Feed the Grit and Grit Will Feed You: Building Life-Sustaining Garden Soil

April Nurse
March 23, 2024
Photo: Giant Atlantic Pumpkins, San Diego Botanical Garden, by cultivar413

Happy spring! It’s my favorite season. Spring is emergence and life renewed. I’m lucky enough  to spend some of this renewal season in my garden. Garden grit is so much a reflection of us. The plants that grow and the ones that won’t, tell a short story about who we are and what we’re made of.

When I first greeted my garden many years ago it was caked in dense and impacted clay. Deeply yellow and tenacious in its refusal to be moved. It was sodden in the winter and concreted in the summer. We tried everything to change that clay but to no avail. So we gave in to it. We fed it old leaves, cardboard, grass clippings, veggie scraps and bags of coffee grounds (in my barista days) until it had its fill. Worms moved in with countless roly polys and colonies of ants and armies of lizards. When the life came back we knew it was time for planting. The grit had become soil that yielded gently under trowel and made room for carrots and beet roots, that housed happily families of potatoes and yams and even held more firmly our trees. It was a valuable lesson. If you wish the ground to feed you, you must feed it too.

Somebody once created a pathway round the back of the garden with hundreds of thousands of quartz pebbles. In a few years nature had taken the path back and it wasn’t until we realized plants were refusing to take root we found the intruder. It took a very long time to dig it all up but once we did, delicate roots had no trouble tucking in. Quartz has an effect on soils thermal conductivity. In most garden spaces it’s not a problem but in this case it was enough to discourage growth. If you’ve ever rubbed two quartz points together to see the sparks created by their friction; you know why.

Garden grit has taught me so many lessons. Sometimes it’s more important to build up and feed the grit (and the spirit) than it is to dig into the void. Sometimes the lack of growth we see is a symptom of a problem underneath. It’s our job as the caretakers of these bodies and this earth to find a way to bring balance. Happy spring and may your gardens be fruitful.