My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Walking with God in the Garden

God's creativity blooms forth.
In front of my city-sized lot runs a thoroughfare crawling with bumper-to-bumper traffic come rush hour. But 75 yards back, behind our 1950’s ranch, blooms three-dozen varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers. I’m not alone in finding perspective, peace, and God’s companionship and healing in my garden – a sort of blooming, body and soul, amidst a technology-saturated world. 

With gardens offering retreat-like benefits along with countless practical perks, it’s no wonder the National Gardening Association (NGA) cites Americans as “consistently rating gardening as a favorite hobby.” In fact, NGA statistics show a 19% increase in Americans planning to grow edibles from 2008 to 2009.

St. Francis, lover of
God and His creation.
Of course, one stimulus to such enthusiasm might be recession. A nicely maintained food garden yields an average $500 return, according to NGA. Adding a few new perennials like asparagus, chives or rhubarb yearly expands a base of nice varieties to harvest early spring through late October. Growing annual seeds indoors to plant outside early spring is a cheerful, winter’s end project that also helps cut food costs.

I find the practical and esthetical blend of gardens irresistible. Phenomenal changes occur daily, and sometimes, even hourly. Early morning squash blossoms expand, begging to be stuffed with cheese, dredged in egg and flour, and stir-fried into a gourmet delicacy. Snap peas unready to pick at 7 AM, plump by dinner.
What a luxury, loading the table with fresh-picked produce.

I’ve lost my fear of bees, since we so nicely coexist. Robins and mourning doves flit by, unfazed by my now-familiar presence. The neighbor dog “Buck” pops his dark, Labrador head over the fence to grin, until I give him a friendly pat.

As for the plants, clearing riotous weeds to reveal order seems allegorical. Learning a “green thumb” is not genetic as much as developed through persistence, trial and error, and following wise advice from more experienced gardeners, is heartening.

Echinacea -- beautiful and medicinal.
I’ve had my summers of growing tomatoes lush with foliage but bare of fruit, planting seeds that refused germination, babying green peppers to watch them spread leaves but refuse to flower or bear. But for the past several years, my mini, raised-bed gardens, have flourished.

After a friend recommended Mel Bartholomew’s method of “Square Foot Gardening” a few years ago, I devised manageable plots in raised beds. Amending soil with equal portions of compost, peat and vermiculite, made it fluffy and amenable to tender plants. (I later learned people are raising health concerns over vermiculite, so I’ve switched to perlite, an amorphous volcanic glass.) Such methods make gardening accessible to the elderly, very young, developmentally disabled, people recovering from illness -- even those with severe physical limitations.

Planting gourmet lettuce in partial shade helps plants
survive the heat. I'm still harvesting lettuce in August.
In fact, I suffered from a concussion and neck injury this summer and spent minimal time outside, yet still found my micro-gardens manageable, harvesting baskets of beans, hearty quantities of cilantro, and gourmet lettuce galore. Fresh-picked raspberries garnish breakfasts.  Spicy Egyptian scallions enliven sandwiches. Heirloom tomato plants are flowering and fruiting, promising an abundant yield.
Planting in raised beds has turned me into a successful
gardener -- finally!

One day, when healing from my injuries seemed interminable, I clapped on a hat, sat cross-legged next to my string beans, and sang while I harvested, until the blues lifted. I have a weakness for old, sentimental songs, and I enjoy singing this favorite hymn from 1913 that sums up the lure of a garden:

I Come to the Garden Alone
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear
Sounding in my ear,
The Son of God discloses

And I walk with Him
And I talk with Him
And He tells me I am His own

And the joy I feel
As I tarry here
None other has ever known…
By C. Austin Miles.

A garden's delicate beauty helps us
transcend earth.

Not only does gardening provide inexpensive, nutrition-rich food, develop biceps (from shoveling, weeding, constructing supports for plants, etc.), provide sun’s Vitamin D through our hours of labor, and soothe frazzled nerves, it helps us transcend the earth, reaping rich spiritual rewards. Of course, frequenting the sacraments and adoration chapel, nurturing a rich prayer life, reading scripture, are all foundational. But for a nice hobby to enrich one's walk in faith, gardening is ideal.  The vibrant palette and fragrance of plants is uplifting. The teeming life of worms and butterflies, bees and songbirds seems optimistic. They’re tireless and productive, as we should be. Seeing piquant and healing herbs proliferate and tomatoes plump transmits this incredible sense of God’s creative genius. It’s all so inspiring.

An "outdoor room" with a reflective mood.
God visited the Garden of Eden just before sunset (Genesis 3:8). Jesus chose a garden for quiet prayer in the final hours of his life. And for several Sundays in July, readings in the Liturgy were horticultural. Matthew 13, for example, refers to seeds cast on rich or rocky ground, and probes questions of why weeds coexist with fruitful plants. Struggling with recalcitrant weeds, scrubbing stubborn soil from gardening-calloused fingers, encountering thorny stems on delicately flowered plants – all help us relate more personally to God’s workings in creation and our lives.

Religious art and statuary turn
gardens into retreats.
Spring roared in like a lion this year, but I remember 40-degree days when the skies were a gray canvas -- and I still couldn’t resist running outside to check on my chives and Egyptian scallions, fragrant spearmint, and spinach seedlings shivering in the breeze. Now, as August opens with record-breaking heat, the garden pulses with life, drinking thirstily and producing prodigiously.

“The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s,” says 1 Corinthians 11:27. I thank God even those of us in the city can put hands to soil -- that His voice can be so clearly discerned, as we “walk with Him” in the garden.

Practical gardening tips:
Hostas are the heartiest plants I know,
besides weeds, of course!

        1) Go organic. According to the February 1995 American Journal of Public Health, the risk of children developing cancer is increased four times in homes where chemical weed and insect killers are used. Corn gluten for heartening grass to be more weed-resistant, liquid garlic for pest control and encouraging robust growth, and nematodes to curb grubs, are just a few natural solutions we’ve found for common gardening woes.
2)   Planting in raised beds divided into miniature plots provides protection from flooding and a grid for a wider variety of plants.
3)   Raising planting beds on waist-high stilts makes gardening accessible to the elderly and disabled.
4)   Amending soil with 1/3 portions of peat, compost, and a substance like perlite keeps growing medium fertile and nicely aerated.
5)    Drying out more easily than plots sewn directly into the ground, raised beds must be watered diligently.
6)   Adding religious art and statuary turns your plot into a prayer garden. Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of gardeners, Saint Francis is popularly associated with nature, and a Blessed Virgin statue surrounded by lilies becomes a “Mary Garden.”
7)   Chatting up knowledgeable workers at a local garden shop specializing in organic, heirloom and regional plants, helps you discover special, hearty or unusual varieties that grow well in your planting zone.
8)   Exchanging clippings of perennials with friends inexpensively adds plants like strawberries, scallions and mint to your garden.
Let squash crawl up trellises
or they'll take over your garden!
This pumpkin reseeded
itself from one tossed out 
last year.
9)   Adding layers of newspapers and then covering deeply with woodchips or peat creates pathways and borders between planting beds. It looks attractive and is a cheap, efficient way to keep down weeds.
10) Starting late in the growing season is fine. Some crops, like garlic, can be planted in the fall. Plywood frames for raised beds can be assembled over winter, and indoor composting systems even allow all-year composting.
11)  Following good composting techniques will heat your pile internally and kill weed seeds, so you won’t be sowing weeds with your veggie seeds.
12) Taking time to enjoy the garden makes all your effort worthwhile. Put a chair there and a little table for your mug of coffee or tea, and bask in your garden’s beauty, preferably early morning when the “dew is still on the roses,” or in the golden glow of dusk. Even a five-minute visit before or after the day’s work, is rejuvenating.
13) Weeding ten minutes daily keeps maintenance under control.
14) Involving children in planting and planning beds, even if gardening isn’t their “thing,” helps them develop a good work ethic. As part of the household, they should contribute a fair share in the production and harvesting of fresh food for the table. Who knows? Some day they may even continue the gardening tradition within their own families.

Photos and story by Marianna Bartholomew