Hortiholier then Thou - by Felder Rushing- back

Got into brief exchange of words the other day in which I had to smack down a PhD horticulturist when he tried to correct me on something. Not that I feel a need to be right all the time, but in this case I simply had to have my way.

I do editorial and photography work for a company that provides training for garden center employees around the country. I get to distill a lot of horticultural advice into plain language; after decades of teaching home gardeners, I understand that many folks are put off by often-stiff university language. 

But when I wrote something about “digging in the dirt” a PhD professor at a great Midwestern university objected, insisting that I need to be correct and call it “soil.”

‘Scuze me, Doc, but that “horti-holier than thou” approach may work on campus, and with Master Gardeners you train, but real gardeners know that dirt and soil are the same thing - just like a compost system and a leaf pile, and car tags and license plates.

Soil, to me, is dirt that has been gussied up, blended with other stuff. I used to make huge batches of potting soil at a commercial nursery, and while studying horticulture at MSU; we steam-sterilized dirt to mix with peat moss and other ingredients. Later we switched to “soil-less” potting soils – meaning it doesn’t contain any real dirt – simply because dirt was getting expensive to dig, haul, and sterilize.

Anyway, to most folks, dirt is a good, honest word (and just one syllable; soil is at least two and a half). We get dirt under our fingernails, not soil. We play in the dirt. Some folks are dirt poor. Corn farmers cultivate between rows, and use plows to throw dirt up against the young stalks to make them sturdier.

As Dr. Dirt, my radio co-host whose garden has been featured on HGTV and twice in Southern Living often says, “You soil your pants.”

Soil, dirt…Only hortisnobs want to make a big deal out of it.

By the way, the same day as the dirt-slinging exchange, I got brought down to earth by a REAL doctor, with a physical exam that was, er, thorough - latex glove and all, and afterwards nurse July managed chat cheerfully about her pink flamingos while stabbing me with a flu shot. Horticulturally humbling, to say the least.