To the victor, the soils?

I have thrice confronted more daunting garden challenges than the one now glaring up at me from the yard below my office window. Three times I have cleared forested land to sate my penchant for growing crops other than acorns, beech nuts and pinones. Then again, I was, respectively, 35, 26 and 23 years younger when I cleared those tracts — a fact not forgotten by my back whenever I put my middle-aged hand to pick or shovel.

This year, after four seasons of apartment living, I am back on the land preparing to cultivate a postage stamp of a city lot near downtown Asheville. It has been gratifying to discover a variety of spring bulb flowers popping up around this winter-purchased house, a testament to some previous owner’s shared love of flora. But it is deeply mystifying why that owner or another decided to gravel the better part of the back yard. The most promising portion of my new estate — the section most likely to continue getting sun after my southern neighbor’s numerous shade trees leaf out — was selected as the site of a garden shed ringed by a thick bed of pea-to-ping-pong-ball-sized river stones.

That erstwhile driveway is where I intend to put my garden.

Moving the shed will only be the work of an afternoon, hopefully abetted by a strong friend. But the gravel is going to take some doing — some picking, some raking, some shoveling, some wheelbarrowing, some muttered curses, some beer, some picking, some raking … you get the drill. And then I will need soil.

I consider it a sure bet that anyone who used a couple of dump trucks of gravel as a soil amendment didn’t bother to add manure and compost or plant leguminous cover crops to build soil fertility. I could be wrong, but I’m going with that hunch. Before long there will be time for composting and, in fact, I’ve already been busily collecting other people’s curbside bagged leaves toward that end. But finished compost is, at best, months away. Where am I going to get some good dirt?

It is a matter of painful experience that one can easily be led down the garden path in the retail topsoil market. One truckload purchased some years ago from an otherwise reputable agronomic supplier turned out to be mostly clay when it was dumped in my Black Mountain garden. And given the chemical inundation of many agricultural and urban soils, it would be very easy to unintentionally haul in pollutants I wouldn’t dream of purchasing in a bottle or bag.

It’s tough to wield much control over soil or soil-amendment sources, unless one owns substantial acreage, so creating some semblance of organic gardening in a chemically addicted world requires constant compromise. I suppose it’s a lot like breathing in this chemically addicted world — we don’t have a whole lot of good options. In this case, phoning companies listed under “mulch” and “topsoil” in the phone book didn’t yield many promising answers as to the provenance of their products.

From a regulatory standpoint, the source of organic materials doesn’t matter a whit. The National Organic Program standards promulgated by the federal government (which constitute this country’s organic certification rules) permit use of any manure or mulch on certified organic farms — which should probably give us all pause, but which also suggests that pernicious ingredients in most such sources are relatively minimal. In any event, wholly organic animal husbandry is exceedingly rare and the odds of finding any substantial quantity of pesticide- and hormone-free manure are probably slimmer than those on winning the N.C. lottery. As poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) might have written, but didn’t, “Gather ye road apples while ye may.”

After two weeks of phone calls, it appears the only advertised local source for truckload quantities of composted manure is Asheville Mulch Yard (273-1417, 231-7452) with two locations in Buncombe County. In addition to dairy compost (made with cow manure), they offer mushroom compost, enriched topsoil (a combination of compost and dirt) and a planting mix. Prices range from $45 to $68 per cubic yard, delivered within the county.

If I decide to purchase plain topsoil to fill my pending gravel gap, my intention is to go to the source point and inspect the material actually being loaded into the truck and then lead the driver to my home. I’ll be looking for loamy dirt, that is, a mixture of sand, clay, silt and organic matter that doesn’t pack into a hard ball when I squeeze it in my fist. And I’ll look around the site to see if I can glean any clues about its history. The best source would probably be a heavily wooded lot being cleared for construction, because the likelihood of toxic pollution would be low. The next best would be pasture soil. If the ground is full of sizeable roots I would want it screened, and I don’t want too high a gravel content.

If I choose to go after composting in a big way, Mulch Delivered To You, located in Haywood County, delivers dry cow manure: 2 cubic yards for $175, or 3 for $250 — plus $100 delivery for Buncombe addresses. That sounds pricey, but to obtain comparable nutrients from the bagged manure products sold at nurseries would cost a good deal more.

My search for organic amendments led me to a larger question of the availability of organic gardening accoutrements in general. The answer is — not very. I found only two local garden suppliers that advertise themselves as “organic,” and only Asheville Agricultural Systems seems to market a wide range of materials for the outdoor gardener. That store carries blood meal, bone meal, crab meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa and rock phosphate — all worthwhile additions to compost or garden soil.

The dearth of organic suppliers may stem in part from the fact that natural farming methods lend themselves to home-brew solutions and adhere to the doctrine of “first, do no harm.” Looking around a mainstream nursery or the garden department of a building supply store, it’s pretty clear that the profit leaders are herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, as well as applicators for such toxic brews and a slew of petroleum powered devices designed to beat the land into submission. Me and my cultivating hoe and my hand-picking of hornworms don’t offer much of a marketing opportunity.

Both New Age Garden Center and Asheville Agricultural Systems sell organic seeds, from Ferry Morse and Seeds of Change, respectively. Earth Fare, the French Broad Food Coop, Greenlife and Asheville Agricultural Systems will carry organic seedlings of various sorts this season, and the region’s tailgate markets, which are starting up now, are sure to offer plants as well.

Meanwhile, that patch of gravel is still staring me down. And, in the words of poet Herrick:

“The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he ‘s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.”

Time to get to work.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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