Aah! The Smell Of Actinomycetes In The Morning

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It was faster to take a bike from the house to the barn past the long greenhouse.

Biking from house to barn past the 150 foot green house saved a lot of time

More and more people have no connection to, or pleasant sensory memories associated with the farming experience at all. The smell of soil, with its inherent potential for abundant and luxurious growth, may only have been experienced, if at all, if they opened a bag of top soil for their patio planter out on their apartment balcony on the twenty-fifth floor. If a person has never left the confines of the city, the smell of soil may be at best unfamiliar, and at worst unpleasant.

The smell of a green house in the spring, right after you water it— is a memory that I treasure from my childhood, from the hours and hours of taking my turn behind a hand held water sprinkler. The heavy brass sprinkler head was at the end of a seventy five foot hose that could be dragged in either direction from the tap in the middle of the centre aisle of the green house. When we were available in the spring, either before or after school and on weekends, one of my siblings or I would take turns swishing it back and forth, back and forth over one and then the other of the two 150 foot by ten foot beds of growing tobacco seedlings on either side of us. The plants would later be yanked gently out by women Dad had hired or by members of our family for planting out in the fields.The task was usually done while resting the butt on one board and the feet on another as one moved along a foot above the damp planting beds.I never minded the job of watering the greenhouse very much. It was always warm and bright under all that glass, and it was never too hot or too cold either, as we were always raising or lowering the glass windows at the greenhouse peak throughout the day to keep the temperature as close to tropical as possible.

My Aunt Wilma, my Grandma "Mum" and me at age 9

Aunt Wilma, my Grandma , & me

Unless plant pulling was going on the greenhouse was very quiet too—a place where I could get away from all the noise and hubbub that living in a busy household with seven siblings generated. The only sound in the green house when watering was the gentle “Swish, Swish, Swish” of the water which had to be carefully applied until the beginnings of a puddle were visible on the surface of the black muck in the band being watered before moving on.

The relative silence was so different from inside the house where the sounds of doing laundry, cooking, and vacuuming, and various motors and fans on fridges and freezers emitted their constant hums. Add to this the sounds of the latest baby crying in the earlier years, or siblings occasionally arguing, and there was never a quiet moment. That is, of course, until an hour or so after curfew in my late teen years when it was as deathly still as that moment before a judge’s gavel drops. That was how I perceived it anyhow whenever I tried to sneak past my parents open bedroom door and up the squeaky stairs to my room. (But that’s another story.)

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the little helpers

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the youngest four

Watering the greenhouse was my mother’s job when we were in school. She relied a great deal upon our grandfather, who lived next door to us then, to come over and look after the little ones while they were napping, or when it was raining and Mom couldn’t take them outside with her. There was nowhere for them to play inside the greenhouse but in the nice weather Jimmy and Donny from toddlers on up, spent a lot of time playing with their shovels and buckets, and their trucks and bulldozers forming muddy motes and “lakes” just under the water tower beside the greenhouse door. That was when they weren’t off making mud pies with Kathy and Janice, before they too were old enough to help with the outside work.We older ones— Marsha and I, and Keith and Jeannie also had our own soul satisfying exposure to the smell of good damp earth. A heavy rain always granted us a day off from hoeing tobacco, a day to do our own thing.

After doing some investigation to try to better understand better what it is about soil that makes it smell so great, frankly, I was a little surprised. Apparently we owe a lot to Actinomycetes, a type of soil bacteria which grow in soil when it is warm and damp. When the soil dries out it produces spores, and when the wetness and force of rainfall hit them (or water from water sprinklers or crazy kids at taps) the tiny spores are kicked up into the air, the moist spore-laden air acting as an aerosol— the antithesis of a can of Lysol, actually.

It is ironic that a bacteria and spores are, in fact, the cause of that sweet after-the-rain smell of newly watered earth. I suppose it is ironic only to this generation, in our sanitized, germ exterminating, spore abhorring society. Who knew germs and spores were our friends? I wonder if there is a conspiracy between the makers of Lysol which promises to kills 99.9 per cent of them and the makers of Glade which promises that “After the Rain” scent in so many of its products? Supply and demand folks! Supply and demand!

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