It’s a mystery to me why anyone who actually knows something about gardening would bother following my misadventures here, but there is nevertheless evidence that I have an extremely well-informed readership. When I posted about testing my soil, the Starving commentariat weighed in with suggestions about raised beds, soil amendments, and no-dig techniques – complete with links to references.
And that’s where the trouble started.
Kate, who writes about, among other things, gardening at Living the Frugal Life, pointed me in the direction of the USDA website that maps our nation’s soil. After I got over my astonishment that I could ask the government what kind of dirt was in my backyard, I checked the map to find out what kind of dirt was in my backyard.
The answer is that there isn’t dirt in my backyard. What there is instead is something called Carver Coarse Sand. From the name, it didn’t sound promising, but I looked up its characteristics, hoping to find some obscure silver lining.
Carver Coarse Sand, I discovered, is made from two things: sandy glaciofluvial deposits and, for a change of pace, loose sandy glaciofluvial deposits. That translates to “what glaciers leave behind when they melt.” Glaciers, apparently, don’t contain gobs of cryonically preserved nutrients, just waiting to be released by the warmth of the sun. What they contain is sand. Carver Coarse Sand.
But maybe, I thought, that was just the top layer. Perhaps underneath there was something more valuable. I scanned down the page listing the characteristics of Carver Coarse Sand.
Here’s what it said:
0 – 7 inches: Coarse sand
7 – 17 inches: Coarse sand
17 – 64 inches: Coarse sand
And then it added, “Ha ha!”
Okay, not that last part, because the government is circumspect about laughing at the agronomical plight of taxpayers. But I can read between the lines.
My first impulse, when I read about Carver Coarse Sand, was to put the house up for sale and start looking at real estate in, say, the Willamette Valley. But then I reasoned that other people on Cape Cod manage to have gardens, and I didn’t think their soil could be so much different from mine.
To test this theory, I went back to the soil map and looked in the backyard of my friends Al and Christl, who have the best garden I’ve ever seen. I felt like a voyeur doing this, as though if I zoomed in far enough I’d catch them cavorting in the gazebo, so I quickly got the information I needed and zoomed out again.
It turned out that Christl built her garden on something called Hinesburg Sandy Loam, a substance made of “ loose sandy glaciofluvial deposits over hard loamy glaciolacustrine deposits.” I could figure out that “glaciolacustrine” meant that the stuff came from glacial water that hung around long enough to form a lake but, embarrassingly, I had to look up exactly what loam is. I discovered that it is a mix of the small particles that form clay, the large particles that form sand, and the medium-size particles that form silt.
I hadn’t known that there were so many fine distinctions among what are basically teeny little rocks, but it turns out that those distinctions are important. When your soil is too sandy like, say, Carver Coarse Sand, it is, according to the USDA spec sheet, “Excessively drained.” When it’s loamier, like Hinesburg Sandy Loam, it’s “Well drained.”
So Christl definitely had a leg up, but not enough of one that I should give up and move to Oregon. Nowhere in her soil description were words like “verdant” or “fecund.” There were still lots of teeny little rocks.
So I was back to square one, figuring out what kinds of amendments and techniques might make for a better harvest.
That’s where astute commenter Kingsley comes in. Replying to other commenters who suggested raised beds, Kingsley brought up the issue of money:
The thing that stops me with raised beds is the initial cost. I once had a discussion with my father (who dug the hole for his swimming pool by hand), it went something like this:
Me: “I’m planning to hire a rotary hoe for the weekend to start some garden beds”
Him: “Oh. How much is that”
Me: “About 150 dollars”
Him: “150 dollars is an awful lot of vegetables!”
So since then I now think about the cost of everything added to the garden in terms of kilograms of broccoli. Raised bed “systems” can cost many many broccoli-kilograms (BRO-K).
That hit me where I live. I’m constantly weighing the value of what we grow, catch, shoot, and forage against what we build, furnish, maintain, and insure, and it generally doesn’t end well. I’ve taken some comfort in the chickens (a winner) and the lobsters (also a winner, if you don’t count the boat), but I’m afraid the losers outnumber the winners by a wide margin.
Ice-fishing, for example, has yielded a grand total of five trout. It’s cost us at least $150, and that’s not counting the beer. You’d think the sea salt would be in the plus column, what with seawater being free and all, but the gas we use to drive to the beach actually exceeds the value of the salt. I can’t tell about hunting because calculating the value of nothing – our hunting harvest thus far – is notoriously difficult.
And so I’m faced with the harsh reality of the BRO-K. At the moment, prices being what they are, a BRO-K is about $3.30. That means that, simply by getting my soil tested, I’m already ten BRO-Ks in the hole. Each yard of compost is another ten. Lumber for raised beds? Stones for terracing? Soil amendments? As Kingsley’s father would say, that’s an awful lot of vegetables.
But who the hell gardens for the money, anyway? Just asking the question misses the essence of growing things. Gardening isn’t about getting vegetables for cheap. You garden to get the backache from constant stooping. You garden to watch the fruit of your labors be destroyed by the vicissitudes of weather. You garden, above all, to insure that your surroundings have a robust population of well-fed insects.
But that one beautiful Brandywine you coax out of your Carver Coarse Sand? That makes it all worth it.
At least until after lunch, when you figure out what it cost you.