Thursday, March 23, 2023

ELISABETH WALDON: Gardening and faith

My gardening journal and just a few of the seeds I recently started in window trays for this year’s garden. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

Growing a garden takes faith.

As my daughters and I press spotted foxglove and snapdragon seeds – which appear little more than crumbs of dust — into the soil of a gardening tray, we try to envision how they will grow into tall stalks of showy flowers.

We plant tiny ground cherry and garden huckleberry seeds and five kinds each of tomatoes and peppers.

It’s mid-March in Michigan. Outside snow still covers the ground.

I rummage around in the cold shed and find zinnia seeds I saved from last year’s flowers. The seeds are jagged brown spike bits with no apparent life to them; they could easily be confused for tiny pieces of broken tree bark. But I plant them, remembering the success of my first attempt at zinnias.

Seeds are not impressive by sight. If you accidentally drop some onto your carpet, they’re gone for good. My daughters carefully press their fingertips onto the tiniest of seeds and deposit them into a waiting indentation of dirt, where the specks immediately disappear. We water them and trust that one day soon they will sprout through the soil and begin to grow.

Planting asparagus takes faith.

Asparagus seeds are large, black and pellet-like, but as I prepare to soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting them, I do so knowing I won’t be able to harvest them for two to three years. Who knows what my life or the world will look like in two to three years?

As I plant the asparagus seeds, I wish I’d done so three years ago (as a pandemic was temporarily descending upon us). If I had the foresight to look ahead back then, I might be harvesting asparagus this year.

I started a gardening journal in the spring of 2019, using colored pencils, paint and Posca pens to create renderings of plants I’ve grown, making notes of dates, weather and what did/didn’t work. Sketching and painting rudimentary flowers, leaves and produce is relaxing and clears my mind (giving me respite from some of the chaotic township board meetings I cover).

I look back through the pages of my journal and see lessons I’ve learned:

• Only plant lettuce if you want to give the local rabbit population a treat. Same with Brussels sprouts (I’m going to plant those in a pot and keep them up high this year).

• The garden looks the most beautiful in August, and that’s also when the Japanese beetles descend. I have tried spraying them with soapy water, but I find the best way to deal with them is to remove them from my pole beans and rose bush one by one in the early evening hours when it’s cool and they are moving slowly.

• Even if your pumpkins never successfully fruit, their yellow-orange blossoms are beautiful and your daughters can wear them in their hair for school pictures in September.

• Gardening from seed is more work but it creates healthier plants and is more rewarding. You see the process from beginning to end and it strengthens your faith in gardening, and the world around you. Plus you feel all homesteader-ish (yes, my parents were regular subscribers to Mother Earth News throughout the 1980s).

My parents inspired my love of tending to plants. My father always planted a large garden when we were kids — lots of vegetables and flowers (nourishment and beauty). He gardens on a smaller scale today using raised bed containers. My mother loves hanging flower baskets on her porch and always has some kind of green foliage growing in pots indoors.

I asked my father why he finds the practice so rewarding.

“Gardening — especially vegetable gardening — is perhaps the most spiritual thing I have ever done,” he said. “The New Testament Gospels contain many examples where gardening and/or farming are used as a means of relating spiritual truths through natural examples. Who would not find that compelling? Just the activity of growing your own food is pretty amazing in itself. And though the role we play is small, it is nonetheless a critical one.”

We’ve probably all heard the saying “faith the size of a mustard seed” — gardening words of wisdom from Jesus to his disciples (they were actually talking about casting out demons, but that’s a whole other topic).

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you,” Jesus said.

This statement is difficult for me to comprehend, but I appreciate the miracle of how a tiny mustard seed (about a third of an inch) can grow into a mustard bush with a 20- or 30-foot spread.

I enjoy gardening because it allows me to witness small miracles on a daily basis; it brings me back to the earth and the most simple principles of life: Planting a seed in the dirt, watering it, watching it sprout and grow, eating its fruit and enjoying its beauty.

Check back with me in 2026 about my asparagus.

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