“It sure growed!” Peggy exclaimed, looking around. We were standing in Selah Community Garden at the beginning of another session of Senior Seeds, our health initiative to get local seniors involved in the garden. I smiled, feeling my head swell just a little bit, because she was right; it sure growed.
Last year, in our first season of community gardening, many people were complimentary, but I always felt disappointed. The tomatoes did not do nearly as well as I had hoped. It took half a dozen plantings of carrots before we got anything of size. The bugs got our squash and zucchini as soon as they started fruiting. This isn’t to say that we did not have a successful garden, because we did. I just couldn’t help feeling that it could have been better.
This year, it is better. Not only have we added more garden beds (and volunteers), everything in the garden is growing great. We are currently harvesting sugar snap peas and Swiss chard, spinach and lettuce, kale and broccoli, potatoes and even cabbage leaves (not the whole head yet). There are a couple small banana peppers and squash that can be picked. Some of the tomato plants have small, baby tomatoes on them already. The cucumbers and green beans are starting to run. And that’s just in the first three beds!
“How does your garden grow like that?”
That is the question we’ve been asked over and over. I heard that same question last year, though not nearly as often, and I’ve heard it in my own personal garden, too. “Must be holy ground,” a lot of people have said. And that is partially true. Let me share with you my three secrets for growing a garden.
“Pastor’s been praying and weeding again,” Eileen would say throughout the growing season last year. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that sometimes I was cursing and weeding. I figure if Jesus can curse a fig tree, I can curse centipede grass.
I go to the garden to pray because it is not inside my office and I have spent enough time in my office for one morning. I go there to pray because I am a fidgety person and I have a hard time focusing my mind while my hands have nothing to do. I go there to pray because it is peaceful and quiet.
Words of prayer and blessing have been spoken over that garden when its area was laid out, when the mulch was spread, when the beds were shaped, when the seeds were planted, and when the weeds were pulled. Every inch of the garden is prayed over and blessed. But I believe that work is a blessing, and blessings require work. So, if you want your garden to grow…
Be In the Garden
The best thing for a healthy garden is the gardener’s shadow. A garden is not a slow cooker; you cannot set it and forget it. A garden is living and active, a dynamic interaction between countless biological entities and functions. You must be out there, in the garden, sweating for your blessing.
One of the great things about a community garden is that there are several people in it. Tuesdays have been the only regularly scheduled work time in Selah the last couple months, but I just learned this weekend that at least one church member has been visiting our garden nearly every Saturday morning, going through it on her own to pull weeds and enjoy being a part of it. I have seen others out there at various times, too.
Norman Wirzba writes, “The key to successful gardening is that the gardener be available to learn what the garden has to teach.” You cannot learn from the garden if you are not in the garden. Being present in the garden is more than just the work; it is the attentiveness. When God planted the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were placed there, “to till it and keep it.” The Hebrew can just as correctly be translated as, “to serve it and protect it.” A true gardener is not a master demanding more and more production. Rather, the gardener is the caretaker of the garden; the gardener serves the garden. That means the gardener does…
The Dirty Work
You never see a display of blue ribbon soil at your local fair. As with so many things in life, the most important work in a garden goes on behind the scenes, without really being noticed. Plant all the tomatoes, squash, watermelons, green beans and whatever you like in your garden; it won’t do a thing without healthy soil.
At Selah Community Garden, we are committed to growing our food without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. We meet the garden’s needs in a way that is sustainable, that builds up life instead of tearing it down, and that allows for the intricacies of God’s created, dynamic relationships to work. Thanks to the Green Revolution, most of us that grew up gardening and farming in the second half of the 20th Century had on hand sprays and powders that could feed our crops and destroy threats like weeds and bugs.
All that stuff that is put in our soil in the name of more food faster and easier is based on petroleum. It is scientifically derived and formulated to achieve our end goal today, with the assumption that we will conquer whatever challenges we face tomorrow. This is tyranny over Creation, a belief that it is ours to do with as we wish and that we know what is best. At its worst we see the results in denuded rain forests, eradicated condors, and dust bowls. What is far more common is that we buy more fertilizer each year and receive less goodness from the soil.
I do not believe that God desires our agriculture to be based on petroleum. Growing food is fundamentally biological, which means it is fundamentally carbon based. Plants absorb solar energy and feed on it through photosynthesis, pulling up everything else they need from the soil and growing carbon-based life. When those plants die, either through old age or being picked (and eaten), all of the carbon and nutrients are in the plant’s body. What future plants need is right there in the dead plant. Life comes out of death.
All that to say, what gardens need is good soil, and what soil needs is to be replenished, to have what is taken out put back in. We need to put that carbon back into the soil, through composting, through worms, through cows and chickens, through plants, and through rest. God designed Creation to work in certain ways, so let’s cooperate with Creation and allow it to work as God intended.
Please understand, I am no expert on gardening. My degrees are in literature and theology, not agriculture or crop sciences. I am not guaranteeing that you will have successful gardening by following my three simples steps, nor am I claiming that these steps are simple. I can’t even promise that blight won’t hit Selah Community Garden and wipe everything out next week.
I have spoken with countless wannabe gardeners who look at the success of something like Selah, throw their hands in the air and proclaim, “I could never have a garden like that!”
Yes, you can. We are all learning as we go; that is part of the point. If we don’t learn, things never get better. Do you want to garden? Then garden. Do it slowly. Take your time. Pray. Pay attention. Take care of the soil. The rest will come.
 Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. 58.
 Genesis 2:15