My husband Houston loves talking about dirt. And why not? As a newbie farmer he’s learned a lot about it since we bought our property.
A friend who teaches agriculture at a nearby college led us through the process of getting our soil tested so we’d know what we could grow and what nutrients our land needed. Houston also met with our local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. We discovered that our soil has a heavy sand and clay content, and that with minimal amending of the soil, it is perfect for growing fruit trees.
But what about other crops? Our daughter Emilie, who was working with us at the time, was especially interested in getting a garden started.
That first winter we hired a garden consultant, a woman whose job is to help others begin (and sometimes maintain) a garden. She does this for chefs and restaurants, but also for individuals. She walked Emilie and Houston through every phase of the process - from purchasing the necessary topsoil to tilling the ground, and ultimately planting. She and Emilie planted okra, corn, eggplant, pumpkins, cucumbers, green beans and a variety of peppers and herbs. We all learned so much through that first planting. Even though we expanded the gardening operation by adding hydroponic towers eight months later, we knew dirt farming was something we wanted to continue to pursue.
In 2021, a year and a half after starting our orchard, Houston began learning about restorative agriculture. Instead of buying expensive topsoil, he started focusing on getting our soil healthy the traditional way, growing cover crops to add nutrients to the soil that are necessary for edible crops. For example, we found out our soil needed more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to grow anything besides fruit trees. So for the past year and a half he’s been growing things like winter rye, barley and black eyed peas. Now at the end of each season, he tills the cover crops back into the ground. The result isn’t overnight, but little about farming is, we’re discovering. In 18 months even I can see a difference. What used to be brick hard clay is now dark, rich soil. When the soil was recently tested, we only lacked a few trace nutrients necessary to begin growing crops to harvest. Houston is hopeful that we’ll be able to plant for our own consumption in the spring.
I’m realizing there are lessons we can learn from soil to apply to our lives. Just like it needs key nutrients, there are things that nourish us, things that help make us healthy. Sure, we need good nutrition, but we also need things like good relationships, a life filled with purpose and moments of joy. Just as Houston tills the cover crops into the soil at the end of the season to prepare for the next crop, we internalize those good things and they prepare us for new growth.
This piece first appeared in Sherry’s column, Finding Myself in a Small Town, in the September 9, 2023 edition of the Corsicana Daily Sun.