My family had large gardens when I was young. Both sets of grandparents had large gardens. Have dirt, will garden. The farm never left our souls. We grew food, we ate it fresh, we canned and froze it. We gave it away. We gleaned fields of peas and potatoes, orchards of apples, wild bushes of berries, riverbanks of fiddleheads, maple trees of sap, hedgerows of hazelnuts.
I am delighted now to think of that connection to the past.
Our parents and grandparents grew Victory Gardens during the last European war – people were encouraged and supported in digging up their yards and growing their own food, so that crops could be diverted to the support of the troops. Many European families had to wild-gather to survive during and after the war.
We were still just a few years past being an agrarian culture. People knew how to make a garden.
I don’t think any of our neighbours has a vegetable garden. This little town is proud of its shade trees, its luxurious lawns, its air of ease and privilege. When I lived in rural parishes, people left bags of corn, tomatoes, green beans, onion and zucchini on my doorstep. One parishioner dropped off a few homegrown vegetables here this year. I bought the produce I canned.
The food bank here is in constant need of donations. Industries have closed in this area; other people are chronically unemployed or underemployed. It looks like it will get worse rather than better. (And just to bring this up – local farms employ migrant workers to pick apples, tobacco, ginseng and cabbage. The reason? Local people don’t want these seasonal jobs. The work is too hard, the pay too low, and if they take them, they endanger keeping their government-paid benefits. I can’t take even seasonal work until my immigration status is settled, except to work for the church. I did field work as a child and teenager. It isn’t that hard.)
In a land of plenty – in the garden region of Canada – why are people receiving boxes of dried dinner ingredients and cans of soup? Why don’t food banks have great resources of fresh food? Some do – because someone had the inspiration to solicit donations from farmers and farmers’ markets.
But we could all be doing more to feed those in need by planting a new kind of victory garden – I’ll call it a Victory in Jesus garden, from the old Baptist song.
We could be feeding ourselves and the poor, improving local nutrition levels and health. We could be reducing our reliance on transported, carbon-hungry resources. We could be getting rid of harmful lawn-maintenance practices and chemicals. (One reader wrote me earlier this year to say she had persuaded her church to plant a garden on the church lawn. That’s what I mean.)
The black walnut trees on our lawn are at the end of their growing years. The best thing to do with them would be to cut them down and sell them to a craftsman for fine furniture. This would also get rid of their messy nuts and the squirrels who live on them. Not much will grow around black walnuts, except the maple trees which are also as big as they can get, are dropping dead limbs, and hogging the arable area of the yard with roots. I love trees, but these are at the end of their lives, and they will soon be a hazard. I say take them down, use the wood as possible, and plant something like fruit trees, a little more in keeping with using the yard for a garden. (Don’t get me started on the line of overgrown cedars along the fence.)
Gardening is work, more than many people think they should have to do. But why shouldn’t we turn our hands and hearts to the earth, and share in its production? We are divorced from the natural world; we try to corner it in parks where we are comfortable with mown lawns and trimmed trees. We like the idea of wild spaces, but we don’t want to live in them. Our homes are air-conditioned and warmed so it is always perfectly temperate inside, and we never have to wear climate-suitable clothing. (I had a friend in past years who literally ran from car to building, building to car, car to home because she didn’t want to bother putting on a coat even in a mid-Atlantic winter. It took a while to persuade her to carry suitable winter clothing in her car so that if the car broke down she wouldn’t freeze to death.)
It’s autumn here in the North; most of us are done with the garden. The last of the basil came in for pesto here; the other herbs are potted and in the shed, hardening up for a possible winter indoors on a cool windowsill. (Herb plants do not like our overheated homes.) But there is next year. I want to be in a place suitable for a garden and more. I want to grow not just for ourselves, but for those who are unable to grow for themselves.
It’s one thing to receive a bag of canned goods and a loaf of plastic-wrapped bread when we are in need. But it is impersonal and industrial. It’s almost as if someone says, “Here you go – this is good enough for you.” But when we are given, in need, fresh tomatoes, a head of lettuce, a bag of sweet, long green beans that just taste of sunshine and clean water, a paper-wrapped loaf of still warm, fresh bread – we feel loved. We feel part of the community. We feel the gracious hand of God on us. Someone cared enough to grow and bake for us. We become part of the family.