Spiritual Insights From the Garden

Andy Wade

Slowly the snow is giving way to reveal the garden. It’s been a long winter, colder and snowier than normal, a stark contrast to the past several winters. Even as seed catalogues arrive weekly, it’s difficult for me to think about gardening when everything is cloaked in white.

The warming shelter I help run is still open for another three weeks — four if the weather remains cold and wet — reminding me that even with this brief respite from the cold, winter is not over. The Indigenous people of Hood River Valley remind us not to plant crops until the snow has melted from Mt. Defiance, ancient wisdom calling us to tune our lives to the seasons of creation rather than the culture of hyper-productivity. We’re still in a season of rest.

“Gardening is a lot of work!”

We don’t often think of rest when it comes to the garden. In fact, I know several people who would rather have all grass, or even pave the yard to keep things really simple. I used to believe gardens were a lot of work. I would spend hours in the spring digging and turning the soil.

With sweat dripping from my brow while my glasses slipped down my nose, I would dig deep, often two feet down, to loosen the soil. I’d pluck every weed, every clump of roots left from last year’s crop, until I could rake the garden into a flat brown empty canvas ready for planting.

During the spring, summer, and autumn, I would be out in the garden pulling weeds for hours. The garden was neat and tidy. Nice straight rows of vegetables stood out against the rich bare soil that separated them. Ah, this is how a garden is supposed to look!

At certain times throughout the season I would grab my organic fertilizer and carefully apply it around the plants. They needed food, after all. I would also watch carefully for garden pests and spray them with neem oil or other organic pesticides. The garden was beautiful, but it took a lot of work!

Spiritual insights

Have you ever approached your spiritual life like this? It’s a lot of hard work! I need to do my morning devotions without fail. I need to keep an active prayer list of all the folks I’m praying for. I need to clear out my calendar so that I can attend every church service and event. I sweep my spiritual house clean and fill it up with busy work. On the outside my life looks quite spiritual. Some even admire me for my commitment and resolve. Inside I’m exhausted. Faithfulness is a lot of hard work, after all.

 

Learning from God in the garden

Over time I began to realize I had created a lot of work for myself in the garden. Even my organic gardening was more work than it needed to be. As I read about other approaches and watched the less tended parts of my garden, I began to see something amazing: sometimes things thrive best when you stop working against the natural rhythms created by God.

I quit digging up my garden. I discovered that when I didn’t disturb the worms and other critters in the soil, and when I didn’t pull out all the remaining roots and other food they thrive on, they did the digging for me! Not only that, they also provided rich nutrients for the soil.

In the spring, I lightly weed just where I’m going to plant, and I pull out any noxious weeds that spread like wildfire. It doesn’t take long, and the only sweat I break is because the sun is beating down on me.

I’ve barely added any fertilizer in the past several years, opting instead for rich compost created in my worm bin and out in my compost heap. Almost all the nutrients in my garden are produced in the garden. When you allow it to live its natural rhythm it feeds itself! I work much less and enjoy much more.

Spiritual insights

Over the years I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to fit into spiritual boxes created by well-meaning folks but who didn’t really know me. We all have a kind of spiritual temperament, a natural rhythm and style that works well with how we were created. Morning devotions may be perfect for one person but a complete failure for another. Journaling might unleash deep spiritual insights for some, gardening for others, and long periods of deep meditation for still others. All of these are tools intended to deepen our relationship with God and one another, but they are not the purpose of our faith.

At the heart of permaculture is understanding the landscape. Where does the light shine and for how long during the day? Where does the wind blow? Where does the water naturally collect? Understanding our core spiritual rhythms and temperament is similar to understanding the way that our land responds to the rhythms of nature. Every person, like every physical space, responds differently.

There is a rich, self-sustaining spirituality inside each of us. The Holy Spirit is there to help us discover it. When we begin to work in harmony with how God created us and with God’s presence within us we discover our relationship with God is much smoother, much deeper, much richer, and much less frustrating than before.

  • Do you relate to any of the things I’ve mentioned here?
  • As you were reading, did other new insights come that you’d like to share?
  • How familiar are you with our own spiritual landscape?

Below is a short video about a permaculture garden. This is a great introduction to what permaculture is and how it works. This is very similar to what I’ve done in our yard (though appropriate for our northwestern climate). An additional benefit which I didn’t anticipate: with less work and more time to enjoy, I’ve discovered the garden to be even more a place of worship.