It’s time to talk dirt. But if you were expecting a discussion of obscenity, political smears, or house cleaning, you will be disappointed. The dirt that I need to talk about is real dirt, the kind we walk on and where we grow flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs.
As anyone knows who has had the misfortune of talking to me recently, after 41 years planted in Titusville we uprooted ourselves and made the harrowing move to Hopewell Borough. My primary challenge (beyond opening the mountains of unopened boxes) was cultivating a whole new garden on a site where, before the house was constructed, there was a vacant lot.
My Titusville garden had glorious, loamy soil so fecund that by midsummer, I’d need a machete to get out the front door. My peonies came up so fast that they’d knock me over if I stood too close. Then I moved to Hopewell Borough. Thereunder lay the problem.
Determined to fill the bed of “earth” in front of the house with specimens from my previous dwelling—columbine, bleeding hearts, sundrops, butterfly bushes, azaleas, lilies, irises and daffodils—I started to plant in a hurry.
All was well, until I attempted to penetrate the surface of the ground with my shovel. What I discovered was that the ground in this portion of Hopewell, and especially around the newly constructed house, didn’t contain the kind of soil which I’d taken for granted. What it did have was rocks: hunks of red shale ranging in size from pebbles to boulders with maybe a little cement-like clay in between. Forget the shovel. I brought out the mattock and used dynamite to make a hole big enough to plant a single tulip bulb. (There’s Boulder, Colorado, and now I had found Boulder, New Jersey.)
What kind of plant life could be supported in this soil? Further digging revealed that the dominant form of flora was pokeweed. Don’t know pokeweed? It’s a fleshy-stemmed, incredibly tough plant that can have roots as big as a weight lifter’s forearm and although birds like its purple berries, pokeweed is poisonous.
Then, I discovered that rocks and pokeweed were not my only enemies. On one side of the lot was a great thicket of vines. When I peeked under the vines, I discovered a 25-foot American holly totally encased in what turned out to be Oriental Bittersweet, a noxious, invasive, overpowering strangler of trees with trunks as big as my forearms. (I am not a weight lifter.)
I attacked the vines at ground level with loppers. It took a day before the growth at the top of the tree became aware that I had severed its life source and began to wilt. In the process of pulling the vines out of the tree, I amassed a mountain of brush and uncovered multiple archaeological treasures: one football, two baseballs, one lacrosse ball, a beer bottle and numerous candy wrappers. The upside: Hopewell Borough picks up brush twice each month, and within days the vines were mulch.
So, this was my welcome to gardening in Hopewell Borough: rocks, poisonous weeds and pernicious vines. (I should mention that the people of this town are intensely friendly and, not knowing what a curmudgeonly misanthrope I am, greeted me with plates of cookies.)
Back to the soil, I was considering paving over the entire area around the house with three feet of macadam when I remembered the answer to every gardener’s dilemma: Sheep manure! In spite of my antisociality, I do have a few friends, and among that tiny population are friends with a sheep farm giving me unlimited access to unlimited quantities of sheep manure.
I hacked away at the blood-red shale, discarded the bigger chunks, and within a week I had established a mini-tomato patch in a trench of sheep manure. (After all, NJ is the tomato state, and it is a crime to live here and not grow at least six heirloom varieties.)
Then I rented an oil drilling rig to make holes for flowers, shrubs and a pair of dogwood seedlings.
But I owe any success to sheep manure, the most wonderful substance on earth for earth. Let us sing a paean to sheep manure:
Oh, sheep manure, friend to farmers, gardeners and plants,
So dark, so rich, so crumbly
So nutritious to flowers and vegetables, trees and shrubs
So inoffensive to the olfactory sense
So beneficial to roots
Oh, sheep manure, how I do love thee!
Of course, now that I have conquered the earth, I have been assured by my amiable neighbors that the deer will eat everything, no question. But I have the answer. I’ll just sit on my front steps chewing noisily on haunches of half-cooked venison.
Robin Schore lives in Hopewell Borough.