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What I'm Thankful For 

Number one: great big piles of rich brown dirt

click to enlarge Dirt, glorious dirt.
  • Dirt, glorious dirt.

Last week I posted a survey on GardenRant, a group blog I'm a part of, asking gardeners if the economic downturn had put a dent in their horticultural shopping habits. Of the 85 people who voted, a third are going to the garden center a lot less than they used to in order to avoid temptation, and another 20 percent have brought spending to a complete halt.

Not good news for garden centers. But there were some bright spots among the comments people posted: Several people said their spending habits hadn't changed, and they admonished the rest of us to patronize garden centers now if we want them to be there for us later.

And plenty of people said they might not be buying plants now, but they'd be back in the spring when it was time to ramp up their vegetable garden. That's what many garden centers are counting on: A desire to eat locally, combined with a need to cut grocery bills, will get everybody growing their own food again. Seed companies saw their sales go through the roof this year -- some of the larger suppliers actually ran out of vegetable seed -- so the prediction is that 2009 will be even better for the seed companies, and we will all be growing our own green beans next summer. Works for me.

But no matter how much you've reined in your own spending this year, there is one horticultural indulgence you can definitely justify: dirt.

I devoted an entire Sunday to distributing a giant pile of compost around my garden. It reminded me what a transformative thing a pile of dirt can be. I used to always come home from the garden center with two or three bags of compost to supplement what I was pulling out of my own compost pile, but lately I've gotten out of the habit. Buying dirt seemed like too much of an extravagance.

Was I ever wrong. I put that pile of compost to use all over my garden, and I'll be back at the garden center this weekend buying a few more bags to finish the job. Here's why I think that you, too, should beg, borrow, steal or -- imagine this -- buy a big pile of dirt to keep you entertained over the Thanksgiving weekend:

Dirt Will Inspire You. Equipped with a rich, delicious pile of compost, I was finally ready to tackle a big transplanting project in my front yard. Some plants needed to be divided, others were too large (or too small) for the space they were in, and some areas of the garden just needed to be simplified. For instance, I rounded up all of the centranthus (Jupiter's beard) that had self-sowed over the last few years and sequestered them in one corner of the rich brown garden around a rose bush. I think they'll look better blooming en masse than they do now, fighting for room in a mixed border.

The dirt made all this possible. It is so much easier to yank plants out of the ground and move them around when you've got a big pile of compost to fill in the holes, rake over the surface and mix in with the soil as you re-plant.

Dirt is Beautiful. Adding a layer of mulch or compost to the garden this time of year makes the place look like it's being cared for, smothers the weeds, and adds a little shot of nutrition to help plants green up now that it's started to rain again. I think I'm going to get a second round of blooms on some of my Shasta daisies this fall, all because I cut them back and fed them a little fertilizer and mulch.

Dirt Makes More Plants. Now that the rainy season is here, propagation is ridiculously easy. Any number of flowering perennials, shrubs and vines can be propagated just by cutting off a leafy green branch and sticking it in the ground. Yes, you could get all fancy with rooting hormones and little pots of sterile growing medium, but why bother? Dig a hole, mix in lots of compost and stick a branch in the ground. Be sure to strip off the lower leaves, and make sure it's watered until the next storm blows through. They won't all survive, but most of them will. Start some extras just to be on the safe side. You can always dig a few up in the spring and give them to neighbors if you have too many.

Dirt Makes More Dirt. A load of compost also works great for extending the life of potting soil in your containers. Yank the plants out of their pots, mix the tired old potting soil with compost and replant.

Dirt Makes Next Year's Vegetable Garden. It's a good time to clear space for that vegetable garden and build a bed. Whether you're constructing raised beds or just clearing a space on the ground, get started now so it has time to settle before spring.

The no-dig method I like is to layer cardboard or thick sections of newspaper on the ground to kill weeds, then start piling on grass clippings, dried leaves, rice straw, kitchen scraps, barnyard bedding -- whatever you've got. Top it off with compost so that the pile is at least a foot tall, but try for two feet. It will shrink down over the winter and be ready to go when you are.

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Amy Stewart

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