Mike Jacobs: Planting a garden creates a home – Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – Please allow me one more column about the epic move Suezette and I are making from Wheatfield Township to Greater Grand Forks. This column is about dirt. Soil would be a more polite word, but I’ve always thought of the stuff that supports a garden as soil rather than earth. The word “dirt” has a gritty sound, as opposed to the silky sound of “earth”.

As I write, dirt sticks to my hands and pants and shoes. I marked a garden bed in the backyard of our new house. The patch is a lot smaller than the one I was working on in Wheatfield Township and a lot less cohesive.

Basically I’ve leveled a low and sunny spot in anticipation of a harvest of radishes, onions and other root crops. I chose a spot to plant some herbs, including chives and oregano, both hardy perennials. I’m considering adding different types of mint, but not so much for flavor as for aroma. The problem with mint, of course, is that it’s a very invasive plant and not as hardy as oregano or chives.

As the weather improves – we hope so, since we’re North Dakotans – I’ll be able to plant these plants out this week.

A large part of my new garden is in so-called “garden bags” that I fill with soil. They are big enough to hold lots of garden vegetables. I’ve had good success with herbs and eggplant and tomatoes. I will be releasing sets of these plants this week as well.

I’m not so sure about other garden tools. For example, I will not plant potatoes and probably not garlic either. Both require space and benefit from heavy mulching, which may not please my neighbors.

I envision putting up a trellis for runner beans and supports for peas, but I might reconsider given the rabbit population I’ve seen while inspecting my property (or is it really their property?). Rabbits make quick work of seedling beans.

But really, what gardener can do without a crop of peas, rabbits or not?

For me, creating a garden plot is a way of claiming territory. I never felt like I belonged in a place until I marked out a piece of garden. This is of course an inheritance from my parents. My childhood family garden was a huge undertaking involving all family members. I couldn’t have been more than five years old when I started “weed patrol” and by the time I was ten I was a top-notch gardener – not that I welcomed that status. Most of the time I loathed the work and would often dodge it, for example by hiding in a cornfield or sneaking away to hide behind the barn, often with a book in hand.

Such gimmicks were never successful. I always got caught and sent back to the garden. These were important lessons, of course, and I felt their strength as I turned up the ground behind our new home. A garden is a direct connection to the earth as well as a source of sustenance and—perhaps the most important lesson—a way to be connected to earn a living, so to speak.

So when I turned the first shovel of dirt behind our house, I immediately felt connected to the place, like I owned it. That’s how my grandfather must have felt when he first furrowed his prairie estate in Mountrail County a little over a century ago.

He won the homestead in a lottery arranged by Congressman Louis B. Hanna, who later became Governor of North Dakota. Hanna had determined that the Missouri River Valley Native Americans were not using the land above the Missouri River Valley, and he persuaded Congress to declare it surplus land to make way for settlers who were allotted lands by lot.

Grandpa got a good piece of land on the banks of Shell Creek, not far from the town of Van Hook. Today it’s a plum patch planted for wildlife, part of the Garrison Dam’s flood mitigation, which was built less than 50 years after Grandpa first dug the ground there, and linked the established agricultural culture of the three Trunks of the fort destroyed Berthold Reservation. Not far from grandpa’s house there is a large fishing camp with all kinds of drill rigs and services to keep them supplied.

In grandfather’s day, however, it was a continuous prairie. He was the first to dig plow shears into the ground there. I can’t help feeling – what other terms are there than completeness and continuity? – that I feel for him, despite the undeniable fact that he and I have benefited after him from usurping other people’s lands and inheritances.

So my feelings were mixed shooting dirt in my new backyard.

The only strong strand was this: This place is mine now. I’m ready to start a garden so this is my home, a common thread from my own time, my grandfather’s time and the long time the natives worked the same dirt.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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