18 July 2011

My garden is a sermon

As I work in the garden, I am repeatedly struck by the thought that there is a sermon somewhere in the dirt and weeds and vegetables.

17 Do not let your heart envy sinners,
   but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
18 There is surely a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs 23

Do not let your heart envy sinners – in the garden, I suppose the sinners are the ones with picture-perfect, weed-free gardens bought at the price of industrial agriculture’s cancer-causing chemicals. In truth, I don’t envy those gardeners – they have sold their souls (and our children’s future) for pretty gardens. A few weeds or bugs aren’t the end of the world, and really, we’d all be better off if we spent some time on our knees in the garden, separating the weeds from the vegetables. Yeah, I'll admit that I’d love a garden like the ones at the English castles but really … I’m fortunate to have so much land, and the time to work it. Even if it’s never as pretty as Prince Charlie’s lovely gardens, I’ll still enjoy the potatoes and carrots.

There is surely a future hope for you – yep, gardeners always hope. Next year, we say, next year, the quack grass will be under control, I’ll get the seedlings in a bit earlier under cover, more of the tomato plants will survive. And really, each year has been a little better than the last. Learning to garden in each place takes time and practice – no two garden plots are the same. What worked in my city backyard doesn’t work in my country garden, and it’s taking me awhile to learn what will work out here. That’s okay – I am learning it, and that’s the important thing. Next year will be better. :)

It’s true that my garden isn’t any kind of prize winning space – although, all things considered, it really has come a long way. When I started this spring, the entire plot was filled with runaway quack grass, and now, at the midpoint of our growing season, there are some potatoes, several carrots, a few rows of beets, a few tomato plants and one pepper plant that looks like it might actually make it. There’s a sunflower coming up along the edge, and two morning glories … the grape vines survived the winter and being munched by sheep … the compact cranberry bushes that I thought dead have new leaves and are grateful for the breathing room my regular weeding has provided. Some of the pea plants came up. There are six or eight corn plants growing. The lettuce is nearly big enough to eat, and there are four squash plants of some kind or other (I can’t remember what I planted) that have big leaves, even if there are no blossoms yet. There is hope of a harvest, even if it is smaller than I had dreamed.

The garden is full of lessons. like the lesson of the mulch and the quack grass, which is one I am given to contemplate almost every time I’m out there.

Digging up quack grass roots, I have discovered that the areas where I tried to mulch the stuff into submission with straw and newspaper developed the thickest mats of roots. You can’t cover this stuff up and expect it to go away – the grass just winds it’s way through the mulch, forming new roots as it goes, creating an even more solid mass of weeds that’s twice as much work to remove. In the areas where the stuff was dug out at the beginning and the new shoots were pulled more or less as they appeared, the soil is nearly clear of runners and roots, and keeping it weeded is a much simpler matter. Where it was left to hide under layers of straw, it takes some serious muscle to haul up the tangled mess of roots and nodules, and a day or two of inattention is all it takes for green shoots to reappear in those places.

This lesson, of course, strikes home. A bunch of really unpleasant stuff happened to me, back in my Other Life. I never tried to pretend it hadn’t occurred … I always admitted that these events had happened, that it had hurt, and that it was really a rough time. But once I admitted it, I did only the bare minimum to deal with it: I mulched my troubles, hoping that under the weight of day to day life and the passage of time, the roots of the pain would die out and I’d be left with a clean inner landscape.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. You need to dig it all out at the start - look at those ugly white roots, shake the dirt off of them and toss them out of your garden so they don’t take root again. If you mulch your troubles, when the green shoots of those old troubles finally poke through, you discover that you have no choice: you have to dig up the whole thing, including the additional mess of roots and tangles that grew while it was all under cover and you weren’t paying attention. It’s way more work than if you’d just taken care of it at the start, but you know, we all do the best we can, and sometimes, a season or two of mulch is the best response we can muster at the time. The mulch didn’t help the actual problem – in fact, the problem got bigger while it was buried – but in the meantime, the garden wasn’t entirely unproductive. Yes, there were a few more weeds in the vegetables than if I’d taken the time to get it all cleared out at the start, but honestly, I didn’t have the time or resources to get it all cleared and a few weeds were the price I had to pay for just getting on with growing things.

By mulching my troubles I was able to get on with life for a few years. In the end, of course, it caught up with me, and I am sad to look back on my life and see how these buried troubles poked their heads up and caused me to behave badly without actually realizing what was going on. At the same time, I know that I did what I had to do to get from one day to the next, and I know that as soon as I realized the extent of the problem, I stopped mulching and started weeding in earnest. Now I’m digging up all the old roots of hurt and pain and fear and anger, knocking the dirt off, and tossing them out of the garden. I’ll always have to watch for those little green shoots, but if I can take the time now to really get things cleared out, then I’ll have a better harvest next year, and the year after that.

There’s always hope.