Movie Review: Dirt! The Movie

Sometimes, even the wildest gardener needs a reminder: soil is life and life is soil.

Growing up in Iowa, about 80 miles from the mighty Mississippi, I took soil for granted. What did I know? It was deep. It was black. Stuff grew in it.

Apparently, I was in good company when it came to paying no special heed to dirt. Sometime just past the middle of the last century, the first “green revolution” swept through the country. Petrochemical fertilizer replaced cow poo on Iowa’s fields. So?

Well, the soil became depleted and started to die. So?

With enough fertlizer and water, food crops will grow in the thin soils of the desert. Why should I care if the dirt in Iowa dies?

Decades later, the answer to that question is getting around.

Dirt! The Movie is a kaleidoscopic documentary that plays on the heart like a romance.

The opening scenes, introducing us to the impressive line-up of soil experts and activists, are full of beauty, humor, and whimsy. Children in India dance in the dirt, throwing it in the air with glee. A wine officianado cups a precious handful and dabs his tongue in it. We meet earthworms and mushrooms. It’s a dizzying, giddy love-fest.

Then, kaboom! Scene upon scene of dirt in trouble, dirt defiled, dirt imprisoned beneath concrete. We are warned: throughout history, human civilizations rose and fell in accordance with how they treated dirt.

Thank goodness, this is not where the movie ends. The closing scenes give us hopeful examples of people of many stripes entering a mutually healing relationship with soil.

Only 80 minutes long, visually stunning, and appealing to both our practical and visionary drives, I highly recommend it.

How to Kill Your Lawn and Still Be a Good Neighbor

With the cost of irrigation going up, you might be tempted just to turn off the spigot altogether, take the lawnmower to a donation center, and go someplace cool for coffee.


If simply abandoned, a typical urban yard in Colorado will turn into a dirt lot. Seriously. Do you really want to depress your neighbors that much? There are alternatives.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Figure out which grass you just might want to keep. A nice level spot, maybe a little high shade, so you can cool your feet, play croquet, or let the dog have a place to “go”.

2) Dream up what you can put in the place of all that grass. Anything BUT rocks. How about a vegie garden? Create habitat for birds! Put down some mulch, move in a bench, and take a nap. Flowers, now there’s a thought. You could even plant native grasses.

3) Choose a method of elimination. Herbicide (poison). Removal (murder by spade). Or smother it.

4) Put something fun, useful, or pretty in its place.

My friend, DB, took the plunge a couple of years ago. Got rid of all her bluegrass. Replaced most of it with buffalo grass and made an eye-catching mixed border out of her parking median. The new look still fits the neighborhood, but takes almost no supplemental water to maintain. Have a look.

For the full show, so to speak, come on down to the Western Landscape Symposium in Pueblo or book Cheryl to speak for your group.

To Build or Not to Build

Say you live in England and you love desert plants, succulents and cacti from South Africa, Baja California, or somewhere really exotic, like Colorado? Your soil is constantly moist, lightly acidic, crumbly with leaf-mould. It’s terrible! What can you do?

That’s right, you’ll have to build your own soil. Make it lean. Make it gritty. Make it quick to drain. Use a little of your garden soil and mix it with equal parts coarse sand and lightweight perlite. That should do it.

A handmade cactus garden.

Now, isolate the stuff in a pot so you can control how much water it doesn’t get, and so it will dry out fast, like it would in the desert. Then plant it up. Put the whole kit and kaboodle someplace in full sun, but sheltered from the rain, and you’ve got it. Instant, handmade desert.

Sound like a lot of trouble?

It is.

It’s the same kind of trouble we semi-arid plains dwellers go through to grow broccoli.

But what if we semi-arid plains dwellers want to grow native yucca, shrubs, sage, cactus, agave, grasses, and wild beardtongues? Should we build the soil?

It’s a great question, and one with no definitive answer.

Gardeners have a hard time resisting compost or believing (at least at first) that anything of value can grow without our TLC. There’s always the thought that a little assistance can’t hurt. Isn’t it what every plant hopes for?

Maybe. Maybe not. Conventional ideas of fertility may not be a great thing for plants that evolved in and for such “poor” soils as ours. There is even research suggesting native plants will form stronger myccorhizal communities, taking up greater quanities of nutrient from mineral-rich soil, if left to their own devices.

However, there are gardens featuring native plants throughout Colorado, in which soils were amended before the plants went in. There is no question these gardens are thriving.

Native rabbit brush, yucca and grasses, connecting the cultivated with the wild.

To build or not to build?

Why not join in the great experiment yourself, and try some natives?