Getting my hands dirty

There are really only two types of kids: mud-puddle-philes, and mud-puddle-phobes. Let’s just say that my mother had absolute confidence in sending me to preschool in pastel pinafores and white tights. I liked her garden, to be sure, but I liked wandering around it, dissecting berries, chewing thoughtfully on flowers that my rabbit seemed to enjoy, and licking the single drop of nectar at the end of honeysuckle stamens. Sit in the dirt? Dig in it? Jump in a mud puddle? No thank you.

After the last post, I realized that a part of the reason (the part that doesn’t have anything to do with my intrinsic unsociability) I’m not more actively involved in the environmental movement is that I hate the look and feel of dirt under my nails. My primary source of vanity is my hands: bird-bone fine and clever-fingered. I really don’t like grime. I’ m squeamish.

Even I roll my eyes at my own lameness sometimes.  So this weekend, as a part of my new challenge-to-self to try to be part of the solution, I mortified my vanity and got my hands dirty, not just once, but twice. Kind of.

Saturday: Henry Cowell Redwoods
It’s disappointing to find litter in a state park as beautiful as this one. Really, people? Really? I was with a friend who is a lot more gung-ho about picking up trash than I am. (It’s not that I don’t care; it’s the dirt-under-the-nails thing that gives me pause.) She braved poison oak, muddy patches, and rivulets to retrieve detritus. I volunteered my reusable bag for her collection of bottles, Slurpee containers, fallen name tags, and even a mud-infused cotton sock. At one point, I gingerly retrieved a wine bottle covered in leaf mold.  Not much, but a step in the right direction for someone who has a major dirt aversion to overcome.

Sunday: Tentative Attempts at Indoor Gardening
Maybe it was the balmy weather or the realization that dirt wasn’t going to kill me, but I decided it was time to increase my indoor plant population. I’m an insoucient gardener at best, with nothing more than a few scraggly orchids and ferns in my big south-facing window. (My mother’s green thumb has not proved to be a heritable trait.) Armed with totally unwarranted optimism, Kevin and I went to the small family owned nursery nearby and picked up a donkey’s tail succulent, several organic herbs, walking stick kale (which might turn out to be a really, really bad idea), and plenty of organic potting soil.

The soil contained manure, worm casts, and some other things I didn’t relish getting too close to. Nevertheless, when I opened the bag, it was sun-warm, loamy,and smelled cleanly, well, earthy. I had some extra pots and seeds, so I also tried planting some basil, parsley, chives, and catnip. It was messy, but oddly relaxing. Maybe even a little addictive.  We’ll see if any of my seeds sprout. Maybe there’s a gardening enthusiast somewhere in me.

Are you also a recovering mud-puddle-phobe?  What do you do now that would have surprised your younger self?



17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by northwestshift on 02/07/2011 at 11:05

    Bravo! We never would have played together as children 🙂 Pretty sure you would’ve been disgusted by my love of all things dirty, haha. Good luck with the indoor plants! I’d love to get some succulents this season… always had luck with those.


    • My friend (the one I went to the redwoods with) was also a mud puddle kid. I’m only now starting to get my hands dirty…I think clay was a gateway drug to mud. Pottery has been good for me in many ways! I just learned that I can grow strawberries indoors if I do a little hand-pollination. Isn’t that amazing? Apparently you can also grow bananas and citrus indoors. I love that my current home has big south-facing windows that get almost too much light. Plants stay alive here that I would otherwise manage to kill.


      • Posted by northwestshift on 02/07/2011 at 11:56

        Oh, I’ve been wanting to grow a lemon tree indoors for a long time now… I need to look into that! I didn’t know that about strawberries. That would be a good way to keep birds from pecking at all of them. That’s what always happens to mine 😦


      • Sweet! I’m planning to grow some eggplant and bell pepper indoors. I’m going to add some compost tea to make sure it gets all the soil microbes. How do you do hand pollination?


        • Apparently it involves gently swabbing around the inside of the flowers with a q-tip. Strawberries are partially self-pollinating, but I read that they do better indoors with some help. I get to play at being a bee.

          Really wet clay is kind of like mud, except less gritty/irregular. It’s not even necessarily that much ‘cleaner.’ Aged clay, which is ideal to throw with, has increased elasticity because of bacterial growth — it can be stretched thinner, manipulated more, and is generally a lot more forgiving to work with. I think I had to get over some of my squeamishness when I learned that!


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by northwestshift, Jennifer Mo. Jennifer Mo said: Getting over the dirt aversion. New blog entry! […]


  3. I’ve got a little dirt aversion too, I admit! I bet your pottery experience should make it a bit easier to get comfy with dirt. Since gardening more frequently, though, I’ve gotten used to it. Now I admire the soil growing veggies, and that has helped deepen my appreciation for the muddy stuff. Now me and soil have a special relationship :] Good luck with your indoor garden! I’m looking to start one too, I’ll let you know how it goes. 😀


  4. Nice job! We would have been friends as kids-I was definitely a mud-puddle phobe. As a grown-up I am still a bit squeamish, but there is nothing like getting dirty with my kids. We plant a garden together every spring. It is incredible to see the look on their little faces when cherry tomatoes or green beans appear. I am not a great gardener-but it is incredible to watch something that comes from the dirt of the earth grow into something edible. Best of luck with your indoor garden-curious to hear how it goes!


    • Kids are great for taking you places you didn’t think you’d ever go. I’ve introduced my mom to clay, cats, medieval tapestries, and lots of tasty vegetarian dishes. That’s great that your kids have helped you get over your squeamishness. It’s hard to believe that many suburban kids have no idea food comes from the ground.

      I’ll post pictures if anything sprouts. Fingers crossed!


  5. Posted by Emily on 02/07/2011 at 19:52

    I think Lynn is getting to a good point: soil is not dirt and dirt is not soil. Calling soil ‘dirt’ is offensive to many gardeners because it has a negative connotation. Soil is actually a beautiful thing- broken down organic matter combined with broken down inorganic matter. Its amazing how long it has taken good soil to become what it is. We are so lucky in most of American to have such amazing, fertile topsoil; in many places there is no soil for growing vegetables or for other flora. Its frustrating how much soil in America is used for growing lawns. What a waste!


    • Duly noted. It will be ‘soil’ from now on. My friend went to Iceland and brought back photos. I was surprised to see a land with basically no trees — the topsoil is so thin and slow to form that something like a tree becomes almost miraculous.


  6. Posted by shortystylee on 02/08/2011 at 10:40

    I don’t like thinking about the feeling of my hands getting dirty (like when gardening) but the second after I’ve forced myself to shove them on in there, I remember how much I love it!



    • It could be mostly a mental thing for a lot of us — we’ve been brought up to think of bacteria, dirt, bugs as bad things to be exterminated and cleaned up without a second thought. I think the gardening programs some schools have started are such a great idea for educating kids and offering them a more balanced view. Maybe a lot fewer of those kids will grow up squeamish!


  7. I grew up with an older brother, so we often played with his Tonka trucks in our mother’s garden beds (much to her dismay). As an adult I stopped paying much attention to soil, but recently when I started baking my own bread and getting dough stuck to my hands and loving it, I realized I would probably enjoy gardening! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.


    • You’ll have to give me some bread-making tips. The last time I tried it, it not only gooped atrociously to my fingers, it came out so dense yet curiously un-chewy as to be totally inedible. Didn’t even think the birds would want it… I would love for you to enlighten me. (Or, better yet, you could blog about it!)


  8. Jennifer,

    I love digging in dirt, but I would never get anywhere near poison oak! That would be the end of me for a few weeks time.

    What a beautiful encounter with potting soil. A breakthrough of sorts! Imagine even planting seeds. Congratulations. I hope they sprout perfectly.

    I’m slowly turning my brown thumb green, learning about organic gardening and taking mini-stabs at it.


    • It’ll be a few more days until I find out whether my seeds are going to sprout or not. It’s been warm, and I’ve been dutifully misting the soil to keep a little moisture in. If all else fails, I can always ask my mother to start seeds for me!

      Hawaii must be a wonderful place to grow things. My strongest memory of Hawaii, when I went there as a seven year old, was driving through sun-speckled forests. We stopped by a roadside banana stand, and the person tending it picked some ripe bananas off the tree and handed them, still warm from the sun, to us. Those were such good bananas that I can no longer enjoy imported bananas.


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