Literature 6-3-2003

Review: “Eat More Dirt” by Ellen Sandbeck

“Eat More Dirt,” published by Broadway Books, is widely available and retails for $10.95. Ellen Sandbeck also wrote "Slug Bread and Beheaded Thistles," also published by Broadway.


“Eat More Dirt” is a philosophical essay masquerading as a gardening book. Its author, Ellen Sandbeck, also created the many illustrations salted throughout its pages. She’s a polymath and an artist as well as a philosopher and landscape gardener. Jocelyn Heid here writes on Sandbeck’s latest odd text.

I’m a compulsive buyer of garden books, and am often seduced by their garden porn – pictures of perfectly color-coordinated perennial borders, climbing roses (not hardy in Duluth) against a picturesque stone wall, flower close-ups with no sign of bug or blight damage. Looking at my own garden, with all its errors, becomes discouraging. So it was with relief and gratitude that I read Ellen Sandbeck’s “Eat More Dirt.” I almost stood up and applauded when I read this: “There are two main principles by which I garden: Do no harm and Garden to please yourself.” These are the two motifs that run through the book – the necessity of organic gardening and the creation of a “paradise garden.”

Everyone’s garden should be a paradise garden, “designed to produce bliss.” Our gardens are for our pleasure and ourselves. Sandbeck notes that people should “garden to please themselves, not to impress, placate or fit in with the neighbors.” The first chapter raises questions to consider: what features are important to you – flowers, neatness, vegetables, wildlife, privacy, play space, a hammock? How much time and energy do you want to put into your garden on a regular basis? How much maintenance do you want to do? What chores do you like and dislike? “A good garden begins in the gardener’s mind and then is manifested on paper,” Sandbeck writes. Make lists, visit gardens, and note what appeals to you. Photograph your yard and see what stands out or what you want to hide. Make a water map of your yard. See where the shade falls through a summer day. What would make your garden a “paradise” for you?

If pleasure were the only criteria the book advanced for a garden, its most central message would be lost– that a garden is “part of, not apart from, the environment.” Don’t grow birches in Arizona or palm trees in Duluth. You may pull it off, but our environment will pay the price. “Do no harm” in Sandbeck-speak means use organic gardening practices. No excuses! She is honest about her bias, writing in chapter ten, “I must insert a caveat here about gardening advice: since I believe with all my heart that my duty is to my planet first and foremost, the gardeners whose advice I take without reservation are organic gardeners….” The right practices can make the difference “between a well-balanced garden that increases in health and productivity, and an unbalanced garden with declining health.”

In discussing water use, soil building, mulches, compost, plant choices, planting techniques or pest control, the author lays out supporting evidence for organic practices and the problems created by non-organic methods. Each chapter is a mix of practical gardening tips/methods, information about environmental concerns, quotations from a variety of literary sources and personal experiences. For example, in chapter six, we learn of Sandbeck’s discovery of white vinegar for control of bark beetles. I especially liked the description of the “zombielike armies of beetles marching toward the cups of vinegar like lemmings toward a cliff.” (I have no great love of beetles.) In that same chapter, we learn about the effects of atrazine on frogs, PCBs on people, a story from the Mahabharata, an epic from India, and her efforts to protect a phoebes’ nest from squirrels with cayenne pepper.

Some chapters are more straightforward. The chapters on “Growing Health: Gardening as Exercise” and “Tools and How to Use Them” are very useful to both beginning and experienced gardeners. Gardening is a strenuous physical activity, and suggestions regarding stretching, lifting techniques, safety tips, hydration and energy conservation can go a long way in heading off future problems. For inspiration, there are very amusing illustrations of the pregardening and postgardening exercises using Sandbeck’s drawings of a stick figure made of flowers and leaves. Tools are broadly defined, and include books, conventional gardening tools, and protective, durable clothing. An interesting suggestion was a large, movable beach umbrella for sun protection.

The final two chapters, “Is It Useful or Is It Decorative” and “The Meditative Gardener” are the least “how to”. Both are thoughtful essays on the beauty and serenity produced by gardening, and why we need those things in our world. In the author’s words, “Beauty is not superfluous; it is actually a fairly accurate gauge of how well things fit together.” A good example is the notion of “green roofs”, rooftop gardens in a city that moderate temperatures, reduce the need for air conditioning, reduce erosion and pollution. Imagine Miller Hill Mall with a roof of green plants and a parking lot “divided by vegetated swales which slow down and filter runoff..” To paraphrase a chapter title, the useful is decorative. Gardens also offer us sanctuary in a busy, complex world that bombards us with information. Gardening can surprise us, nurture us and give us room to experiment. For Sandbeck, “My garden is part of me, and I am part of my garden: I have contributed sweat, food, energy, and a little blood now and then, when I have been careless. The product of all this effort is such overwhelming joy that it makes me laugh at the slightest provocation.”

“Eat More Dirt” is a short book, only 179 pages, with a wonderful front cover of a suited man prepared to strike a very large fly with a hammer. It doesn’t have glossy color pictures and endless encyclopedia-like plant lists. What you will find is a good, practical guide to basic organic gardening, a nice bibliography, useful tips, entertaining and quirky illustrations, and finally, thoughtful observations developed over the years by the author. I have a few quibbles. Variegated foliage is not always bad. Mauve and chartreuse are nice colors in the right places. A mover’s dolly is better than a wheelbarrow in moving individual large rocks. But these are minor points. To quote Sandbeck, “Gardening books are useful tools, not religious texts….Experienced gardeners eventually build up their own styles and systems of gardening, because gardening is a way of life, and we must all eventually make our own way.”