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Sweating, Itching, and Having the Time of my Life

I chose my outfit mindfully before meeting up with my friends the other day. Then during the entire morning, no one at all remarked about my clothes. They didn’t bat an eye about my dirt-stained shirt or my mud-caked shoes, nor did they say a peep about Marilyn’s baggy shorts or Alice’s funny hat.

Meet the Dirt Crew, one of the friendliest, smartest, most enjoyable groups of women I’ve had the pleasure to know. Before I even met them, I’d done so much thinking, seeking, and planning that they were on the path I was traveling so it was just a matter of time.

Ahead of moving from the east coast to Cincinnati five years ago, I did as much online research as possible about activities I could explore in that new-to-me city. Topping my list was the Civic Garden Center (CGC), a non-profit environmental education facility. Everything about this place intrigues me. It’s on the former estate of Cornelius Hauck who willed it to the city in 1967. During his lifetime, Hauck collected tree specimens for an arboretum he called “Sooty Acres” and opened his property to the public as a respite from hot summers and dirty city air. Now as the CGC, the property showcases various garden rooms – herb garden, vegetable garden, rain garden, shade garden, and community garden. It also features a modest building with a library and classroom spaces where instruction and activities take place throughout the year. And there’s an environmentally self-sustainable building fashioned out of an old gas station that was on property adjacent to Sooty Acres. It now has a rooftop garden and a “green learning station” that demonstrates how solar panels work and how rainwater is captured and used.

As a long-time gardener, I immediately loved the very idea of this place. For one thing, I used to fantasize that if I ever had enough money when I died, I’d want to leave it to create something exactly like this. When I discovered it for real, I just knew that anyone associated with the CGC would be someone with whom I had a lot in common.

I’ve been an avid environmentalist since even before the term was invented. As a child, I was disturbed by the amount of trash casually tossed on the ground everywhere, to the extent that in sixth grade I wrote a short story called “Ban the Litterbug,” about a scientist who invented an electronic gun-like device that could disintegrate litter on the street. To show you my quaint perception about the way things got done, the inventor gave his Zapper to the police department so that cops could go around and point it at litter that would then dematerialize.

I learned the word “ecology” during the spring of my freshman year in college, while attending an event leading up to the first Earth Day. With my new knowledge, I was dismayed by a Boston Globe opinion column weighing the goals of Earth Day against those of businesses that needed to dirty the environment in order to turn a profit. So, I wrote a response that the Globe published. In my twenties, someone gave me her How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method by J. I. Rodale, a book that became my tutorial. Soon thereafter, someone in my neighborhood offered me space I could use to garden, where my lifelong love affair with plants began. So, finding the CGC felt like finding a soulmate. Our relationship just had to be.

As soon as possible after unpacking and getting settled in our new home, I visited CGC which, to my delight, is only two miles away. Upon entering the building with the classrooms and bookstore, I told the woman who greeted me that I was interested in volunteering. Without hesitation, she said, “Oh, you’ll want to join the Dirt Crew. They meet on Wednesday mornings at nine. Bring your lunch!” When I showed up the following Wednesday, I was warmly welcomed and quickly integrated into the group as they moved throughout the acres weeding, pruning, planting, talking, and laughing, guided by a chief horticulturalist. At the end of the morning, we all – dirty and sweaty as we were – gathered indoors for lunch (there’s a fully equipped kitchen where we could store or even cook our lunches). The Dirt Crew women also like to gather for additional parties and field trips. Two of them live in my new neighborhood, so we also meet up on other occasions.

The Dirt Crew creates wreaths and “porch pots” to sell in December and works on the CGC’s annual plant sale, their biggest fund-raiser. Even that’s a blast. During my first season, Alice invited me to co-chair the Sun Perennials booth with her. For this, we get together each January to choose the best plant varieties from the wholesale nurseries, staying within our allotted budget. Then in May after the trucks arrive and we set up our plants, we’re at our table greeting the public, helping them choose flowering plants suitable for the conditions in their yards. While we’re outside, other Dirt Crew members are indoors preparing a delicious lunch for us.

Although it’s true that I got my first case of chiggers there – as well as a mean case of poison ivy and am sometimes working in too much heat and sunshine – I’m among friends suffering through the same things. If you’re not a gardener, this might all sound like a huge bore. But for me, gardening is a passion, the CGC is like a big playground, and being among people who feel the same way is one of my greatest joys.

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