• One Minnesota Writer

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Got Good Dirt?

It all started with a flat of impatiens, those ubiquitous summer shots of color that Minnesota gardeners adore. The month of June was rainy that year and Mick and I were headed to our first overseas trip together, to Helsinki of all places. 

I was moving into Mick’s house. My son, who was just finishing fourth grade, was excited that Mick had a cat and a yard and we would not be constrained by apartment life any longer. It was the end of the school year, but the Helsinki trip overlapped with the last few days of school, so Shawn went to stay with my parents for a few days. He would later stay with my friend Sharon, whose son was the same age. We were crazily packing up, moving items out of the apartment and into Mick’s house, but would finalize the move once we returned from overseas. 

Mick’s yard had a flower garden. He is a gentle sort of guy who loves plants and animals and I began my gardener’s education with him. We acquired a bunch of impatiens somehow – I think it was my friend Sharon who had excess – and we had only a couple of days before our flight left to get those flowers in the ground.

We ended up throwing them into the dirt early on the day we left.  It misted while we set 48 little plants into the beds along two sides of Mick’s yard. Wet, muddy, but triumphant that we’d actually planted the impatiens, we cleaned up and took off. We just hoped the flowers would survive while we were gone. 

Survive they did. We returned to an impatiens explosion in the back yard, where weather had been just right for unattended growth. I remember being enchanted with the bright little petals as they balanced the green of Mick’s hostas and grass. And I thought, hey, growing flowers isn’t too hard.

Of course, those flowers, which aren’t native to Minnesota, are easy to grow. Nothing eats them. Squirrels sometimes dig them up with abandon (I think there is actually an ongoing plot by squirrels everywhere), but impatiens are impervious to much of what Minnesota throws at them in the summer.

Today, Mick and I don’t plant a lot of impatiens. We’ve expanded our gardening knowledge to include native plants, fruits, vegetables, herbs. We’ve plopped native river birch that our neighbors dug up at their cabin into the low spot in our back yard, where snowmelt accumulates every spring. Those birch are thriving. We’ve given milkweed from my husband’s uncle’s farm a new home on the side of our house, where we can see it outside the kitchen window. At this time of year, it emits a lovely sweet scent while butterflies and bees move continually over the flowers. We’ve learned about columbine, butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, sumac, goatsbeard, penstemon, daisies, bee balm, yarrow. We’ve nurtured a bur oak and a pin oak. We’ve learned which nurseries carry northern perennials and read about flowers that actually hurt bees and other creatures because genetic modifications have made their beauty toxic.

I’ve even learned to walk next to bees without panicking, unless they’re wasps or hornets. Honey bees have a soothing collective buzz when they are working together in the fragrant hyssop that grows behind our garage. It’s almost hypnotic to watch them on a hot summer afternoon, when they seem too busy to notice anything but the flowers. 

When I think back to those impatiens that first got my attention, I see a young woman who had no idea that digging in the dirt was going to play such a large role in her life. That woman was so busy raising a son and scrambling to pay the rent on time that nurturing another form of life wasn’t an option. Mick’s proposal and my acceptance that we make a life together changed all that. Throwing impatiens into a garden bed before going with Mick to a science conference in Finland was the beginning of a grand adventure. And, now, I can’t imagine life without Mick or a lot of garden soil. 

Good dirt grows a lot more than flowers.

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