Poppy Talk: Ground maneuvers

If the plastic army men do their job, soon there will be enough cloves for a riotous garlic bread feast with a tent and a band.
If the plastic army men do their job, soon there will be enough cloves for a riotous garlic bread feast with a tent and a band. Charlotte Salley | Rappahannock News

The day I planted my garden was a blue-skied, Number 10 kind of day. No clouds, nothing but the sun and a skein of geese (were they early/late?) overhead. It was my day off, which greatly increased my happiness, and I was in the Virginia Piedmont, which, as Madison put it, is a “squirrel’s jump from heaven.” It was the idyllic kind of morning that last year would have been perfect for reading a gardening book. But this year, at my parents’ farm in Sperryville, I was doing the gardening. And I had a lot of sowing to do.

Last week, when the garden soil arrived, the weather was less than ideal. It was still chilly, in fact snow wasn’t far off, and I was grateful that seeds are as cold-weather averse as I am. But the soil delivery plans weren’t thrown off by a little inclement weather. After the dump truck drove off, I was alone with 8,400 pounds of dirt. The pile and I stood looking at each other, both the same height, and I wondered how the salesman on the phone had so easily convinced me that mathematically I needed at least four tons of soil. Even after I filled in each of the four beds, a half dome of dirt still loomed above me.

What does one do with extra soil? I figured I’d need some of it later on, for planting purposes, but I definitely didn’t need this much. It’s a good thing dirt doesn’t go bad. Maybe I could bring little baskets of it to friends as party gifts, a precursor to the fresh produce I would bring them this summer? It wouldn’t be fair if they only got the good parts of gardening. Or perhaps I could fill teeny tiny Mason jars with the dirt and sell them as local, artisanal facial scrubs at the farmer’s market in D.C. If cute little sparrows take dust baths, why shouldn’t young urban professionals? I know people who would fall for that.

Strawberry bushes, finally out of the bathtub, are ready become Sperryville transplants.
Strawberry bushes, finally out of the bathtub, are ready become Sperryville transplants. Charlotte Salley | Rappahannock News

But back to that bucolic spring morning: I walked down to the garden with the seed packets in hand. They were so light it seemed only a few stale crumbs could be inside. But I was too excited to be worried. I had gone on an online seed-buying rampage earlier in the month, adding more and more pictures of blooming flowers and cornucopias of produce to my electronic cart. Of course, then there was the inevitable and lamentable culling process before I proceeded to checkout. I couldn’t buy $200 worth of seeds, especially since I told myself I’d start small this first year. But I did purchase a few plants in addition to this winnowed seed selection: two strawberry bushes, two tomato bushes and an orange pepper bush. The strawberry plants were the first to arrive and they’d been sitting in my bathtub all week, waiting expectantly to be transplanted into that luxurious soil I’d been telling them all about.

I also ordered garlic. I did so in the only amount available for purchase, a half pound of bulbs. It turns out this is way too much garlic for a starter garden. It also turns out that a half pound of garlic bulbs looks remarkably similar to a lot of expired garlic from the grocery store or the 20 or so forgotten cloves rolling around in the bottom of my fridge. But the good thing about ordering half a pound of garlic bulbs is that now I can make a riotous garlic bread feast for 20 of my closest friends with all the extras.

So on that beautiful spring morning, I planted two rows of garlic, which was a lot of real estate given the overall square footage of the garden, but I felt like I had to use at least a few of the bulbs. It was odd, though, to be planting the finished product. If I’m putting cloves in the ground, what will they turn into? I’ve finally wrapped my head around the process of seeds turning into plants, but this is a whole new level of metaphysical. I ended up turning to the internet for answers: Each planted clove will turn into a whole new bulb, which means I’m going to need a tent and band for my next garlic bread feast.

Leftovers — and this was after filling the raised beds. It's a good thing dirt doesn't go bad.
Leftovers — and this was after filling the raised beds. It’s a good thing dirt doesn’t go bad. Charlotte Salley | Rappahannock News

On the other side of the garlic I was planning to plant snapdragons, but they need to wait for the soil to warm a bit more before I begin sowing. I didn’t have any of those white plastic labels to mark where the garlic ended, but after some rooting around in my family’s Random Objects Drawer above the trashcan, I found three plastic army men that had once belonged to my brother. My mom found them a few years back when she turned on the rarely used second-story ceiling fan. As a kid, my brother had spent hours standing on the balcony, delicately tossing snipers and bazooka men to land on the fan’s blades like a circus game. We had all forgotten about them until my mom flipped the switch a decade later and army men nosedived from the ceiling.

I used these three loyal plastic soldiers to defend the garlic and set a watch out for the no-man’s-land where the snapdragons will go. Using army figurines in a peaceful garden is an odd juxtaposition, but not as peculiar as the feeling I had throughout the morning that I was burying things alive. All the snow peas, all the lettuce and carrots, all the flowers … I buried them all. On that spring morning, when everything was finally greening up after winter, I was busy shoveling dirt over those tender little seeds like a cheerful gravedigger. It took me a great deal of trust to believe that entombment would produce plants. But how else was I going to get rid of that dirt pile?

Around noon I stopped for the day and remarked on my morning’s work. The garden beds looked exactly the same as they did before: just four boxes full of dirt. The only visible changes were two little strawberry plants, confused as to why they’re ahead of the class, and the three army men. I stuck my shovel in the dirt pile and told myself that patience was key. And now, I wait …

About Charlotte Salley 2 Articles
Charlotte Salley grew up in Washington, D.C., and, after graduating from The University of the South: Sewanee in 2014, returned to D.C. to work for The American Scholar magazine. On weekends and sick days, she spends her time on her parents’ farm in Sperryville biking, hiking, — and tending her very first vegetable garden, an experience she's documenting for Rappahannock News' occasional "Poppy Talk" column.