Sunday Opinion: Smelling Like Dirt

Someone said, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  The idea of resuming contact with the dirt after a long winter seems so obvious, one wonders why anyone bothered to write it out loud.  But today I am happy someone said it.  I spend a lot of time in the winter reading the magazines that came in the mail, and got set aside for reading during a less busy time.  I like my magazines, as I believe my eye or my heart or both will be educated and intrigued by what I see and read. I greatly value photographs of anything I cannot see in person. I am reading now-the winter sees to that. Though I once believed that with perserverance, I would be able to read every book that had ever been written, I know the foolishness of that now.  But for the annotated and largely visual version of the world, I would be exposed to very little.  I subscribe to magazines written in languages I cannot read or speak.  I like them as well, and I draw from them as much as any English language magazine.  I cannot really explain this. I read everything I can get my hands on, this time of year. However, I can explain why the dirt quote is on my mind today.

 There is no need to name names and cite specific articles, but I am amazed at the number of garden magazine features that seem to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with gardening. I am sure you have seen them.  The immaculately dressed host is graciously serving smart starters and a chic wine to guests on the rear terrace next to the pool.  In the distance, a view from a movie of a vineyard, or the craggy cliffs in Corfu,  or some equally stunning natural and temperate wonder.  No one is perspiring, or shivering.  There are no bugs, no dirt.  I have to strain my eyes to see that the landscape and gardens have not one leaf out of place-as the garden is not really the subject of the article. The garden is a background for an effortless and lovely lifestyle, beautifully captured on film. Not that I need to, but I will repeat-no sign of the dirt.   

Make no mistake, I entertain in my garden.  I design for others with the idea in mind that they will have company. I live in anticipation of those perfect moments, when they show themselves; this may or may not happen when I  have guests. I do fuss about this and that, when I think to have friends to the garden-I do want everything to be just so.  No one could ever enjoy my garden as I do, but this does not mean I do not go for company gold.  I do.  But little of what goes on there even approaches perfection.  I am always leaving my cocktail someplace, as I need to pull a weed or pick up sticks.  I do this while I have company-my friends are used to this. 

 Gardening is about something else all together than the magazine articles I am reading now.  It is not about a chic lifestyle, nor is it an alternate version of my living room.  My far view is of M-59, a very busy 4 lane road.  There are days when the motorcycles and fire trucks provide the soundtrack for my outdoor dinner parties. We are likely to be driven indoors later by the mosquitos.  Gardening is a dirty, sweaty, and mostly solitary business that does not translate well into magazine spreads.  It could very well be that a garden will improve the quality of your life, but not in any predictable or sterile way.  The magazine articles are notable for what they leave out, or ignore.  Plant catalogues would have you believe that every plant requires little and delivers a lot, year after year.  Well, some do, but most do not.  My friend Marianne once commented that some garden books seem to be about photography and not so much about gardens. I love beautiful photographs as well as the next person, so this does not bother me particularly.  But when I read a garden magazine, I am interested in the garden, not the movie version of the garden.  Even the how-to horticulture magazines do not capture that which comes from working the dirt. Formulas, recipes and how to’s draw the life out of that primal experience.  Work the dirt, plant some seeds, experience the miracle that transforms a seed into shoots and roots, sprouting. There is not so much more to talk about really.  Watching a plant grow, or spotting that it has grown- only a gardener would find this amusing or entertaining.  Though Buck is way up there on the indugent scale, he sometimes does roll his eyes.  Just like I do, when he is debating a dinner menu.  To each his own obsession.  No kidding, I can imagine the smell of dirt so vividly in late February I believe I am actually smelling it. Few magazine articles are able to trigger this.   

A garden is so much about how it engages all the senses.  I will put my hands on all my plants over the course of a season.  How everything smells after a good rain-delicious.  The first sign of spring-the birds resume singing their songs. As for how I smell-I have choices.  I could smell fresh, or musty. I can wash up, or not.  I can perspire, in reaction to that which moves me.  I can shower, and cool off, and sit out.   As for what I like to smell-I make choices. Fresh is ok, as long as there is some natural scent hovering.  The fumy smell of compost-delicious.  Mown grass-the perfect perfume. Rosemary or lavender, equally perfect.  Much of the beauty of a garden comes from how it smells.  Basil, the ultimately perfect perfume. Wear it or eat it-take your pick, or do both. 

I grow vegetables and herbs at the shop. I invariably have plants left over at the end of May; we grow them on through the summer.  I can water and eat tomatoes at the same time-this is how I like them best.  Warm and ripe from the sun. Unsullied by any fancy preparation.  Corn and tomatoes are a staple of Buck’s late summer menus-all else is window dressing.  My vegetables at work have yellow leaves, bug holes, and can look scraggly, but they taste fine. Everything in the garden looks good to me, in one genuine way or another. 

Having the chance to smell like dirt in the spring-I can hardly wait to put the magazines away.


  1. I like this… though it looks like we’re going to have to wait a little longer to smell the dirt, with all the snow coming down now!

  2. Deborah Silver says

    I did open my big mouth about spring too soon, didn’t I?? It is beautiful though-better than all that grey we’ve been having!

  3. You are right; sometimes it is the smell of dirt that says more to a gardener about spring than all of those lovely blooms on the vernal bulbs we planted last fall.

  4. Wish I had known about you when I lived in Michigan. I’d have loved browsing your store!

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