Holiness of a Garden by Amanda Lightner

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zucchini stack

A few months after our wedding, Trevor and I moved to a small, red brick parsonage beside a small, red brick church built in 1873. Trevor had been called to pastor the fifty or so congregants at Landisburg Church of God, and in addition to a modest salary, the congregation’s council presented us with a key to our first real home. Both church and parsonage were tucked in a valley at the foot of Doubling Gap in the Blue Mountains of central Pennsylvania. We had a post office in Landisburg and a bank, one convenience store, one pizza shop, and one black bear that lumbered down the mountain and visited all the bird feeders and garbage bins along Water Street—including ours.

We soon discovered the parsonage was edged by brilliant flower beds. In spring, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths bloomed. On that first April morning I opened the front door and smelled the blooms, I said a silent prayer of thanks for the previous pastor who thought to plant them. By June, purple phlox were spreading across the beds; swallowtails and monarchs flitted between butterfly bushes and yellow forsythia. Red geraniums and white petunias flourished beside the front steps and side deck. The church trustees kept the yard neatly trimmed, the flower beds mulched, and the weeds plucked along the sidewalk leading up to our house. It was a lovely spot, a cozy home for a young couple and their first baby, save for one ugly patch of sand in the backyard where there had once been an above-ground pool. It was a scab in the lawn, an eyesore.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Trevor one evening at dinner. He lifted a forkful of spaghetti, pointing at the dining room window and the sandy plot beyond. “Let’s plant a garden there. What do you think?”

I considered his proposal for a minute, wiped some pureed carrot from Quinn’s nose and high chair. “Well, I’d love that. But grass doesn’t even grow there. What makes you think vegetables will?”

“I have a plan. Trust me,” Trevor said.

While I didn’t immediately share his indomitable optimism, I shrugged my shoulders. “Okay. Have at it.”

There are times when I kid Trevor, tell him he reminds me of the Labrador Retrievers we used to raise on the farm when I was growing up. Wildly affectionate, energetic, enthusiastic, the Labradors would bound, headlong, into any situation, tails wagging with the force of a propeller. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Against the legs of a table. Against a lamp stand. Against a piano bench, toppling a whole pile of sheet music. “You make quite a mess in your excitement,” I told the dogs, and still tell Trevor occasionally.

The garden, at least initially, was one such mess. What Trevor imagined would be a one-hour endeavor to work up the dirt and pull out the plastic liner that had been buried beneath the pool turned into a two-day affair. He rummaged through his outdoor storage shed until he found a shovel. With vehemence, he began to dig, to pick at that scab. The afternoon passed. Hours later I peeked out the dining room window to see him leaning against the shovel, wiping sweat from his eyes with one of Quinn’s burp rags. I rapped on the pane to get his attention.

“Stop for dinner?” I mouthed.

He shook his head vigorously. “Not yet,” he mouthed back. Turning, he thrust the shovel into the soil and went back to digging.

One of my favorite passages in all of scripture is found in the book of Hebrews, the first verse of the eleventh chapter: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Trevor, working to make that ground hospitable for our first garden, was operating entirely on faith. Even after he had turned up the sandy soil, yanked out the plastic, and mixed in a heaping truckload of mushroom soil, he planted with no real assurances that the starters he bought from the Amish greenhouse down the road and the seeds he purchased at the hardware store would take root and grow.

But we unpacked the flat of tomato plants and pepper plants anyway. As Quinn napped on a quilt in the shade, we spread the packs of seeds along the edge of the garden and took inventory: beans, corn, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce, and onions. Like my mother had taught me, I took sticks and marked the rows, while Trevor picked up a hoe and made shallow ditches.

“Should we stretch a string from end to end?” I asked. “Try to keep the rows straight?”

He dismissed the idea. “Nah. I can eyeball-it!”

Okay. I thought. A crooked row of beans isn’t the worst thing in the world.

So Trevor proceeded to hoe shallow grooves—an inch deep for the beans and corn, only half an inch for the smaller seeds—and I followed on my hands and knees, dropping one seed at a time, leaving a thumb’s length between each.

I once read a commentary on the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Matthew. In this parable, Jesus tells of a man who goes out to sow, only to have some seeds fall by the wayside and be eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on stony, inhospitable ground, and some fall amongst weeds and thorns. The commentary revealed to me that in Palestine, there were two different ways of planting seeds, neither one of them particularly precise. The first involved the sower walking up and down the field, casting an arc of seeds before him as he walked. The second method was to secure a sack of seed on the back of a donkey and tear a hole in the corner of the sack so the seed seeped out as the animal moved beside the row. Because of these rather haphazard planting practices, not all seeds landed in fertile soil, just as the love of Christ, according to Jesus’s parable, does not always find fertile ground in our hearts.

But I want conditions to be right for these seeds. I want them to spring to life, so I press them into the warm dirt and gently smooth the ridges of the row over top of the seeds, giving the earth a little pat and a sprinkle of water from a watering can.

“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” Trevor asked, holding a bean seed in the palm of his hand. I picked it up, studied it. It was a milky white with the faintest gray shadow of branch-like veins running from end to end. It was smooth, hard, impenetrable. “In fact,” he continued, “it looks dead. Think about that. Seeds will lie there in a package on our shelf in the shed and do nothing. But if we give them a chance….” Trevor dropped the final bean in the soil.

“Give them a chance and they can grow,” I finished for him.

He nodded, stuffing the empty bean package into the back pocket of his jeans. We each took a slug of water from our thermos. Trevor removed his glasses and used the collar of his tee-shirt to wipe his eyes. Sweat streamed down his cheeks like tears.

“You want to wait?” I asked. “Do the rest this evening?”

He held up the cucumber pack. Grinned. “Absolutely not. Press on.”

We moved to the upper side of the garden, the edge farthest from the house, and began to scoop the dirt into small mounds. Again, Trevor took a seed, a cucumber seed shaped like a slivered almond, and said, “If you could look past the hull here, you would see an embryo of a plant—enough food in that embryo to give the plant a start. Some soil, some water, some warmth and it will pop out of the soil and start spreading vines like crazy. It’s amazing to me. Just Amazing.”

We finished our mounds—three hills for cucumbers, three for zucchini, too. Using a spade, we dug holes for ten tomato plants and four pepper plants. Quinn began to stir. “I’ll get some chicken wire from your dad,” Trevor said. “We can make cages for the tomatoes later. Let’s call it a day.”

Later that evening, dishes done, baby snoring softly in his crib, leftover meatloaf cooling on the counter, Trevor and I sat on the steps of the deck, watching fireflies blink their secret codes in the dusk. We could smell the wild rose on the mountain—a smell I’m convinced will pervade Heaven—and the earthiness of the mushroom soil underneath our fingernails. Bats darted past the steeple of the church, and a few neighborhood cats sat on the sidewalk below, staring at the aerial display, flicking their tails in anticipation.

“You’re awfully quiet,” I remarked.

“Just meditating.”

“On a sermon?”

“What might be a sermon, I suppose. Mostly about seeds.”

“Is this a private sort of meditation?” I asked. “Or would you like me to be a sounding board?”

“Well, I keep thinking about our garden, right?” Trevor studied the outlines in the dissolving light—the sticks marking the rows, the hills of cucumbers and zucchini, the hoe leaning up against the back side of the house. “We planted those seeds today expecting that something big will ultimately happen. We have full confidence, at least I do, even though there’s no apparent guarantee. Faith is just that. A thing of certainty without visual assurance. Noah built the ark. Abraham left home. Sarah had a child. Led by faith. All of them.”

It is interesting to reflect on that conversation now because I know that our first garden did produce. Abundantly. Our tomato plants became a jungle where the neighborhood cats liked to stalk sparrows. Trevor hauled tomatoes into the kitchen by the buckets-full. I put them in big kettles with chunks of butter, salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of sugar. Then I stirred and stirred them over low heat until they burst, broke down into a chunky stew that I ladled into containers and stacked in my freezer, good for soups and casseroles and pasta dishes. Trevor spent one entire night and the wee hours of the morning cooking two pots of pizza sauce. Still, the tomatoes kept producing. We lugged bushels to our neighbors up and down Water Street. We donated cardboard boxes loaded with nearly-ripe tomatoes to the local food pantry.

I shredded zucchini for two weeks straight. For dinner we ate zucchini croquettes, zucchini bread, zucchini roasted, zucchini grilled. I froze twenty quarts of green beans, and still made plenty of green bean casseroles for church potlucks. The peppers and onions went into chili and salsa. I turned the cucumbers into refrigerator pickles. Trevor filled a picnic basket with vegetables every time he went to visit a parishioner. I don’t know how many people enjoyed our harvest, but its abundance did, indeed, overflow.

This past May, we planted a garden with our children. Quinn, now six, helped Trevor to build raised beds, four feet by four feet, out of pressurized lumber, landscape fabric, and a truckload of Lancaster County soil. His two younger sisters observed the project with great intensity. They hunkered down beside the beds, eager to run their fingers through the dirt. Caroline picked up an ant and let it cross her palm and the back of her hand. Anna pulled up a worm and tossed it toward a robin hopping through the yard.

Together, the kids mapped out the garden design with Trevor. They spread white freezer paper across the dining room table and outlined four boxes with brown crayon. In one box, they sketched sprawling tomato vines and pepper plants. A second box featured green beans, which Caroline drew as slim crescent moons. At Quinn’s request, Trevor researched the best flowers to attract butterflies, so the third box bloomed with vibrant shades of orange and purple. “And what do you want in the last box, Mom?” he asked.

“How about herbs to go with our tomatoes? Some basil and thyme? Oregano or rosemary? And chives. I love chives, buddy.” Quinn nodded. He bent over the paper and drew a delicate green stem with a purple, clover-like bloom.

“Come here, guys!” Trevor called one evening. They parked their tricycles beside the garage and skipped to their dad, kneeling beside the raised garden beds. “Get your hands in here and turn the dirt. Work it up, nice and loose.” He winked at me. “Three little rototillers right here.”

They watched Trevor closely as he used his spade to draw five neat little rows along the top of the dirt. He took each child—Quinn first, then Caroline, then Anna—and put seeds in their hands. They moved together down the row.

They were quiet, solemn in their concentration, and I suspected they sensed (as I once did) that planting those seeds was at once a connection to the earth and to something holy. In that moment, I hoped that there was a seed planted in their hearts as well. Perhaps a seed of togetherness. Perhaps a seed of responsibility. Perhaps—and this continues to be my prayer, my act of faith—their hearts will come to be fertile ground for love and generosity to take root and grow.

Amanda LightnerAmanda Lightner was raised on a farm in central Pennsylvania, the same farm bought by her grandfather’s grandfather from her grandmother’s grandfather in the late-1800’s. She has long been fascinated by family stories of this landscape. Her writing often explores the connection between people and place.

Lightner earned a BA in English and secondary education from Lebanon Valley College and received her MA in English and creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She currently teaches in both public school and community education settings. When not in the classroom, Lightner enjoys hiking, fishing, and riding horses with her family.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Chris Blakeley

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