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Dirty and Proud: lessons of the garden

Mike Row’s popular Dirty Jobs brings the viewer face to face with the grittiest, most disgusting work any man or woman does for a living. There’s something fascinating, or maybe terrifying, about watching a person climb into a sewage digester to clean it. If that doesn’t gross a person out, I don’t know what will.

I’ve yet to see an episode on gardening. Okay, I get that a lot of people garden and it’s too commonplace to feature, but still, it is a dirty job. I can’t till the good earth without looking like I've been in a mud fight. Hands, legs, feet, face, nothing is spared. Occasionally, I’ve gotten a clod of dirt in my mouth. Ugh. I’ve heard of women who could garden in white, and stay white. I think it’s a myth.

I have multiple pairs of gloves. I don them before I plunge into the work. It’s not long before they vanish. I don’t understand how it happens. Even if I do manage to keep them on, the dirt finds its way right to the tips of my fingers. My fingernails look like it. I’m an abject failure in keeping pretty nails. It’s a guarantee the polish will be chipped within the hour and pretty much gone by the end of the day. Instead, I’m resigned to bare, clipped nails that are rimmed in the little bits of dirt I cannot scrub out, to say nothing of the stains on my hands.

I place the blame squarely on weeds. I think they laugh at me. No matter how many times I pull them, they come right back up. I swear they multiply overnight, faster than rabbits. I hoe, I pull, I dig, I mutter. I once broke a hoe handle chopping at crab grass. I’ve bent all kinds of tools from hard use. I’m more careful now. My parts complain too much if I’m not.

I’m so ambitious at the beginning of the season. Who can look at a pack of seeds and not envision perfect globes of glossy red tomatoes, or better yet, caprese salad? The trouble is, a person can plant more in an hour than they can weed in a week. Oh how those happy little seeds wink and nod, promising baskets of freshness for the table! They are devils, I tell you. They will put you under a spell and make you think the possibilities are endless, never mentioning the work of growing them is also endless.

Still I toil. The tilled soil of spring becomes rows of summer vegetables. I pluck and pick, cut and dig. From the dirt comes more than we could ever eat; lettuce, beats, beans, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, melons—and zucchini.

Zucchini should be a swear word. Anyone who has ever grown that monster will attest to it’s ability to produce impossibly enormous amounts of impossibly enormous fruit. (Yes, it’s technically a fruit.) When they get twenty feet long, you have to invite the entire neighborhood to dinner. Trouble is, other people have planted zucchini and are also trying to unload them. The novice gardener thinks she needs four hills when one is enough to feed four families. She never suspects she’ll have to battle Godzilla by the end of summer.

The garden is a teacher. Our children were given weeding chores once they were old enough to do the grubby work. My bribe went like this: when you’re done, we’ll go to the beach. With visions of clean sand and cool waves, the girls went to the garden. Except, what’s this? One of them came back from weeding her row of carrots far too soon.

Anyone who has ever weeded carrots knows it’s the absolute worst. Plucking little weeds out from the little plants is enough to try Job. I’d given daughter number two one short row to weed, knowing it was difficult and also knowing she needed to apply herself in measured ways. Up she came to the house, saying she was done.

“Really?” I responded. “Should we go and see?”

“No, Mom.”

“Did you weed the whole row?”

Squirm. “Oh, yes, Mom!”

“Well, then, I want to see what a good job you did.”

We marched back to the garden, or rather, I marched and she dragged her feet. I knew the work hadn’t been done, but instead of getting angry, I helped her. It was an opportunity to exhibit not only understanding, but teach a valuable lesson in the pride of accomplishment. We finished the job together and later, went to the beach where we lost the grime of the morning in Lake Michigan.

I still smile over that day. I’m not sure if my daughter does, but I do know she is successful in the tough entertainment industry. Dirt washes away, but the lessons of the garden remain. Maybe that row of carrots, which we later ate in abundance, is a small part of who she has become. Of that, we can both feel pride.

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