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The Dirt on … Oh Never Mind


By the time you get to this page (that is to say, if you’ve read all or most of this magazine), your brain is so crammed with horticultural knowledge that if you make one false move it will explode, spewing chloroplasts and bark and bits of binomial nomenclature and fragments of tasteful garden design all over the place. And who’s going to clean up that mess?

Fortunately, I am the firewall between too much information and its inevitable consequences. My fact-free seven hundred words are the antidote to too much book learnin’. Since you become a tiny bit dumber from reading this page (it’s been proven in scientific studies – you could look it up), my column serves as a kind of horticultural anti-inflammatory agent. It reduces the pressure in your head and allows you to slowly digest the wondrous variety of gardening plans, ideas and techniques that you have just read about and will never actually get around to implementing in your own yard.

That is to say, unless I take up a subject that is going to agitate your poor, unsuspecting gray matter even more. In which case, well, stop reading right now or else get out the mop and the cleaning vinegar.

I’m about to wander into that territory without a passport or a proper pair of mukluks. Nothing gets the average gardener worked into a muddy lather more than the question of whether you grow your plants in dirt … or soil.

I went to Boogle (a homemade version of the ubiquitous search engine that I worked up in my basement in my spare time), searched for “dirt v. soil” and came up with 19,500,000 results! Boy, did it take a long time to read all of them. And would you like to know my conclusion? I’m going to tell you anyway.

I’m as confused as ever. (Raise your hand if you were surprised by that.)

Gardeners are always talking about “dirt under their fingernails.” Some of those gardeners even clean their fingernails occasionally (which is for rookies and cowards, if you ask me). But if your gardening buddies talked about getting “soil under their fingernails,” you’d give ‘em the look you usually reserve for people who complain about somebody using their salad fork to eat their baked potato.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “get the dirt” on a person or a subject. What happens when you “get the soil” on somebody? I suspect that you apologize and offer to pay the laundry bill. The same applies to the similar phrase “dish the dirt.” If you “dish the soil,” it sounds more like a meal you’d get in one of those la-dee-da restaurants. I always prefer my soil lightly sauteed, with a drizzle of drizzle.

Ya know, using the word “soil” instead of “dirt” might be a way to finally get rid of all those articles and books that are so cleverly titled, “The Dirt on Gardening.” (Har! Who died and left that old chestnut to you? You’re killing me … literally.) Imagine the head scratching over something called
“The Soil on Gardening.” It’s practically a non sequitur.

Most of us know when something is “dirt cheap.” What about when it’s “soil cheap”? When you put it that way, it seems to be the opposite of cheap. You might let somebody know that they can buy that electric car “soil cheap.” Wink, wink.

I’ve never “hit pay dirt.” And I doubt that anybody has ever “hit pay soil.” I’m not sure anybody wants to.

Well, I didn’t set out to do this, but I think I have proven that the words dirt and soil aren’t even close to being the same thing! Who knew? It’s one of those accidental etymological discoveries. Hey, if you MacArthur Genius Grant people want to reconsider and send me that prize, I’m still at the phone number I’ve been sending you for years.

Meanwhile, the next time I speak at a garden club, I’m going to divide the group into “dirts” and “soils” (for some reason, “shirts” and “skins” has never been that popular) before the rugby scrum on the host’s lawn, which is how I wrap up all of my talks. Don’t forget your mukluks.

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