It was just after university, and we had big plans for the summer. There were six of us, determined to turn a big plot of vacant land into mountains of delicious, fresh produce. We pounded stakes, hung up chicken wire, heaved in buckets of steaming horse leftovers and gave the whole plot a once over with the rake and hoe.
We planted, watered and waited. And waited—a bit too long. Within two weeks of planting, our sore arms and calloused knees helped us recognize that what we were in fact growing in our overly-ambitious plot of land was a very successful garden of weeds.
Of course, we reacted with speed and skill, and soon our garden was back in top shape. We had saved the crop. And during the course of that summer, the six of us had so many tomatoes, beans, beets and squash that we couldn’t handle the sheer volume of it; the same held true for our longsuffering neighbours who found squash and bags of beans on their doorknobs at least once a week.
I remember that season as the first time I realized that in addition to being a source of delicious veg and a fine substitute for the gym, gardens are a source of wisdom.
I have continued gardening since, and the practice—the discipline—has continued to bear fruit and delight.
Each year in February, when my city is in the midst of some hellish deep-freeze, I pull out last year’s garden plans, consult my various sources and make plans for the season to come. There is some comfort (but not too much) in dreaming about soft, warm earth and little seedlings when everything around you is dead and solid as a rock. Waiting in patient expectation is part of being a gardener in hardiness zone 5.
Even when the snow melts, when the smell and feel of the warming wetness of the ground begins to waft around the days, one must wait. Gardening is for realists. No matter how much you might want to put those bean seeds in a week early, no matter how much you wish that they’ll make it, they won’t. Frost kills unprotected fresh growth. End of story.
Likewise, plants that grow in poor soil don’t do well. While it’s among the dirtiest of gardening jobs, the yearly spreading of last year’s newspaper, potato peels and melon-rind-turned-loam is one of the most satisfying. Feeding the ground is the only way to feed the plants. It stinks, and it’s dirty, but without it you get spindly and weak plants, ripe for plundering by the next challenge: bugs.
Damn bugs, how much do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Or perhaps not; this article must be 1,000 words or less, and frankly, 1,000 words barely even covers the variety of bugs in my garden, let alone my hatred of about half of them. That said, even in the annual fight against the arch-villain trio—slugs, aphids and cutworms—there is delight to be found. Who knew that slugs and I both enjoy a fine brew? Or that ladybugs, in all their finery, could be such effective assassins?
The act of weeding, training and pruning the various plants and bushes that produce fruit provides ample time for reflection on the importance of discipline. I trust you will forgive me and not think me a hippie-earth-mother-granola-eater for seeing myself in the sorry, tangled state of disarray in which my tomato plants are often found.
Gardening has become a metaphor that I live by. Gardening is, after all, our first introduction to culture in Scripture. “Yes,” I think at least half seriously to myself as I pull up my 138th red-root pigweed, “weeds are a result of the fall!”
Think of the vast array of gardening references in Scripture: the size of the grapes indicating the richness of the promised land; steamy swaths of the Song of Solomon; Jonah’s fig tree; John the Baptist’s admonition to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”; Christ, the scion from the stump of Jesse. To garden in reflection with the words of Scripture taking root in one’s mind is itself delight.
The delight, however, is mixed with its share of sorrow. The meagre results of last summer’s garden—spoiled and stunted by too much rain and too little warmth and sun—provided an opportunity to meditate on the realities faced by so many today. A crop failure in my backyard means I have to go to the grocery store to get zucchinis. A crop failure in Kenya means starvation. The disappointment and frustration that comes from having your sweat turn into dust or rot rather than food is deep, even in something as trivial as a backyard garden; one can only begin to imagine the visceral frustration and fear held by our brothers and sisters who suffer from crop failures.
Cicero says that “if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Not quite, but he’s on to something.