This last week I had to dig a hole in the backyard, under what passes as 'lawn'. The exercise proved a shock.
The slim layer of crisp grasses on top gave way to pure sand all the way down. The colour was yellow with only a slight greying at the surface.
Such is the original 'soil' in my property. It's was never dirt, but sand. Rediscovering that fact was a shock.
Coming up next month we will have been here three years -- and in that period I've invested a lot of work making soil out of this sand. I've buried and laid down anything organic I could get my hands on.
My primary offerings have been grass clippings and junk mail. A little manure. Tree branches. Cuttings. Leaves. A little seaweed. Blood and bone occasionally.
Over the past year the ridgy didge stuff consolidated and I started getting a lot of loam underneath. Now, after almost two months without good rain, I still have thriving vegetables because I've got the soil to grow and moisturise them and have had plenty of grass clippings to blanket the beds and tuck them in.
The dirt and I have reached a qualitatively new threshold in our relationship which can only deepen.
And I think that's my greatest discovery: I farm soil. I'm not so much gardening as celebrating and nurturing dirt. My great achievement aren't 'any' vegetables but that I started from scratch and DIY'ed the loam.
What I grow in this medium I've created is a secondary question.
The humbling thing is that while I know what I did, I really don't know how it all happened. My worm level is still pretty poor, but when I dig my hand into a bed there is a lot of life there. ..and the darker this stuff -- the farther away from the sandy yellow -- the more water it holds.
None of these beds have been turned over. It has all been a process of throwing stuff on top of other stuff.
Lasagne -- but without a recipe.
How far I have come in this quest is clear from the shallow soil depths in those garden places where my impact & I still have a long way to go.
The irony may indeed be that as well as covering the soil -- sheet and trench mulching it with whatever organic matter I can collect -- maybe I should sow perennial and annual grasses in it. I've found that lemongrass isn't always reliable in sand, so maybe I should go looking for some native grasses to plant in those patches I have earmarked for ramblers,sweet potato, pawpaw and bananas.
I'm located on a sand spit by the sea and my inspiration has to be sourced in local ecology -- among the sand beds and swamps. I've colonised with legumes -- Madagascar Bean -- and planted what may grow in these spots rather than get precious about them so that they demand too much of my collected mulches.
I've found that gardens beds -- the way I make 'em anyway-- are mulch hungry --and always seem to be starving, so that it becomes a sort of 'take-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul' sort of thing.
There's never enough mulch to go around.
I don't consider myself a permaculturalist although I've read the literature and have been greatly influenced by that perspective. But what strikes me is that there is not many references available for folk who garden on sand dunes like I do.
Dry land farming, yes. Degraded soils. But sand dune gardening...?
In my township people deal with the issue by buying and shipping in topsoil and fill. My front garden soil was 'purchased' that way by a previous resident. The few in my neighborhood who did otherwise --DIY-- did it by collecting seaweed (before a government department cracked down on them).
When I considered my options I decided I'd use whatever I could lay my hands on.
And that's the point: my primary focus wasn't any design fandango but soil creation. And I've done it. I am a Dirt Deity.
In getting here my major inspiration has been the work of Brad Lancaster because harvesting water and holding onto it has been my main focus. That quest, rather than some other outlook, has forced me to focus on carbonising my sand (which turned it into soil).
Sandy soils don't hold water. Dirt does.
I've had other gardens before and grown many a veg -- but always in rather benign conditions (and with clay!).
Here the cultivation may have been a hard ask but it taught me heaps about dirt such that I defer to the wonder and complexity of the earth at my feet.