Gardens are a temporary and passing thing. They are ever changing, day to day, moment by moment, from glory unto glory. There’s a trend in modern landscape design and gardening that is allowing more space for the wildness and naturally occurring permaculture to have its way. While I appreciate the untamed meadows or lightly mediated woodland gardens, I’m reminded that our initial call as gardeners was to bring order. God is a designer who lays pleasant lines and puts things in their places. He is the ultimate editor, organizer, manager, and planner. If there’s a thistle in a meadow in heaven, I’m quite certain it’s there for a reason. We are called to become caretakers. We are called to be gardeners.
But how does one become a gardener? It is a slow and patient process, whereby we constantly observe the tiniest details of slug damage to cauliflower and growth habits of raspberries that happen in the moment, all while making plans for how differently we will do something next week or in three months or ten years.
I recently helped teach a beginning gardening seminar at our church, and it reaffirmed that the very best practice of tending the soil of earth and humankind is not to grow a garden. It is to grow a gardener. I know this because I have tried in the past to grow a garden, and while I experienced moderate success in formulating fertilizers and mulches and summer squash varieties, it was nothing like the experience of nourishing and cultivating my heart through the garden spaces I love. Growing a garden actually takes on a slightly self-indulgent sound to me now, “What can I plant so that I can eat it, and I can be satisfied, warm, and well-fed?”
Growing a gardener has the ring of Eden and the garden city of the New Jerusalem’s promise in it, “Tend these sheep, nurture this ground, harvest this fruit, and in so doing, grow more like the One who called you.”
Last evening, I walked a group of friends through my gardens, answering questions, naming varieties of zucchini, waxing poetic over compost, explaining why Double Gold raspberries are my preferred soft fruit. There was laughter, the light of a June golden hour, good stories, good food, and good questions! At the end of the party, I felt like I had spent the day hoeing and cultivating and shoveling and, ultimately, planting. It’s one of my very favorite feelings – the feeling that something new has been put into the earth and has the chance to grow. It seemed like every question asked was a new root pushing down into the soil, looking for something to nourish it and take root.
Planting is always the exciting work of the gardener. By the time I plant seeds or seedlings, the intense physical labor of turning the soil, wheelbarrows of compost and manure, weed removal, and raking out to a smooth finish has all been done. Planting feels like its own kind of harvest – a reward for all the preparatory work. Much like with painting a room, the preparation is ninety percent of the job! Groundwork for growing a gardener is all about inspiration. God clearly knew that from the beginning, because when He breathed into Adam that very first breath, He literally inspired (in-‘into’ + spirare-‘breathe’) life.
Inspiration is like dandelion fluff on the wind – magical and fleeting but with so much potential! It takes shape in chatting with a fellow grower in a community garden or viewing glowing photos of grand old English estates. Every time the scent of a lilac or a perfect tomato sandwich takes someone’s breath away, inspiration is happening. The gasp of someone who has never before planted anything, and now caresses the petals of a zinnia they nurtured is the sound of a new gardener being born. And that moment of breathing in new life happens again and again in the growing of a gardener – when they spy a gorgeous new variety of peony or a Sakura cherry tree in full blossom. Listen for it the next time you’re at a nursery or botanical garden. You’ll hear the sound of gardeners growing a new branch or leaf.
Across the pond in England, there’s a gardening term called “potting on” or “potting up.” We do the same thing here in America, we just don’t have a cool name for it. It’s what happens when a seedling has outgrown its earliest home of clean seed starting soil and needs a bit more space and nutrients, but it still isn’t quite ready to be hardened off and planted out into the garden proper. The small, frail plant is separated out from its flat or coir starter pot and given a room of its own with a good dose of fertilizer. Outside the greenhouse, enemies await. There are basically a million things that want to eat tender young plants. They must be given a little more time to strengthen and mature before they will be able to stand up to wind and weevil.
Most gardeners go through a similar phase. I don’t know a single gardener who started their very first garden by bulldozing their entire backyard and installing thousands of dollars of hardscape and fencing and water features, bringing in truckloads of compost and mulch, and building a glasshouse to start a few million seeds. Instead, we all started just like any garden: with a hole in the ground and a seed. I also don’t know a single gardener who doesn’t at some point every spring cast a critical eye at their lawn and think how much better it would look as cultivated garden. But in that middle phase between “I grew a tomato!” and “dry stacked stone walls and espaliered pears,” there’s a lanky, teenaged gardener chapter.
Young gardeners need good knowledge. Knowledge abounds and is so readily available in our technological age, but it seems that there is an inverse proportion in discernment. Figuring out what gardening knowledge is good and true can be like navigating a minefield! I’ve seen beautiful, engaging Instagram videos that talk about vinegar as a great weed killer. The problem is that it’s also a great vegetable killer. While most gardeners will do something every year that won’t work, learning which sources are reliable and which ones are at best quick fixes with long-term damage will save you a lot of frustration and heartache. A seasoned gardener is the very best guide for the enthusiastic sapling gardener. Find one who grows with similar goals and methods, someone you can admire and imitate, someone who inspires you.
I like to think this is what Jesus was doing when He told the disciples to go across the sea while He watched from the hillside. He knew they were about to run into a storm and according to the Scriptures, watched them struggling against the wind for quite some time. But the thing is, they had done this before. This wasn’t the first storm on Galilee that they had encountered, and Jesus had demonstrated ways of storm management. They were ready for potting up! Well, almost.
I’m not completely sure that there are mature gardeners here on our broken soil, but there are definitely cultivators who have learned a thing or two! These gardeners become more than a little obsessed with learning and trying, learning and trying. I can no longer count the plants that I have at one time or another put on the “never grow” list, only to be taken off again when I have matured in my patience, technique, soil structure, etc. For years, I swore off growing broccoli and its kind. The vile and destructive cabbage moth and its equally malevolent larva-spawn, the cabbage worm, had feasted far too freely on my carefully sprouted seedlings. I had tried many things to eradicate these evil, voracious creatures, but year after year I failed, finally surrendering to buying cauliflower at the grocery store. Several years passed. My family likes broccoli, and I’m a huge advocate that you should grow things you eat. So I’ve pulled up my overalls, and determined that I will not be bested by a vile caterpillar! So far this year, I’m winning.
I think a person could study a single quarter acre for eighty years and never begin to understand its diversity and potential.
Of course, this is only because the One who made the quarter acre of land is filled with more wonder and glory and magic than anything we can imagine! I delight in this so much! A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I was in heaven. I was sitting beside a woodland stream, and Jesus came and sat next to me and asked me what I would like to do. “I like to grow things,” I answered. He smiled (HE SMILED!!!), and said, “I knew you would say that. That’s so good. I’ve got something to show you.” And we got up and walked off toward . . . . something!
I woke up. It was wonderful and horrible and such a foretaste! I am not here to proclaim it a prophecy or a vision, but just a sweet dream of something that could be. I was so saddened to not see whatever project Jesus had in mind for a gardener to cultivate in a sinless environment, but simultaneously my joy and anticipation for that Garden City was magnified.
At the gardening seminar I helped lead, someone asked about sore backs and dirty hands and aching muscles, and if there isn’t an easier way to grow things. No. There’s not. Not here. Not now. But all of those straining muscles and blisters are proof of growth, evidence of warfare against the curse of this planet, and pressing forward toward a city not built by human hands. It is all proof that we are growing something far more wise, far more precious, far more beautiful than cucumbers and corn. We are growing gardeners.
The featured image is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Second-generation homeschooling mom of five wee snickbuzzards, Jordan Durbin is a maker of humble pottery, fine artist, calligrapher, gardener, pickle maker, baker of all things gluten-inclusive and butter-laden, violinist, vocalist, rabbit raiser, wife of one good man, lover of her blessed Redeemer. She has a Bachelor’s degree in fine art from Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana. She is an avid coffee drinker, reader, and published children’s book author and illustrator. She aspires to proclaim the resurrection with every moment of her life.
A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship
Enjoy our gift to you as our Welcome to Cultivating! Discover the purpose of The Cultivating Project, and how you might find a "What, you too?" experience here with this fellowship of makers!