(Christian Courier column, Sept. 24, 2012 issue)
Gardening is the one thing I do for myself. I don’t garden for food; I don’t garden to improve our property’s market value; I don’t garden to impress the neighbours. I simply garden for my eyes – for an instinctual love of colour, texture, and shape. And in that joyful impulse to create something beautiful, a living composition, I discover a kinship with the Lord God himself who planted a garden in Eden. Gardening just might be the most devotional thing I do.
For me the proof of God could very well be the colour green. The balsam of my cedars turns acid-washed when wet, the lime of my citronelle heucheras flashes neon, the new growth on my Japanese barberry defines chartreuse. Every hue unfolds in the foliage of my garden – olive, sage, jade. But I also adore the “look at me” audacity of orange marigolds and red geraniums. Blue rings the accent bell – like the aptly-named morning glory.
But there’s something about texture that also makes my throat constrict. Maidenhair grasses are rapier-thin, slicing the breeze with finesse. A stand of massive Chinese grass evokes a corralled cluster of javelins aiming skyward. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the soft and furry grasses. The kitten tails of purple fountain grass bounce playfully against the air. Hamlyn grass flaunts fuzzy caterpillars on stalks arrayed in a miniature carousel. Clusters of white phlox beckon like popcorn balls at the fair. Begonias border my beds, their waxy apple-green leaves and pert white blossoms tidily bundled like so many perfect bridal bouquets all in a row.
Wind and light are transformative. An April wind gusts, bending trees at the waist, and I see the Holy Spirit, invincible and irresistible. On a scorching motionless August day, the grainy heads of the Reed Foerster grasses still vibrate imperceptibly, and I see that same Spirit, covert, mysterious. When the summer sun spills its evening rays over the garden, everything is glazed, dripping with liquid incandescence, a baptism of light. The glossy wine-coloured leaves of the redbud cradle the glow, dark green veins holding the radiance like leaded stained glass windows. The smokebush ignites, maroon flaming to crimson. Japanese flame grass flourishes seedheads like burnished bronze standards. Lustrous white hosta blossoms nod and wink with a knowing air. God is here.
Love is made visible in work. I’ve turned over mountains of clay dirt, sweat dripping, blisters on my hands, gashes on my calves from rusty shovels. I’ve wrestled tangled roots out of the ground, lugged rocks, shovelled mulch off the bed of our pickup truck, bundled branches and pruned hedges. I’ve had to conquer my fears to garden. I’m afraid of, in no particular order, birds, snakes, bats, voles, bees, wasps, mice and the occasional sneaky frog that suddenly hops away, centimetres from my face. Beauty comes at a price. It’s unequivocally worth it. And that, too, makes me reflect on God and the price he paid to redeem his handiwork, love sown in sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, but also the incremental sacrifices, watching his pristine creation daily wrung to tattered ugliness by sin.
I’ve learned something of that divine patience through gardening. This year I’ve nursed a Rheingold cedar that sustained significant winter damage. The blight was an eyesore, but rather than discarding the shrub, I kept watering and fertilizing and waiting. It’s coming back, slowly. I feel like God, who doesn’t break a bruised reed but cherishes us despite our rot and mildew. We Christians often display glaring blots on our witness and character, but I don’t despair. I’ve learned forbearance by tending this broken plant. God isn’t finished with us. He’s not finished with me. Having woven us in the depths of the earth, as the Psalmist says, his hand is still upon us.
I love the old dependables – the no-name hostas and faithful perennials that function as backdrop for the showier specimens. They also make me think of God’s master design. There are always those individuals in the church or institutions in the broader kingdom that are in the foreground of service or acclaim, but the grinders have their integral place. The volunteer who stacks chairs after a meeting or the son who makes time to visit his mom in the nursing home are as beloved of God as the Rob Bells or Albert Mohlers who put Christianity on the front page.
Annuals, too, remind me of God’s providence and planning. Petunias and impatiens add their giddy flamboyance to the garden for a brief season; then, in October, they are ruthlessly ripped out. In the face of the sorrow that Christians endure when churches or Christian schools close or ministries come to an end, annuals declare that passing splendour counts.
I’m well aware that this column is a bit anthropomorphically excessive, but as summer draws to a close, it’s that once and future resurrection embedded in gardening that is the most extravagantly emblematic of all, that keeps young gardeners seeing visions and old gardeners dreaming dreams. Next spring, after the dead of winter, will come a triumphant and glorious rebirth, orange tulips dancing and yellow daffodils skipping, and I’ll believe again and testify that God will redeem his Garden.