I needed potting soil. But it was Sunday and every store supplying it was closed.
My Dieffenbachia plant was begging for a bigger home. Its roots were crowded in its pot like commuters on a New York City subway train. A brand-new, much larger pot was already waiting, adjacent to my spade. But I was out of potting soil.
Perhaps my next-door neighbors could be of help in a loan (as they are for a cup of sugar or two eggs). But then I recalled their indifference to greenery; there was no plant to be found in their home.
Had I asked, they would, no doubt, have looked at me in total puzzlement. “Potting soil?” they would have said. “What do you do with that?”
My home, however, had never lacked for plants. While I was growing up in Manhattan, our small apartment was always crammed with indoor greenery – a welcoming oasis amid masses of concrete, brick, and stone.
Potted plants of many shapes and designs lined every windowsill, overflowing onto shelves and kitchen countertops. Then, we always had an extra stash of potting soil. After all, you never know when you might find, or be given as a gift, some small cutting of a new and pretty plant.
Besides, thanks to fifth-floor, south-facing windows, our mini-jungle thrived, requiring frequent upgrades to larger pots.
Now, here I was years later on a weekend morning in suburbia, with Operation Transplant temporarily foiled for lack of potting soil.
Then suddenly a thought occurred – like those “idea” balloons with an exclamation mark over cartoon characters: I did have extra soil! Lots of soil, right outside in my backyard. And all of it was mine; I could help myself to as much as I wanted.
Unlike most yards in my town, mine does not contain manicured miles of pesticide-heavy, perfect grass. Instead, natural ground cover and wildflowers are free to grow, with lots of rich, warm earth peeking out in between.
I would need just a tiny fraction of it for my Dieffenbachia plant.
Outside with my trusty spade, I began to dig. Thanks to recent rain, the ground was wonderfully wet. As I carefully crumbled clumps of the soil with my hands, its rich, earthy fragrance filled the air.
“Wear gloves,” said my family. But the fresh-earth feel on my fingers was too nice to waste. Somehow, it felt full of life, of brand-new spring.
And it made me think of a scene from the venerated movie “Gone with the Wind.” The heroine and her father were standing on the grounds of their plantation, gazing over Tara’s vast expanse.
“Land, Katie-Scarlett,” said Gerald O’Hara. “That’s what’s important. Land.”
Although I do not own a plantation, I have my tiny backyard piece of land. It does not contain endless acres of cotton, wheat, or soy. Just wild plants.
No vast herds of sheep or cattle roam, but plenty of raccoons, skunks, and woodchucks do. Sometimes deer and turkeys inscribe their prints in the soil. Skittering squirrels bury acorns in the ground I own. Robins scratch through it as they search for worms. A mini-Tara of my own.
As I scooped up spades full of aromatic earth, a small world of crawling things emerged; bugs and beetles wove throughout the soil. Tiny earthworms wiggled.
Soon I had enough to tuck around my Dieffenbachia’s thirsty roots. Now a minuscule portion of “my land” would be inside the house with me.
With dirty hands and soil beneath my nails I went inside. Bits of backyard earth clung to my face and clothes. It felt wonderful.
So much of our rich earth – in shades of brown, black, or red – has been made invisible. Buildings cover and obscure old fertile land once filled with trees and growth.
But happily, in my small backyard the earth remains obvious – in which to dig and sift my fingers through.
There is something special about the feel of earth – deep and elemental – even if it comes only from a small patch of suburban land. Or even if it is only found in a bag of potting soil.