What's Growing in Your Garden?

Oct 18, 2021

My legs churned like pinwheels in a stiff breeze.

My hands became a set of vises, clenching the tiller’s twin handles. My eyes shot forward, desperate to find a brake. This was not going to end well.

Gardening experienced a revival during 2020. The pandemic closed numerous businesses, but it opened the soil in scores of backyards. While office buildings shut down, a multitude of container gardens sprang up. What is it about growing plants that has such universal appeal? These weren’t the Victory Gardens of World War II. Nor, for the most part, were they the survival plots of the Great Depression.

Perhaps our souls hungered for the Covid gardens more than our bodies.

We didn’t garden for fun growing up. We lived off the produce raised during the long, hot, humid Kansas summers. The basement pantry, cool as a spring-fed creek, sprouted every growing season with quart jars of pickles, corn, peas, green beans, and beets. Apple butter, strawberry jam, and peach preserves enlivened the shelves while stocky round barrels of potatoes and baskets brimming with onions filled the floor.

In one of my favorite movies, Secondhand Lions, two old men, Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine) take up gardening because it’s “what old folks do.” They purchase an assortment of vegetable seeds and sow them in parallel rows of well plowed soil. At the start of each line a small sign noting the plant’s type is staked. Oh, what delicious meals await!

Successful gardens need loose soil. Hoes, plows, and discs accomplish this. Even shovels. But a garden tiller was one of our must-haves, most-used pieces of equipment. One breezy evening, after the sun had slathered the countryside with heat but before it brushed the skies with jeweled colors, I watched my father follow the tiller patiently down another row. I wanted to walk behind the dirt chomping beast, letting my feet sink into the springy loam. My father assented and showed me the correct depth for the tines to dig into the ground. I was elated! This gas-fired machine sure beat an elbow-grease-driven hoe!

Green shoots spread slender wings over the dust as Hub and Garth pulled their hoes back and forth, expelling weeds from their produce patch. Then Hub stopped. “What’s this row?” he asked? Garth replied with the name of the vegetable. Hub asked about the next row, and Garth responded with a different type. This back and forth repeated itself until Hub asked, “Then why do all these look alike?” Hmmm…it seems the seed salesman had gotten the best of them again. Corn. Every single row. Sometimes what we plant isn't what we think it is.

I reached the end of the lengthy row, proud I’d kept the tiller straight down the middle, not veering off to the right or left, ripping through a patch of green beans or squash or watermelon. Now it was time to turn around and return between another set of chlorophyll-rich leaves. Only I never made it to the next line.

Gardening, perhaps, carries an appeal beyond the need for sustenance because it mirrors life. After all, in the beginning there was a garden and horticulture. A place man and woman walked with God.

Maybe a garden awakens a soul-memory of the beginning.

As people, we’re designed to cultivate. It begins with our hearts – that mysterious ground which can be rock hard in some areas and soft as silt in others. Stones – those entrenched habits which trip us up – must be dug and lugged away. Friends and mentors, whether in the flesh, virtual, or on printed pages, act as wheelbarrows which make the task less burdensome. Weeds – thoughts stubborn and unsought – spring up suddenly, sinking roots deep and spreading them wide. Sharp hoes dislodge these nourishment-stealing tyrants but require sweat and savvy and skill and repay in blisters and callouses.

Blight – depression, disease, dysfunction – appears without warning. Spots emerge, discoloration starts, leaves wilt. We know something is wrong but aren’t sure what. Sometimes the diagnosis takes time and the cure even longer. Pests invade. Some creep out of dormant soil. Critical attitudes. Crushing addictions. Others inch, crawl, and flitter in. Appalling or attractive in their appearance, they deform or even destroy. Distractions. Complacency. Excuses. Justifications. Blame. Occasionally, a swarm attacks. Wave after wave of life-destroying varmints. Loss. Betrayal. Grief upon grief.

What I didn’t know about tillers was their reaction to unbroken ground. When churning through turned up soil, they are content to advance slowly, only needing a steady hand to guide them. Encountering compacted ground, however, they rocket forward. Whether it’s because they’re finally able to spin with wild abandon or desperately seeking the familiar calmness of domesticated dust, I can’t say. I do know when I turned the tiller at the end of the row – not picking up the handles to clear the prongs of the hard dirt marking the garden’s edge – the beast lurched manically towards freedom. Which, on this day, meant the rocky creek.

Whoever asserted, “Ignorance is bliss” never clung to a tiller handle praying for divine revelation to find the engine switch.

Hardness of heart has the same impact on relationships, hopes, opportunities, and attitudes as condensed soil has on tiller tines. Struggle, effort, and persistence transform rugged areas into arable plots as much in our lives as in our backyards. Avoiding briers, barbed wire, and brambles requires picking up and turning around.

It was my father who saved me. Speeding down the grassy hill, he reached the runaway machine just feet before the spinning metal prongs encountered the mass of stones forming the creek bed. Flipping the tiny metal pin to “Off,” the engine abruptly halted and the whirling spikes, deprived of their fuel, sputtered, and whined to sleep. I learned knowing how to stop was just as crucial as being able to start.

Bountiful is the cry of the human heart. Harvesting fresh produce from the garden perhaps echoes our soul-need to cultivate nourishment for ourselves and others. To grow. To make destitute places flourish. To expel what saps strength and eradicate what devours. How wonderful we have a Father whose lavish love offers us a life of abundance. He’s always there to rescue, no matter how our life is running away with us.