To be more precise, cuttings of ice plant—a ground cover so resilient that it’s used to landscape nearly every freeway in Southern California.
And, thanks to all of this digging and watering and messing around in the dirt, I now understand why millions of people are hooked on gardening.
First, though, it’s important to note that working the land, no matter how minor, isn’t my thing. I’d rather binge watch an HBO series; bake a carrot cake, or check out a thrift store.
I’m doing this project because it’s necessary.
It began with a wild rose bush that had grown so bushy and unwieldy that it had to be extricated from the long fence which separates my back yard from the street. Some wood in the fence also needed replacing, so a few new boards and a few coats of stain were also part of the sprucing up. The folks I hired got rid of the thorny tangle of shrubbery, and fixed the fence, too. They did a great job. But to do so, they took out several feet of ice plant.
What was left behind was a large expanse of barren, mostly sandy soil. And, thanks to the wonderful rains we’ve been having, the latter needed to be filled in to prevent mini-mudslides cascading into the street.
Given that there’s already a blanket of ice plant in the area a few feet below the fence, sticking in new cuttings from this existing field was the best way to keep this from happening.
I figured that I’d need a few dozen of these nearly-impossible-to-kill plants to complete the task.
But as my work progressed, I saw that at least 100 of these babies were going to be needed to completely fill in the area. Because I also know that this can’t be done in a day, or let’s face it, even in a month, I’m taking it 15 or so cuttings at a time.
The job begins with snipping the tops off of established ice plants, then putting those fat and strong stems in a couple of vases. After I’ve looked at them for a few days, I decide that it’s time to give them the dirt they deserve.
So I fill our big plastic watering can; grab a rusty spade, and head to the sand. I dig one hole for each stem, and pour water into the empty space. Next I place the cutting in the opening, making sure to gently cover and pat the area around it with the dirt I’ve just dug up. Finally, I water again—in theory, this ensures that every baby ice plant is off to a great start.
I’ve transplanted about 50 cuttings so far, and since all are doing well, I guess I’m doing something right. And, it makes me smile to see these positive results immediately. That’s something that never happens after turning in an article to a picky editor, or researching a true crime story for a TV show that won’t air until months later.
Besides getting extra exercise and sunlight, there are other unexpected advantages to digging in the dirt—and they’re significant ones.
A 2010 Dutch study found that those who spent a half hour gardening were happier than the control group that read books inside for the same amount of time. More important, these gardening folks had measurably lower cortisol levels: the hormone that, when elevated, has been linked to learning disabilities, heart disease and obesity.
Other studies have concluded that regular gardening cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke; strengthens dexterity, and might improve our immune system.
For me, the most important surprise is the research associated with the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. (My father died from this literally mind numbing illness, meaning I could be susceptible to it as well. So, anything that can hasten or even halt this horrible affliction holds my interest.)
A particular study that caught my eye was a long term one that tracked the lifestyles of about 3,000 seniors over the course of 16 years. After analyzing the data, scientists concluded that daily gardening was the single largest risk reduction for dementia. More precisely, research here indicated that gardening every day cut the incidence of Alzheimer’s by 36 percent. Another study found the number to be an astounding 47 percent.
Thinking about it, this makes a lot of sense since gardening involves so many brain functions, including problem solving, learning and dexterity.
Baking a cake can wait. I’m going outside, into the dirt.