May 13, 2009

Into the Garden

2009 1513 page16 capver the past several months the media has been in overdrive telling us about the plight of not only the United States’ economy but also the global economic meltdown. All of us are keenly aware of family members and friends who have been seriously affected. We have seen the stress levels rise, the blunders and stumbles as people try to adjust their lives to a new and often brutal reality.

Some 25 years ago I, too, survived an unexpected job loss. For a period I took a serious cut in pay and can still recall the struggle to shave lifestyle to live within the new reality—the challenge of borrowing a wood stove and scrounging wood to keep a couple of rooms warm in an old drafty farmhouse! We also endured a radical shift in how and what we ate.
A few weeks ago I was sitting with a group of people discussing “food security” in parts of the world that we often associate with hunger. We were strategizing on how to strengthen community-level production of food to improve the quality and quantity of the family diet. During a break the conversation turned to the situation in the U.S. and the growing numbers of younger adults in the country who face serious issues in feeding the family and developing possible coping mechanisms. As one might expect, growing vegetables came up as a good intervention for many. However, one older woman pointed out that in her observation few families have developed culinary skills much beyond ordering in, dropping a packet into boiling water, or nuking it in the microwave. It was also recognized that even if these families grew a garden, many would find it a struggle to prepare savory dishes to serve the family.

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2009 1513 page16 link On a recent visit to the supermarket I noticed many more people shopping in the deli and in the freezer section (buying prepared foods) than in the fresh produce section—or in the sections buying basic ingredients such as flour and dried beans. For someone who grew up in a home where almost everything was cooked from “scratch” and where you grew as much of your food during the summer months as you could, that line of discussion caused a cascade of thoughts and ideas.

What do younger adults really know of the hardships and coping skills of the 1930s, or of the “victory gardens” of the 1940s (when an estimated 20 million U.S. gardens produced 40 percent of the fresh vegetables during World War II)?
I am an avid gardener, and have been thinking about gardening as a great coping mechanism for many stressed families. But how effective will a garden strategy be if the growing skills and cooking skills are weak? How do we break the cycle of eroding culinary skills resulting in an increased reliance on heavily processed and prepackaged foods? (We often hear that packaging adds more cost to a product than the contents.)
Why Garden?
There are many good reasons 
to garden. Gardens can produce a thing of beauty; they can help burn calories; and they allow for creativity. Or how about the joy of watching butterflies flitting from flower to flower inches away from you, and taking pleasure in having “provided”?
A garden is a source of spiritual connection each time you watch the miracle of a dry little seed, touched with a bit of soil and water, burst to life. It is no mistake that the Bible is full of garden and gardening references. Scripture opens with a garden setting—a garden planted by God as a home and food source for the first humans, as well as a source of pleasure for God as He walked there in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). Jesus says in John 15 that God is a gardener! In Revelation 22 Scripture ends by telling us that the New Jerusalem has a garden with a stream. In between are scores of references, stories, and parables involving gardens and crops with the Garden of Gethsemane hosting one of the most important prayers and events in human history (Matt. 26).1
In addition, several researchers have established the positive healing role of plants for patients recovering from surgery.2 Gardens also are very soothing to our emotions and well-being. Again research has verified that a window view with nature soothes, whereas a view of a brick wall generates stress.3 Even the task of pulling weeds is known to release stress while providing exercise.
Gardens also generate memories. I can still vividly recall the joy of daily harvesting buckets of cucumbers or cantaloupe of all shapes and flavors during the hottest part of the summer. I have only vague memories of the time spent hoeing weeds with my mother!
Gardeners will find they are learning the complex dynamics of shaping nature to provide for us. Each season will have different results. One year Yukon Gold potatoes will outproduce Pontiacs, but who cares? It is all a joy. I now plant a few of three potato varieties and go with the flow. This learning, as we know, dates back to the first human couple as they tended the garden God had created.
Getting Into the Dirt
Gardens are a vital source of safe minerals, vitamins, and even medicines. They do not need to be neat rows of commercial production. They can be mixed into a flower bed. What is required is lots of sun, soil with a good deal of organic matter, 2009 1513 page16water, and mulch. Organic matter or compost is the major reservoir and source of nutrients for the plants. If one has space it is rather easy to make or can be bought at most garden shops. I save some of the fall leaves, or use grass clippings, and as soon as plants emerge they become the insulation, cooling the soil and preserving water, a vital natural resource. The other huge benefit of compost is that it inhibits the growth of weeds, the bane of every gardener.
Gardening is a learned skill. A good place to start is by gleaning knowledge from the elderly. They have learned all kinds of tips from the wealth of their experience. A good nursery will often have information pages on cultivation of plants. Additionally, all the states (in the U.S.) have an agriculture extension service. Most have a section dealing with home gardening, many support “master gardener” advisers, and all have Web sites.
Your success will be enhanced by growing vegetables you really like. What is better than a thick slice of tomato with a sprinkle of garlic powder, a basil leaf, and a drizzle of olive oil? A plate of this in a restaurant will set you back at least US$7.50! Your cost: a bit of time, some water, a sore muscle (the one you had been ignoring and now you are well aware of), and $4 for the two plants at the nursery that will give a whole season of tingle to your taste buds. Now that you have tomatoes and basil, branch out and make your own pasta sauce. It never tastes better than “homemade.”
A Patch of Civilization
Have I convinced you by now? Gardening is not work. It is a passion, a calling, an avocation. In the hierarchy of all things important, it is near the top. It keeps one young—if not physically, then young at heart. Plants are great natural motivators; there is a plant out there that is thirsty and needs my attention—there is nothing “virtual” about it. In a world full of conflict a garden is a space where peace and beauty reign and the gardener is filled with selflessness. And at harvest, the gardener always wants to share the bounty.
A garden is a lesson in humility—when the deer make a salad of your prized hosta, or the Japanese beetles leave your rosebush little more than stems. There is also the joy of nurture and delight in caring for that seedling that depends on you for survival. We can be good stewards and guardians of one small patch of ground too, healing our wounded planet, one small garden at a time.
Who remembers the rigorous exercise of spring in digging the soil, or the day you wanted to be a couch potato but “had” to work (I mean play) in the garden to stay ahead of the weeds? And then you spot it, with a rush of joy, the first bean pod, the first tomato the size of a quarter, the cucumber hidden under a leaf. How about the satisfaction of prodding a couple of lettuce plants through a Maryland winter and the “bragging” rights that go with unexpected success?
Let me arrest my passion with a bit of linguistic and philosophical analysis. The Latin word for “garden” is hortus. We have added cultura to come up with horticulture. Now look at the word “culture” in your dictionary. Yes, it can mean cultivation of soil, but it is also defined as improvement or refinement of the mind, manners, or the ideas and customs of a given people in a given period—civilization.
2009 1513 page16Diane Relf of Virginia Tech points out that we can think of the garden as:
• Having a role in the development and refinement of the mind, emotions, manners of
• Influencing the ideas of a people in a given period, part of the way human communities function;
• Having a role in human culture and civilization.4
Growing More Than Plants
What does a garden do for me and thousands of others? It teaches me, it gives me much-needed exercise, it adds beauty, it gives pleasure, it makes me think, it makes me a success, and I meet people. The garden generates fond memories, it soothes my soul, it heals me, and, most important, it contributes to my spiritual connection and growth. Oh, I almost forgot: it feeds me.

I started out wanting to share a few thoughts on gardening as one possible way for some families to cope with these pressing economic times. At the start of writing this I had no idea I was going to share this wide range and wealth of benefits.
There is no doubt I spend a bit more money growing a few potatoes than buying them at the supermarket, but look at all I would be missing, to say nothing of the special, unique flavor of a freshly dug potato. Now, let’s get out the cooking pots and cutting board; we are going to make a spicy sweet potato and butternut squash soup; or better yet, how about a leek or fennel potato soup? 
1Here are just a few more texts related to gardens: Luke 13; 2 Kings 25; Neh. 3; Esther 7; Jer. 29; Amos 4; Isa. 55; Joel 2 and 3; Gal. 5.
2“Healing Gardens Nurture the Spirit While Patients Get Treatment,”, Medical Group Management Association Newsletter “Connexion,” August 2002.
3F. Asano, “Healing at a Hospital: Integration of Physical and Non-Physical Aspects,”, 2008.
4Diane Relf, The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development (Timber Press, 1992).

Ken Flemmer, an avid gardener, is also the bureau chief for internal control and compliance of ADRA International, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland.