from Better Homes and Gardens
How's Your Soil?
by Ellis Parker Butler
It is rather amazing, if you pause to think of it, how many varieties of soil the readers of this publication are gardening, all at the same time.
They must range from clay that is so hard it has to be loosened with an adze to irrigated desert sand that will run through a sieve without being jolted. Some of you have a rich warm loam, the very ideal for a garden. Some of your gardens lie high and dry and tend to bake as hard as rocks, and some lie so low that they are always moist and it is a constant fight to keep them sweet.
Our own garden -- mine and my wife's -- comes pretty close to having all the varieties of soil there are. There is one small patch in our yard -- the 30x30 in front of the stable door -- that is paved with cobblestones and strewn with biggish gravel. You would think that nothing would grow there, but it is the finest site for carpetweed in the United States. You probably know carpetweed; it is a modest little vegetable pauper, with small-currency leaves and a flower the size of the head of a pin.
I have a friend who came home from a long and joyous banquet one night in the years before the war and he was just in the condition where a man sees two blades of grass where only one grew before, and he remembered that he ought to attend to the furnace before he went to bed. This was at two o'clock in the morning. He went down cellar and opened the furnace door and picked up the coal-shovel. Then he staggered a couple of steps to the coal-bin and scooped up a shovelful of Grade A anthracite nut, but even in the dim light of the cellar he saw some white spots in the shovel. He looked closer and saw they were on his terrier pup.
The pup was a lively and affectionate pup and it probably felt glad to have its friend and master visit it at two o'clock in the morning, but my friend did not want the pup in the shovel with the coal. He wanted to put the coal in the furnace, and he did not want to put the pup in the furnace, so he shook the coal and the pup out of the shovel and tried again. This time he got a shovelful of coal but he also got the pup again. He got half a shovelful of terrier pup every time he got half a shovelful of coal. The pup wouldn't stay out of the shovel. So my friend did the only thing he could think of at the moment; he sat down on the coal and held the pup in his left arm and threw the coal at the furnace door lump by lump. It was while he was doing this that his wife came down the cellar stairs in her nightie and a bathrobe and said, in a surprised tone, "Why, Algernon!"
What I was going to say is that carpetweed is like the pup; it may not amount to much as a young thing but it is always getting where it is not wanted. The one place in our yard where we don't want anything to grow is in that gravel on top of the cobblestones, so that is where it does grow. I consider cobblestones and large gravel almost the meanest soil that can be imagined, but carpetweed is just crazy about it. A modest little carpetweed will appear, looking like a mere green smudge the size of a thumbnail, and sort of look around as if to say, "Hello, folks! Don't mind me -- I'm only a meek little thing as big as a dime," and in a couple of days it spreads out as big and thick as a doormat. The carpetweed sends down a root as tough as a hemp rope, and it can stick that root down between two cobbles and tie a knot at the lower end so that a man has to lean back on his heels and put his full weight into the job -- and then he gets out only part of the root. A carpetweed considers an area of close-set cobbles an ideal soil.
There is one small lap of our garden that is composed of clay, old gravel walk and furnace ashes. It can hardly be punctured with one of those holes for blasting rocks. I am going to dig this out and put topsoil in. I have been meaning to do this for eighteen years, but I am still a young man and expect to get it done this summer or in 1942 or sometime. You know how time flies.
There is another part of our yard -- out by the oak stump -- where our eighteen-foot-in-diameter oak tree was sawed up when it blew down, that has a soil composed of sawdust and topsoil and it is as crumbly as granulated sugar. A richly luscious grass grows there but the soil is so light that when an English sparrow sneezes it blows all the grass off the soil. In damp spring, when the sparrows have colds, it is hard to keep grass on that area. We do our best by putting cold-cure in the bird-fountain.
But, seriously, this matter of soil is an extremely important one. It is almost the most important part of gardening because it is so basic. If the soil is wrong everything is wrong from the beginning and it is almost hopeless to attempt to grow things. Those of us who happen to have good soil to begin with are lucky, and the rest of us -- if we can afford it -- have a few loads of good topsoil brought from somewhere and dumped in our gardens. From then on we have nothing to worry about except what to do to keep the soil as it should be.
For one thing the rich topsoil is apt to be so rich and damp that it sours. Sourweed and moss begin to show, and they are signs that the soil is getting sour and that lime is needed. As a matter of fact soil -- any soil in which flowers are to be grown year after year -- needs constant attention. Some plants take too much of other elements into the soil. One iris may need lime constantly; another iris must never nave lime. Tulips, the text books say, should not be grown in the same soil twice in succession if it can be avoided. Probably tulips poison the soil for tulips; a rotation of flower crops is as desirable as a rotation of grain crops in many instances. There are some -- possibly many -- weeds and wildflowers that poison the soil they grow in so that they can no longer grow in it. These weeds and wildflowers "move on" a little year after year, like an old man who moves his chair bit by bit as the sun moves the shadow in which he is sitting.
There will be a group of those flowers in a certain spot one year and the next year the group will have moved a few feet this way or that. I have an idea that a good many of the plants that have a tendency to "spread" are doing just one thing -- sending new generations into new soil so that when the old soil becomes too poisoned there will still be descendants to continue to live healthily. They are quitting the poison places that they themselves have poisoned.
Possibly all the plants that send their seeds afar on wings belong to this soil-poisoning class, but I have never known dandelions to get poisoned to any extent that seemed to impair their ability to get life insurance any time they wanted it. Some of the weeds don't seem to care any more for poisoned soil than a rhinoceros cares for mosquitoes. They thrive where they happen to be. They are called "noxious" weeds. In the same way some of the weeds, like my carpetweed, admire what really nice plants would call mean soil. The burdock doesn't care a hang what its soil is -- it will grow in a bare shovel. The mullein prefers the deadliest clay.
There are people like the mullein and people like the burdock and people like the carpetweed but, as a rule, they are not very highly thought of. Men and women -- and especially children, perhaps -- need good soil if they are to do well. And men and women can poison the soil in which they grow, and they do. No soil can stand men and women very long unless that soil is given rather constant attention, limed and turned up and fed nitrates and such fertilizers as it needs.
Down in Yucatan, and in Peten and Guatamala and other places adjacent, there was once a great empire -- the Mayan Empire. Its history, learned from existing monuments, reaches back beyond the Christian era -- back beyond the Year One whether you are counting by A. D. or B. C. -- and is a remarkable one. The Mayans knew more about astronomy and such things as the transit of Venus and reckoning time exactly than any people in the old world at that time. They were highly civilized, admirable artists, had a literature and a better calendar than we have today. They built great temples, ornately decorated. Their rulers were mighty men. That whole civilization is gone.
During the part of the history of the Mayans that has been deciphered there were several migrations -- one in particular was a tremendous one, the whole people moving to a new area. There seems to have been no reason for this except that they poisoned the soil. Their records mention great plagues that came to pass just before the migrations took place.
This was no mere picking up of tents and moving on, as our Indians moved and as the herdsmen tribes of Europe and Asia moved. The Mayans left great cities standing when they went to new lands, huge temples, enormous works of art in stone. They lived in one place until the soil was poisoned against further human existence, and then they moved on. They sought new and unpoisoned wells and woods and land.
I think we all know that today we are able to live in vast groups of humanity called cities only because we do our best to keep the soil unpoisoned. Let our garbage and other human waste remain in city soil one or two years and we would have great plagues, just as the Mayans had -- our drinking water contaminated with deadly germs, our air poisoned.
People are poisoned mentally quite as surely as physically if the mental soil in which they are growing is not cared for as it should be. Mental lime must be added or we grow sour and weedy; mental nitrates must be turned into the soil or we weaken and play out.
I know one mountain valley where some of the meanest men and women live. Mountain valley folk are apt to degenerate into poor stuff because mountain valleys shut people in. The hillbillies live for generation after generation in the same narrow mental soil areas, poisoning it, and no lime of new thoughts or nitrates of new culture are brought in to sweeten and purify the soil. This mountain valley of which I spoke is changing; outsiders are coming in, the "soil" is being refreshed; already there is less hatred and meanness and narrowness. I have been able to see this change from year to year. Good roads have done much; the coming of the automobile has done much; the change of mental soil conditions through the coming of men and women from elsewhere has done more. The mental soil up there needed lime; it had grown sour.
What I want to say, as one gardener to another and because you and I know about soils, is that we want to look after the soil we are growing in just as carefully as we look after the soil our plants are growing in. It is not enough by a long shot to think that just because we have started our growing in a good rich topsoil we are going to thrive and blossom beautifully, or that our children are going to. We may have the best sort of soil to start with -- money, fine home, good surroundings and all else -- but unless something is done to the soil each year or so it is going to turn sour or wash to sodden clay or lose its nutriment. We want to hoe in new friends, strangers, books we have not read before, interesting amusements, pleasant by-occupations, news of the world, fresh interests.
I think too many of us, having discovered that the soil in which we are planted is good, thereafter neglect our soil. We ought to know better than that; we know that our garden soil has to have constant attention; even the humble grass needs a fertilizer now and then.
Of course, a soil can sometimes produce what it needs to have put back into it. We can plant clover or beans and plow them under, for example, after they have grown awhile, but even that is not enough. The soil must be fed; the poisons must be counteracted. New ideas, new cultures and new thoughts must be brought from a distance and fed to our soil or it becomes toxic and we deteriorate.
Tulips, in spite of what the books say, need not be transplanted to new places every year or so. They do better if they are put in new soil but we have learned how to renew the soil in their old locations, purifying it so that it is as good as new. Our human generations, I feel certain, do better if they are moved about more or less. No people the world has known has moved from place to place as we Americans have moved -- from continent to new continent, from east to west, here to there and back again. We are always on the move; we are always getting our roots into new soil and then moving on again. That has been good for us. But I believe that we can renew the soil in any place just as we can renew it in our gardens, and so continue to live in one place, if we study the soil and watch ourselves for signs of deterioration.
In one village or town or city or neighborhood -- or even family -- what is needed may be intellectual stimulus. New books, good magazines, perhaps a lecture or two, need to be plowed in. A family living too much by itself may need a visit from its cousins and in-laws or old friends from other towns. Signs of sourness may mean that a sprinkling of sports and games or vacations from each other are needed.
The soil of our vegetable gardens should furnish us with food, and the soil of our flower gardens should furnish us with beauty, but the soil in which we ourselves are growing should furnish us with happiness. We ought to analyze our soil now and then and make sure it is not growing sour or losing its fertility. If it is becoming sour or if it is becoming sterile or if it is becoming poisoned because we have stood too long in one spot, we should know what to do. There is no excuse for not knowing; I have just told us.