my garden today:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth. *

Until next time,


* God’s Garden, lines 13–16, Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

PS – Who knew? If I have a chance to go to Starbucks, I usually use the drive through. The last time I was there, the drive through was so busy I decided to go inside. There – right on the counter – were large bags of used coffee grounds. FREE! Coffee grounds are a great addition to garden compost. From now on, I’m going inside.

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