Every spring I get a call from Jeannette. I’ve never actually met her, but she phones me faithfully once a year. We usually chat a bit like old friends, but then we get down to business—she is calling to schedule a time for her husband to come and till my garden. After her call, one day I come home from work and the ground is freshly turned, ready for another season of the wonder and delight of vegetable gardening.
Not everyone is excited about vegetables. I can’t imagine the apostle Paul talking about the “vegetables of the Spirit”—can you? It’s hard enough for us to cultivate the glamorous, juicy, exotic fruit of the Spirit. Think how uninspired we’d be by vegetables.
I once thought that vegetables were boring. But after seven years of growing them, I’m completely amazed by them. Here are a few of the wonders of my vegetable garden.
The Wonder of Dirt
Jesus captured the mystery of dirt well in one of his parables. A farmer goes out to sow some seed, throws it in the dirt, forgets about it, and a few days later finds something growing all on its own.
One of the most fascinating things about dirt is that there’s lots of dead stuff in it. Every year after the harvest, I uproot and mulch all the old vegetation—corn stalks, giant pumpkin leaves, cucumber vines, and more—then bury it in the earth. In the spring I spread a load of mushroom compost: a mix of cattle manure, straw, and peat moss left over from a season of mushroom production.
Into this dung and dark and dead stuff, I plant seeds. And in unseen ways, the deadness, darkness, and dung do their thing. A few days later, with the wide-eyed delight of a parent in a delivery room, I spot tiny leaves pushing themselves into the daylight. It’s one of the happiest days in the garden—thanks, in part, to the mystery of dirt. When it comes to gardens, many important things happen below the surface.
The Wonder of Music
One day during my first year of growing potatoes, I came home to a delightful “sound.”
I hadn’t grown potatoes since I was a kid, when my dad would fill our entire backyard with them. I didn’t remember much about them or know what to expect. Potatoes may well be the food heroes of the world, a staple around the globe, but they are still pretty plain and ordinary.
When I got home that day, though, my potato patch was full of tiny, purple-robed, buttercup-shaped flowers, hanging one above the other like rows of choristers. They were utterly stunning and delightful—it looked like they were singing!
At harvest time I found out what they were singing about. At the end of the season, when I thrust my pitchfork into the earth, there emerged as if out of a grave the red, plump bodies of scores of Red Norland potatoes. With every plunge into the earth, I discovered what all the summer singing was about—and that the heavens are not alone in declaring the glory of God.
The Wonder of Intelligence
Cucumbers, in many ways, are fussy things. They like a lot of heat, a lot of water, not a lot of handling, and apparently don’t do well next to potatoes. But in other ways they are remarkable and intelligent plants.
Along with vines and leaves and flowers and fruit, a cucumber plant grows thin, wire-like appendages that reach out to search their surroundings like antennae. When they find something to hang on to, they act like twist-ties—wrapping themselves around trellises or wire or wood or even other plants so the cucumber plant can climb up toward the sun.
During the hot months of July and August, the cucumber plant heads steadily upward like a mountain climber. One summer I saw my plants climb 6 feet.
I can’t get over just how smart those cucumbers are. Every summer I ask myself, Who taught them to climb so well? Who taught them how to tie knots? How do they know to look for a trellis? And who told them that their best bet was to climb upward?
The Wonder of Vegetation
When I plant my seeds on a May weekend in Canada, I need to anticipate what the plants will look like at the end of July. I need to anticipate growth. And, wow, do vegetables ever grow!
Potatoes should be spaced at least 24 inches apart, corn thinned to 12 inches, pumpkins separated by a whopping 8 feet, tomatoes by 18 to 24 inches (technically, tomatoes are a berry, but in popular practice they are vegetables), and on it goes. What’s so utterly sensational about a vegetable garden is just how much vegetation and produce grows from a single tiny seed.
Take corn, for example. Corn stands in the garden like traditional Canadian mounted police in colorful regalia, peculiar and attractive all at once. I grow what is called Canadian Northern Supersweet, and the promised maturity date is about 70 days. In other words, given the right conditions of heat and water and sunlight, you can almost see it growing. By the beginning of July, corn in Alberta grows to about knee height. But throughout July it will easily grow another 4 feet! Corn’s rate of growth in itself is amazing, but if you look at how the corn plant grows, it’s truly marvelous.
From one shriveled corn seed comes an amazing plant. There is the hard and strong bamboo-like stalk with its Styrofoam-looking interior tubes; the long, narrow, ribbon-like leaves; the layered blankets of green that wrap the ears; the cob with its assembly of kernels, tightly set like cobblestones; the long, flowing silk; and finally the tassel that shines at the top like a star on a Christmas tree.
Each corn plant contains so much variety that every summer, without fail, I can’t help but feel waves of wonder and delight.
The Wonder of Harvest
There are so many other wonders of the garden: the work of bumblebees, the mating of male and female pumpkin flowers, the sheer resilience of nature, the wonders of water and sunlight.
Another wonder to note is sharing, which is one of the most enjoyable parts of growing a garden. You not only get to share; you have to share.
One year our small patch of cucumber plants produced more than 300 cukes. And I’ve discovered that three Early Girl tomato plants will easily produce 60 to 75 tomatoes. Potatoes average 10 to 15 spuds per plant. Last year from only four plants I harvested 15 spaghetti squash—big ones!
With vegetables, you can’t help but get into the giving spirit. I suppose that’s what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of the wonder of his kingdom and how, given the right conditions, believers can bear fruit forty-, sixty-, even a hundredfold. God’s kingdom is about sharing.
Speaking of Jesus, maybe this is the true and final wonder of gardens—that Jesus knew of, noticed, and paid attention to the beauty and mystery and delight and marvels of soil and seeds and growth and productivity and flowers and fruit. He must have, because he talked about these things all the time and he used them to teach us about the mystery and wonder and delight of his kingdom.
So after another long, cold Edmonton winter, May has come again and Jeanette will call and I will buy seeds and my garden will get turned and another season of wonders will begin. I can hardly wait.