The Dirt.

A few weeks ago, after pondering all the chaos in the world, I decided to sow seeds for winter crops like beet greens, hardy lettuces, arugula, and cilantro. The rains hadn’t yet come, so I knew I was in for some hard work. I took my shovel and hori knife and turned on the water to moisten the soil. After soaking an area for a quarter of an hour, I tried to drive my shovel in. I hopped up on top of it and tried to wiggle it around, and it sank a few millimeters. I watered some more, hopped up and down some more. I tried the knife and couldn’t get it to penetrate more than a half inch. I began to sweat, and I began to curse. The water hadn’t penetrated more than one millimeter, after forty five minutes of irrigating.

Finally, I brought out an axe, and then I began to make some headway. The method that worked was as follows: hack the ground with the axe, insert the shovel in the cracks made, widen the cracks and shove the running hose into them, repeat. After an hour of work, I was able to break up the soil…into 12-inch diameter chunks of dry ceramic, which I then attacked with the axe…

Our soil is clay; in fact, our soil defines clay.

The name of our soil type is “The Yamhill Clay Formation”; there used to be a ceramic tile factory a mile from our house. Over the years we’ve tried to improve the soil, adding over two hundred cubic yards of mushroom compost, truckloads of fallen leaves, a hundred bales of straw, huge quantities of our ground up fallen trees and bamboo trimmings, yards and yards of our chicken litter, and the yields of our seven compost piles (each year). We’ve made lasagna beds using sheet mulch/no dig methods, and after a year our beautiful lasagna beds turn magically back into ceramic clay. I have noticed some small improvement in the areas where we mulch the most, but I have also found more slugs in those areas. Slugs love mulch, and there are a lot of slugs in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s not that we don’t have worms; we have quite a large population of them, though I can’t imagine how they survive when the soil dries out.

They are miraculous little creatures, amazingly strong for an animal that has no skeleton and is easily squashed. How can they move through the clay? They must burrow exceptionally deeply to find moist soil in the summer.

At this point, dear reader, you may be wondering why I’m whining about my clay soil. I should just relax, one might say, I should plant less, I should just till the soil and water more. But that’s the problem, or one of them. We’re in a severe drought, which exacerbates the clay soil problem, and on top of that, we’re experiencing some pretty high inflation. I’ve realized I need to grow more food, and in order to do that, I need to improve my soil. And lately it feels like I’ve made little headway in the last fifteen years.

Soil with cardboard over it
Perennial Blackcurrant during the fall

Perennial Blackcurrant mulching itself

Fallen leaves nourish the soil, and provide habitat for the pollinators

I decided to go out and take stock. The first thing I noticed is that the trees and large perennial bushes all seem to be doing pretty well. They have deep roots, and being deciduous, they mulch themselves. Growing perennials also reduces the need for disturbing soil by digging. The bamboo does fine, especially that which we planted across an area where water flows downhill. Before we planted that bamboo, the entire backyard used to flood, and the floodwater used to fill our neighbor’s basement. The bamboo loves water, and it soaks it up; the neighbor no longer complains of a flooded basement, and we have an enormous thriving bamboo hedge, which is now home to an assortment of birds. We don’t eat the bamboo, though the shoots are edible, but we are happy with its products: poles for beans, privacy, habitat, beauty, and mulch.

Asparagus, artichoke and chard

Asparagus, artichoke and chard

The asparagus, jostaberries, currants, and marionberries look healthy, as do the mulberries. Clearly, perennials grow well in our soil. I’m plotting and planning where I can plant more of them, especially currants. I love currants. We make black currant wine, black currant jam, red currant jam, and chutneys using the jams. I got the recipe for black currant chutney from Colette O’Neill of Bealtaine Cottage. She writes about using black currant jam to make a delicious chutney in her book A Cottage and Three Acres. It goes excellently with cheese; if you don’t eat cheese (I’m trying to reduce my own consumption of it), there must surely be another way to eat the chutney, and I will be trying things out. Sandwiches come to mind.

Colette can be found on Youtube : No Money? Here’s 19 Ways You Can Create A Garden For FREE!

She has made hundreds of lovely videos (with no ads!), and she is inspiring.

Like currants, marionberries have many uses, and they are nearly indestructible. Mulberries are delicious, and they have the added bonus of having tasty and nutritious leaves. It’s important to me to have some perennial plants that aren’t just sweet. I suppose you could also raise silkworms if you have a mulberry plant, since silkworms eat the leaves. Another thing in the mulberry’s favor is that it’s often a sizable tree, at least mine are. It provides shade and places for birds to roost, and its roots go very deep. My chickens go crazy for mulberries.

Rhubarb plant close up


I forgot to mention rhubarb, which makes absolutely delicious jam and pies. My rhubarb looks pretty well, though I think it needs a little chicken manure this winter. I use only older manure/straw mix, as chicken manure is very “hot” and will burn your plants if you apply it fresh from the chicken. Some of the rhubarb stalks are fat and juicy, but this year some were thin.

Aronias in a bowl


Canadice Grapes in a basket

Canadice Grapes

Black Elderberries

Black Elderberries

As I survey my garden, I realize that I need more perennials of all types, especially vegetables.

So far, besides herbs like rosemary bushes and a small sweet bay tree, I have only asparagus, artichokes, and saffron. I have recently expanded my asparagus patch, but I could add a little more. Meanwhile, as I wait for the new young asparagus plants to grow, I should explore ways to prepare and preserve asparagus. First I will try pickling some. My saffron returns at the end of each October, though that doesn’t make much of a meal. Saffron is more useful for bartering or as a cash crop.

Saffron stigmas

Harvesting saffron stigmas

Saffron flower

Saffron crocus flowers

I’m always looking out for new ways to store and preserve the products of my garden, and I’m open to suggestions from readers.

There are some vegetable plants that are biennials, but they act like perennials: I always have them, though I rarely plant them. Chard, kale, collards, some lettuces, garlic chives, and bunching onions come to mind. These plants are a wonderful surprise gift from nature. Parsley sometimes reseeds itself, though not reliably. The same is true of lettuce and arugula.

kale leaves

Giant variety of Kale

Leeks going to seed

Leeks going to seed

Then there are the wild plants who return most years: purslane, plantains, dandelions, sheep sorrel, docks, and nettles.

All of these are nutritious (weeds are often more nutritious than their domesticated cousins), and most of them are delicious in pesto, stir fry, or salad. (See my article on nettles in an earlier blog post). Some of them are also good medicine : plantains are excellent to apply on stings or used in a salve for stings and bugbites, and all parts of the dandelion are useful and edible. Young dandelion leaves are a lovely addition to a salad or stir fry, the roots are an excellent addition to broth, and the flowers brighten up a salad. Dandelion is a diuretic as well, and good for the bladder.

Weeds tend to thrive in the toughest of soils, and they often indicate deficiencies: Plantains indicate that the soil is compacted and low in fertility; Crabgrass grows in soil that is low in nutrients, especially calcium; White Clover indicates low nitrogen in the soil and helps to remedy that; Dandelion tells us that the soil is low in calcium but high in potassium; Sow Thistle thrives in dry, heavy, acidic, iron deficient soil.

I’ve come to realize that, rather than a nuisance, weeds can be our friends. They are telling us what our soil needs, and they are helping to repair it. Some of them have deep roots that help break up heavy clay as they pull up nutrients (comfrey and dandelions). They also provide food for our animals: our rabbit and chickens love dandelions, mint, docks, sow thistles, and crummy chard leaves. I leave some weeds here and there, but if I have to pull them, I lay them down on the ground as mulch, unless they’re making seeds. If they’re making seeds, I put them in a big bucket and cover them with water and a weight to hold them down, plus a lid. They must be kept submerged. After a week or so, I use that smelly weed “tea” well diluted with water as a foliar spray. Occasionally I get lazy and just pour it around my plants or on soil that looks poor. The weeds themselves have been drowned and won’t grow back. They can be added to the compost or just thrown around to add organic material to the soil.

Fresh nettles in spring

Fresh nettles in spring, good tasting and good for the soil

“The bottom line: Weeds are mother nature’s way to protect soil, replenish organic matter, absorb and recycle nutrients that would otherwise leach away and restore the biodiversity in the soil.” (Yuvraj Singh Khamare from

St John's Wort Flower

St John’s Wort

St John’s Wort oil in a bottle with St John’s Wort

Making St John’s Wort oil

Mullein plant

Mullein has many uses

I’m looking at weeds as friends and trying to stop worrying about my soil and the health of my plants, but when one is focused on growing a desired quantity of vegetables, it’s easy to feel anxious.

One calculates how much to plant, how many rows and how many pounds needed to survive, but what if something fails? Did I sow my seed too early or too late? Why do I have so few tomatoes on the vine? What can I do to stop the leafminers from ruining my chard? Must I cover my kale with a cloth to keep out flea beetles? I notice the flea beetles, who come when it gets hot, show up earlier each year. How long must I pull so many weeds? What can I do about the possum who eats my strawberries? And on and on…


Fuchsias, beautiful and edible

Rather than dwell on a fear of disaster in the garden and a need to defend it from everything, I’m trying to shift my focus to an acceptance of all those who take up residence on my land. They are all part of an evolving ecosystem that I’m trying to foster as best I can. They all have something to contribute. Perhaps the worm in the apple gives my chickens a little protein. The aphids on my honeysuckles and red currants are feeding the growing population of ladybugs. The mosquitos who hatched from the pan of water that I forgot about are feeding the hungry swallows and bats; farmers have sprayed so much pesticide that the bug populations have plummeted, and the swallows and bats are disappearing. The comfrey that’s popping up everywhere is wonderful mulch. I’ve noticed that wherever it grows, the nearby bushes and trees thrive. I just chop it to the ground and spread it around. My hens love the leafminer-infested chard leaves, and I hope that by cutting the infested leaves and feeding them to the chickens, I am helping the rest of the plant. It’s all a balance. The possum eats a few berries and trundles on. Moles come through and aerate the soil as they munch on earthworms. These creatures are not my enemies, and the fact that they are showing up tells me that I have something to offer them. In diversity lies resilience. Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, said that in a healthy landscape each component (plant, tree, animal, or even structure) performs more than one function, and each function is performed by many of the components. Everything is connected. Together we are all feeding each other and healing the land.

And now we’ve come back to the soil, the starting point. It’s easy to despair, harder to accept what is and get back to work. I have mulching and some weeding to do. Giving up will help no one. Rather than rant about my poor soil, I should be listening to what the plants that grow there are trying to tell me.

Our newest project is learning about mycelium and its functions in the earth. We bought some mycelium from Fungi Perfecti, and we’re adding that everywhere, in the hope that the mycelium will nurture the tiny creatures underground and foster connections between the trees and other plants. If you’re interested in learning more about the role of mycelium in ecosystems, look up Suzanne Simard and the Wood Wide Web. Paul Stamets is another great resource; read his book Mycelium Running for more information on the topic.

Vicki standing behind a sign holding a green vegetable

This winter is our season of soil study. I look forward to learning about all the creatures living there and making friends with them. If we can help them, everyone benefits. We can no longer afford to neglect the invisible allies living beneath our feet.