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Making our gardens grow

You’ll find wisdom in the soil

A voice from my past called me the other night. I’ve never met him personally, only talked on the phone in connection with his occupation. He was a human cannonball. Fifteen years ago, his country home not far from mine was the base of operations for his career as a circus attraction. After reading about him in the local paper, I wrote a human-cannonball character into my most successful children’s novel.

Fast-forward to last week: He was going through some old papers, found a letter from me, and gave me a call.

Now pushing 80, he’s fully retired and settled on a few quiet acres out West. The blast and the roar and the applause will always echo in his ears, I suppose, but what floats his boat now is the simple pleasure of gardening: “Who would have thought, after the life I’ve had, I’d get such a kick out of watching things grow?”

Though my own career lacks that degree of sparkle, I’ve had a similar epiphany. Serious gardening was never a long-term plan, but when circumstances made it impractical to sell our five acres in the country, I decided to enhance what we had. That meant clearing the neglected garden space my husband fenced 10 years ago, buying an old pickup, hauling dirt and compost, laying out rows, and watching the weather.

Gardening is more than sweet resignation. It’s the creation mandate at ground level.

The truck marked a point of no return, especially after sinking too much money into it. Two loads of compost and one of horse manure got us off to a promising start, but an overabundance of rain this spring rotted the tomatoes and hindered the first row of corn. Now the problem is too little rain, along with some minor regrets. I could have made better placement decisions. I could have forgone the bush beans in mid-July and poured all my energy into the pole beans. I could have been more on top of pest control instead of fighting rear-guard actions. Gardening always holds its share of disappointments—and sometimes, in a cursed season, heartbreak.

And yet. To cut into a beautifully ripe watermelon I planted only two months earlier was a celebration. The cantaloupes were not uniformly sweet, but some were perfect. I had enough green beans to can and extra corn for the freezer. Cost-effective it was not, especially considering the massages to soothe achy joints and muscles. But there were, and are, other rewards.

One is acting out the goodness of God. He planted the first garden but gave Adam the responsibility for it, along with the ability to conceive and develop ways to feed the whole earth and its eventual billions. God packs life into the seed, but we get to nurture its growth—just as we get to cultivate the life He gives to our children, our churches, and our own faith.

Another reward, though it might not seem rewarding, is practical perseverance and humility. Soaring hope at the first batch of tender green beans sinks when leafhoppers nibble the plants to sieves. Neglecting the strawberry rows for a week reinforces the text about thorns and thistles, sweat and struggle. The dirt on my hands reminds me of where I came from and where I’ll return. (If our elites were required to dig before they were allowed to lead, they might be more realistic, not to mention competent.)

Gardening sometimes represents retrenchment after failure. In the musical version of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, the title character rejects naïve idealism by going back to basics:

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good; / We’ll do the best we know.

We’ll build our house and chop our wood / and make our garden grow.

Jeremiah’s letter to the Babylonian captives (Jeremiah 29) reflects a similar idea. Gardening is more than sweet resignation, though. It’s the creation mandate at ground level while rejoicing in (and struggling with) sun, soil, wind, and rain. It’s the wonder of a tiny, mighty seed and being front-row witnesses to our God’s prodigal abundance.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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