I didn't think I'd miss Minnesota's dirt

·5 min read
A gardener.
A gardener. Illustrated | iStock

There are many things I was prepared to miss when we moved from Minnesota to Pennsylvania this summer. Our friends, of course. Our church. Our house. Our neighborhood, with its wonderful Asian restaurant scene. Our city and state more broadly, with its wealth of lakes and breweries and the easily navigable road grid I think about every time I drive in Pennsylvania.

What I did not anticipate missing was the dirt. The physical land. The soil itself. But four months into Pennsylvania residency, I'd dig out my whole yard and fill it in with Minnesota if I could.

I'd never much thought about dirt until we moved to the Midwest. We came there from Virginia ("out East," as the Minnesotans put it, in a phrase I still find disorienting), where the soil was reddish and slick with clay. In Virginia, I never had any land to garden. I lived in a trio of small apartments, only one of which had semi-private outdoor space. And anyway, then, as now, I was a desk worker. My daily life is far removed from necessary attention to soil type and quality. I never have to rely on my own harvest. My small gardens are more hobby than subsistence. I don't need good dirt to make it through the winter. I don't need to think about dirt at all.

In Minnesota, though, we bought our first house, and it occurred to me it would be nice to have fresh tomatoes, warm off the vine. And if I'm planting tomatoes, I reasoned, why not try some basil? And some lettuce, radishes, and carrots for an early harvest, plus some collards for a late harvest and hot peppers for salsa and sandwiches. Beans and cucumbers were a failure — I didn't allot enough space — but for several years our summer salads were glorious, and we ate fridge-preserved peppers and freezer-saved homemade marinara for months into the winter.

I started to think I might be pretty okay at gardening. I now know that was wrong. None of that bounty should be credited to my skill. I owe it all to Minnesota's dirt.

The dirt in south-central Minnesota, where the Twin Cities are, is fairy tale dirt. It's the dirt they draw in children's books. It's the platonic form of dirt. It is dark, nearly black, and fine-grained, moist, soft, and wildly fertile.

The name for this order of soils (in the U.S. soil taxonomy system) is Mollisols, and the suborder I had in my yard is Udolls. As the University of Minnesota's agriculture-focused Extension school explains, Mollisols are "the basis for the state's productive agricultural base. Suborders of this soil also have the formative syllable 'oll' in their names, which is derived from the Latin word mollis, meaning 'soft.'" Their "most distinguishing feature is a thick, dark surface layer that's high in nutrients," and they "usually have a rather loose, low-density surface." Udolls specifically form in humid prairie climates, and they're comparatively easy to till and dig.

Mollisol dirt is only found on about 6 percent of the planet's nonpolar surface, and it's immensely valuable and productive for agriculture. If, like me, you've no farming experience, it can be difficult to imagine how it's possible to produce enough food to feed a country as large as ours. The scale is incredible. Once you plant a garden in Udoll dirt, though, it starts to make sense. You understand why the Midwest is America's breadbasket.

Pennsylvania is not America's breadbasket. The dirt in my new yard is not the platonic ideal of anything. If it were in a fairy tale, its role would be the sucking muck that delays our noble hero's quest. It is sort of brownish, I suppose, and often sodden from the frequent heavy rains.

The soils in my new neighborhood seem to be Alfisols, likely in the Udalfs suborder. They're forest-formed and have much more clay and sand than the Udoll dirt. They're fertile enough for native weeds, but my little garden never stood a chance. Our entire harvest amounted to one ripe tomato, one withered pepper, and a single cucumber, which the bugs claimed. The deer who wander into our yard — apparently unperturbed by our location in a major metro area and the smell of our large dog — were the executioners to the soil's torturer. They bit off my tomato plants' heads.

As I can't import several tons of Minnesota dirt to my new home, I'm not sure I'll have a vegetable garden next year. Maybe I'll do a raised bed or a few patio pots, stocked with whatever imitation-Udoll the hardware store sells, that suspect soil stuff with the small Styrofoam scraps to fake the work of worms. Or maybe I'll do nothing.

After all, I'm still a desk worker, still unreliant on my land to survive. Whole Foods and Costco will be well-stocked no matter what the local soil is like. The breadbasket doesn't need me around to overflow with abundance. And I'm thankful for that — I keep remarking to my husband that I can't fathom settling in this region a century or two ago, eking enough vegetables to last the winter out of this miserable dirt. I don't need to garden. But even if I don't, I'll never again ignore the soil below me.

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