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Sunday, May 27, 2012

My mulinational quest for dirt

Everyone has something completely frivolous that they spend money on.  You all know what I'm talking about - that thing that for budgeting purposes is completely useless and should probably be gone without.  Something that every time you find yourself buying it, you give yourself the lecture that this is really the last time you're going to buy it and really it isn't necessary.  But then of course you go and buy it again a few weeks, or days, later.

Mine is plants.  One of the first sizable disagreements Brandon and I had was over several packs of flowers I had bought at the local hardware store one spring.  Earlier in the week he had bought me flowers for Mother's Day.  The next day I had seen some peonies for sale by the road and I just couldn't resist them.  When I walked in the door a few days later with more flowers he just couldn't understand why I had bought them.

Five years later I'm still not sure he can empathize with my strange desire to buy plants, but we've come to a reasonable peace about them.  I buy the flowers and throw in some useful plants like tomatoes and we're both happy.

In Egypt we had one-foot wide 'balconies' and so never had room for serious plants - just a few bouganvillea and jasmine plants and an abortive attempt at basil.

This time around we have a whole backyard.  As soon as we moved in I started making plans, and before we had been here two months I had spent entirely too much money on the Burpee website with only a plastic tray full of dirt and tiny sprouts to show for it.

Eventually the sprouts turned into seedlings.  The weather warmed and it was time to plant the seedlings and let them start some serious growing.

Which began the series of complicated maneuvers called Trying To Get Things Done in a Foreign Country where Walmart, Home Depot, and Other Such Wonderful Stores Don't Exist All While Not Speaking A Word Of The Local Language.

First on the list was pots.  We have a backyard with dirt in it, but I didn't trust my carefully babied tomato plants and herbs to the rock-hard soil that is indifferently watered with a hose by the gardeners.  And so pots it was.  I hadn't gotten the car yet and was using my friend's driver which made the whole process a lot simpler.  I told him we needed pots.  He drove around to various tiny little stores and bartered with everyone while I stood on and handed the storekeeper whatever money the driver told me I needed to hand over.  Because I'm very trusting.  We eventually cobbled together eight pots large enough to fit tomato plants.

Then I asked him about dirt.  He looked at me like I was crazy, and probably thought about how it really wasn't worth the twenty manat flat fee he charged each outing to run all over town looking for a loony American lady's pots and dirt when she could just go to the grocery store and buy the dang tomatoes like normal people - they would definitely be cheaper than the fifty manat I had just spent on pots.

He told me to have my housekeeper ask the gardener (see the way I circumvent the language barrier?) to fill up the pots with dirt and give him five manat to get it done.  So she asked him.  And he did it.  That same day.  It was amazing.  Just like that - pots and dirt in one day.  It was almost like America.

So that weekend Brandon and I planted tomatoes.  We stood around that afternoon admiring our handiwork while the children played and our Russian neighbor came over.  She told Brandon who told me (who says you need to speak the language?) that she had lots of plants and would be happy to give some to me later.  I told Brandon to tell her that I would love more plants.  I think he might have rolled his eyes.

A few days later, I ran into her, and she took me inside her house while her children translated (see? easy).  An hour later, I left with a box filled with tiny flower seedlings.

That week the driver and I looked for more pots.  I figured that if I already had some flowers, more flowers would be better and spent some more of Brandon's hard-earned money at the Burpee website. I asked my housekeeper to have the gardener get some more dirt.

And then the whole system fell apart.  Because that dirt he had gotten me last week?  It was from a pile that he wasn't supposed to be getting dirt from.  They certainly couldn't take the tomato plant dirt back, but I wasn't getting any more dirt for my new pots.

My seedlings were starting to die at this point, so I went an found a bag of dirt that had been shipped from Egypt (I think that my have violated some sort of custom law, but nobody asked) and planted the seedlings.  Then I went online and spent more money for expanding-soil bricks.  Because ordering it from America and waiting three or four weeks is much easier than trying to drive around (by myself by this point as the car had come) looking for dirt here in Azerbaijan.  Really.  I'm not kidding.

Fast forward a month or two.  My seeds from Burpee have arrived.  So have the expanding dirt bricks.  Last week I decide it's time to finally plant everything so I might have some flowers before it frosts in the fall.  I pull out the bricks, and put in them in the planter.  They don't look very big, but they did claim to be expanding, so I pour a lot of water on them and cross my fingers.  I pour some more water on them and realize the sad truth - twenty dollars and four weeks later the bricks don't come close to filling one of the three planters and three pots that I have waiting for beautiful flowers to grow in them.  I abandon the project for a time.

While driving my housekeeper to a local bazaar to shop for fruits and vegetables (who's talking about a language barrier?) I ask her if she knows where to buy dirt.  She offers to bring me a bag from her own garden every time she comes in to work.  And then I remember my Russian neighbor.  We pull into my driveway and she's outside working.  I send my housekeeper to ask her where the dirt in her pot plants come from.  After putting the children in the house, I enter the conversation when she mentions the name of a bazaar, a bazaar I've never heard of.  When I look confused, she offers to take me there, and we agree to go the next morning.

And that's how I found myself in the company of my neighbor Thursday morning, driving down the Ipak Highway in her MiniCooper listening the Beatles as we sped to the Sederek Bazaar in pursuit of dirt.  I don't speak any Russian, and she speaks very little English.  So the conversation was fairly simple.  But we were two expatriate women, driving together on a lovely morning, out on an errand together.


Nomads By Nature said...

I can SO empathize on your search for dirt and need for plants! In China, I got a huge fig tree (8 feet tall), that I bought off someone moving. It was potted so it could be moved outside during warm weather, but was mainly an inside house tree. And it was in serious need of repotting. Aside from repotting something 8 feet tall, was the issue of dirt. After extensive searching and language issues, I got a HUGE bag and great deal which I took straight home to get started. The dirt was jet black (which had me suspicious but didn't stop me) and was soon in the pot, over my floor, covering my feet, dusted up all over. The texture wasn't the peat moss type stuff and didn't seem to have much mulchy substance. And as I potted and patted and dug, and scooped, it hit me. This was night soil. YUK!!! Hoping you found real dirt!!

PaulaJean said...

Here in Colombia, the dirt is lovely, heaps of black loamy stuff that any gardener would die for. I have serious dirt envy. Unfortunately, for the gardener in me, we have no balcony, no terrace, no ledge, or even a sunny window. So I buy flowers and veggies at the twice-weekly market. At least they taste like home-grown.

Bridget said...

You and Jeremy need to talk. He is a plant- and dirt-buying fiend. He is also into peat moss, have you looked into that? WHEN we come visit, you'll have to compare notes on gardening overseas.

Sarah Flib said...

Okay, okay, okay. I will stop complaining about it being tricky to figure out where to buy things at the best prices in a new place. You are AWESOME at getting this done!

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