“In spring, at the end of the day,” said Margaret Atwood, “you should smell like dirt.” Which is why, for many of us, spring doesn’t officially begin until we bring home packets of seeds and flats of plants from the nursery store. For me, it’s a short, but fragrant trip, buoyed as it is by the green dreams of a new season. The heady aroma of basil and tomato leaves fills the car, and the pint-size makings of an entire summer garden can all fit neatly in the backseat.
Of course, our purposes at this point are entirely mercenary. We’re not much interested in the plants’ spindly adolescence. It’s the fruits of maturity we’re after: beefy tomato slices for hamburgers; wax beans to steam with new redskin potatoes; baby carrots to dip in homemade hummus; and kale—well, a half-dozen plants will yield enough leafage to make a Mayan fertility goddess happy, so watch what you ask for.
Then, after the plants go in the ground all you can do is water, weed, and wait until they produce something edible. That said, an admirable thing can happen when even a self-centered person begins to care for a new garden. Before long, you become less of a produce manager and more of a caretaker.
By early summer, as you inspect the garden after a day’s work, a spring of affection wells up in your heart. You become solicitous about the tender charges in your care. Did the wilted cucumber leaves regain their shape after last night’s watering? (Only in full leaf can they function like little umbrellas to protect tender cukes from sun scorch.) Should you cut more broccoli before the florets turn to flower buds? (After the first big heads of broccoli come on, the plants send out clusters of little heads perfect for stir fry.) Before you know it, your heightened sense of husbandry becomes second nature. The color and tilt of each leaf and fruit signals which plants need attention and which are ready for harvest.
Such feelings of affection for creatures that we care for and later kill and eat isn’t restricted to gardening. I’ve seen my brother do the same in his stewardship of sheep, chickens, and turkeys. His animals live a healthy life, largely out of doors, with ample sunshine, rain, and pasture. Except, as organic farmer and writer Joel Salatin says, “with one bad day at the end of it.” I’ve helped my brother with the bloody necessity of butchering. And I don’t find it contradictory at all to see him saddened by his animals’ death, even as he relishes the barbecued cutlets and Easter lamb to come.
Our deep-seated need to care for creation, and the satisfaction it brings, shouldn’t surprise anyone who professes belief in one God. All the Abrahamic faiths believe that humanity had its origins in a perfect garden, where full harmony existed between God, man, woman, and all creation. While tomato worms and squash bugs have since muddied the picture, we still sense something of the divine in gardens, be they flowerbeds, a vegetable plot or herbs in a kitchen windowsill.
As with most human endeavors, to care for a garden well requires that we undergo a period of apprenticeship and discipleship. At first, we rely on advice from books, fellow gardeners or whoever staffs the plant aisle at Home Depot. Gradually, we replace secondhand knowledge with firsthand experience, born of trial, error, and patient observation. We learn that the only garden we really need to understand is our own.
The good news is that even a garden that’s unproductive in the bushels-per-acre sense can point us toward the divine center of things. Indeed, in his parables Jesus often used agricultural failures to prove his point: the cursed fig tree that wilted; the good seed sown unprofitably on rocky ground; the tares and thistles that grew up among the wheat. He seems to suggest that even in a mediocre garden there’s much we can learn that’s good. Plus, with the humility born of wisdom, we’re less prone to the build-a-bigger-barn-to-hold-it-all hubris (luke 12:18) that can afflict those who reap bumper crops. Here’s a sample of what I’ve gleaned from my seasons under the sun.
In spring, it’s easy to regard the garden’s dried stalks and withered, moldy leaves as an unholy mess that must submit to rigid organization. It’s tempting to pulverize the top soil with a rototiller until it reaches the milled consistency of cocoa powder. Then, with symmetrical tyranny, take a yardstick and plant each seed and plant at an exact distance as if the garden was some sort of geometry problem. After that, any stray sprout that you didn’t plant gets the yank, posthaste.
Yet we’re called in Genesis to till and keep the earth—not to micromanage every inch of it into scorched-earth submission. Just one pass with a rototiller, for instance, is enough to turn last year’s debris into useful organic matter. All those chains of rhizomes and microbes, if given breathing room, can then send some unexpected gifts your way.
That’s nowhere truer than with what gardeners call volunteers: the little shoots that sprout from seeds left behind by last season’s plants. I’m especially fond of volunteers, because they’re second-generation immigrants. They’re the hardy offspring of last year’s plastic-pot, department store imports. No more phony vermiculite and grow lights for them. They’ve slipped the shackles of commerce to rise of their own volition in the April sunshine, freeborn into the lassitude of good earth. Just don’t expect volunteer broccoli seedlings to come up in a tidy row. That’s your fixation, not theirs.
Care for a garden and it will make you generous, whether you like it or not. Those ten tomato plants that fit so neatly in your back seat in May? By early August, they can churn out ten extra pounds per week, which you will eagerly foist on unsuspecting friends and coworkers.
At first, it’s not generosity that makes you do it. You’ve worked so hard to grow all this stuff that it kills you to see it wasted. Likewise, it’s not just altruism that makes you give away your best. You won’t share the small, lumpy green peppers (i.e., 85 percent of those in your garden) because that would mark you as a hapless rookie.
Over time, however, our self-serving generosity can develop into something more spiritually fruitful. Gradually, you realize that to give your best is its own reward.
Of all people, it was a wealthy, powerful woman who helped me see that.
She (I’ll call her Colleen) served on the board of directors for the multibillion-dollar organization where I worked. Colleen had grown up in the country among a family of gardeners. Then she climbed the corporate ladder and moved to elegant places where one simply doesn’t till up the backyard and bring in a pickup load of cow manure to sweeten the soil for green beans.
One day, in a foray out of the executive suite, Colleen noticed the jars of honey I sell from my desk. We talked about beekeeping some, then gardening, and the upshot was that I would give her a bag of tomatoes the next time she was in town.
When I did, Colleen was deeply grateful—and not just in the socially polite way you’d expect from a perfunctory hostess gift. No, this leader of a multinational corporation, a millionaire many, many times over, acted as thrilled as a homeless guy who’s just been handed a $50 bill.
I didn’t know how to square this in my mind. I’ve long thought that in retirement I’ll plant a bigger garden, and donate the surplus to a food bank or shelter. But serving the wealthy corporate class was not part of my philanthropic business model. What could anyone so loaded with stock options possibly need from me?
Well, in this case, perhaps just one more special delivery. And this time, packed with all the variety my garden could muster. Colleen was scheduled to return in mid-August, when every plant was in full production. The herbs had especially thrived that summer, so I filled plastic sandwich bags with oregano, basil, thyme, cilantro, and rosemary, all misted to stay fresh. Along with tomatoes and green peppers, there were fresh onions and bulbs of garlic. All this bounty was packed in a paper shopping bag that fairly oozed with the aromatherapy of summer.
At this, she teared up. And not just from the garlic. The whole sensory package, and the way that a fragrance can connect so strongly with emotion and memories, scored a direct hit. While I’m not sure why, I can hazard a guess. Nothing in that building, so self-contained with its acres of plate glass, spotless restrooms and corporate omnipotence, could rival the natural allure of a thing homegrown.
Let Good Things Die Well
It’s hard for some gardeners to let their gardens go to seed in the fall. It’s unsanitary, they say. The wilt and mold of plants in senescence creates a breeding ground for insect pests and disease. True enough, but I also suspect something else: that in the turning of the year they see the cadaver of summer left uninterred. It’s sad to see a thing once so abundant enter the throes of corruption. So they uproot and haul away each plant as soon as it turns even a moderate shade of yellow green.
I’m not sure how to phrase this, but I’d rather let my garden kill itself. Or more accurately, die to itself, if that’s what it truly wants to do. If this makes me more hospice volunteer than garden-variety caretaker, then so be it.
Bear in mind that even hothouse-raised plants with mongrelized genes are living things, each with their own destiny to fulfill. They’re divinely encoded with a deep, sacrificial need to further their own kind. They want their fruit to ripen, and spill its seed on the ground below. Why deny them this last profligate act of generosity? Must we contracept the carrots or euthanize the dill, for heaven’s sake? In a fall garden gone wild, we can let natural fertility and decline run its intended course in ways that our synthetic society hastens to squelch.
The most memorable lesson I’ve learned in this regard came not from a time of plenty, but from a season of drought. One summer, from June to August there’d been ten weeks without rain. Our lawn had turned crispy brown. The dogwood and maple trees had dropped their leaves early to reduce water loss by evaporation. But not so the blue spruces: the two in our front yard had instead grown an uncommonly thick mantle of pinecones. Of all years, this seemed like a time when they should’ve conserved their energy. The spruces were clearly heat-stressed. Their needles were dull and dry, like a Christmas tree left indoors next to a heat register. That they should expend themselves on a bounty of cones seemed a foolish extravagance.
Later, I learned from a botanist friend that this was in fact an act of supreme altruism. The trees were indeed stressed, he said, almost to the point of death. And that’s precisely what triggered their reaction. They’d grown an extra-heavy crop of seeds (pinecones) to ensure that more of their kind would live on after them. To think that a mute, mindless tree could show such care was a heartening and humbling thing.
Unless a grain of wheat shall fall (or even a pinecone) then it remains but a single grain. But if it dies, it will bear great fruit. And if we have cared for a thing well, some of the fruit it bears may be our own.