Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Soil Dance

I'm a refugee from Los Angeles. I fled that city 7 years ago. Like many of the refugees that came to Joshua Tree in a wave during that time, I was in a state of disrepair - to put it mildly. I needed peace, solitude, a profound respite; something akin to the ancient greek sleep temples. I needed to lay my head down. In this desert I found that healing and then, in time, I found a great new surge of energy - a willingness to begin again. One thing led to another. I became intensely interested in the land, in the soil, flora and fauna, I read about permaculture, bio-intensive gardening, Rudolf Steiner, the elementals, soil and land restoration, water harvesting, the Transition Movement. The Transition Movement - a way to work together to bring a community through climate change, economic crisis and the end of cheap fossil fuels. A way to survive with great creative flair. I pitched the idea to a few friends and, like a rocket, Transition Joshua Tree took off. Growing one's own food is an important part of the equation. That's the back story to how I came to be standing in my desert vegetable garden yesterday.

These are breathless times. That being said, these are the times when a deep breath couldn't be more important. I like big challenges - if I'm going to make paintings, I'm going to start by studying old master technique (which I do) and if I'm going to figure out how to grow food in the desert, I'm going to study it from all possible angles. This intensity of mine is great for getting things done but often leads to fairly shallow breathing. My garden has 4 beds. Each bed has a different approach to soil preparation that I learned from 4 different books. So there I was standing in the garden thinking about how 3 of those beds took fairly back breaking labor while the one that seemed to be producing the happiest plants took almost none. I noted this (and the fact that men wrote the back breaking technique books and a woman wrote the easy one...I'm just sayin') and then I began my second day of attempting to lay a drip irrigation system in the garden.

Gardening is suppose to be a meditation...but putting in an irrigation system is hell. It's all so misleading - all those cute little hose lines and connectors and little drip heads all looking like they belong in your doll house - yeah right - the doll house from hell. 3 hours later I felt like I had my paw caught in a trap and was ready to chew off my own leg to free myself. If I had to try to force one more tiny little connector barb thing into one more tiny little hose end for which it clearly did not appear to be made or if I had to make one more trip to Home Depot to replace a cracked thing, or a bent thing or a shredded thing, I was going to explode in tears....okay, I actually did explode in tears....a number of times.

Finally, I was on the last bed - the bed that had been so easy to prepare and that was hosting the happiest plants. With each bed, I made shallow troughs in the soil to lay in the drip line. I started that process with this bed and had made a short trough when I noticed something odd with the soil. I dug my glasses out of my pocket to take a closer look. I don't know how else to put it - the soil was alive! I don't just mean - like oh wow - cool soil - very rich. I mean it was moving! - two inches down from the surface the soil was literally writhing! I got down closer and saw that it was full of life - worms, squirmy things, incredibly small glistening entities, all ploughing themselves back and forth in the humus. Spontaneously, I started to breathe deeply...and to giggle like a holy fool. I did it!!! I worked with nature and turned the soil into life itself. I felt so grateful for this opportunity - to land on my feet in Joshua Tree, to make a garden, to see this soil moving and breathing, to love my community, to love my mate. I just sat there for a good long time; smeared with dirt, tear stained cheeks, smiling about my life and watching the soil dance.

FYI - making a garden bed using the Sheet Mulching technique is the bomb!
Sheet Mulching Explained
How to Make a Keyhole Garden African-style

Garden Fortress. Rat wire covers all and goes two
feet below ground. Ceramic urn to right is container
for brewing up worm casting tea for fertilizer.

Sheet Mulching beds on right.

Winter garden now going to seed for seed saving.
Screw you Monsanto.

Spring 2011 garden. Sheet mulched bed in front 
started in Fall 2011, left fallow for winter then 
planted in early spring. Bed in back corner sheet 
mulched late spring 2011 and immediately planted. 
They seem to be doing equally well.

The sheet mulched garden in June, 2011.

Me with my mind in the sand.


  1. I am fascinated by this! I can't wait to read more about it. Absolutely love the vision of the Transition Movement. Oh, and this line here: "A way to survive with great creative flair"....brings a smile to my face.

  2. Go, Jill, go! Love the salads you feed me from your little green empire.

  3. Sheet mulching technique huh...I want to know more about that!

  4. Here's a link to the ultimate sheet mulching recipe. The chart is misleading. The layers start with #1 at the bottom of the chart.

  5. Beautiful read, Jill, especially the ending. I know that "unspeakable" place of gratitude one gets to after doing the heavy lifting -- figuratively, and in some cases like your garden, literally. We're discovering the upside ...the new era on the other side of this transition from the dying Industrial Age that no longer serves. Thanks for this great share of your experience. hugs, Donna

  6. Hum, I'd like to not be called "nickname," but don't know how to fix that. ~ Donna

  7. How about more photos? Lets see the theory in practice.

  8. Pictures have been added. Check it out.