God has left fingerprints on every inch of the garden. Anywhere I put my foot, the Creator has already been. He touches me with warm sunshine; I can smell him in the glorious mingled scent of soil, plants, and water; and he inhabits the expanded light feeling in my chest that comes from gazing at plants that are growing. At times, I am sure I can see God peek out from the flash of colour as the butterfly passes by.
Children are often the first to spot him there. They are less distracted than adults and much more observant to their surroundings. Their keen eyes see, and their sharp ears are attuned to the music of His voice on the breeze. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the dirt beside a tomato plant and tasting the sun-warmed fruit. I was obviously comfortable, even then, in the solitude and peace of a garden.
Gardening is often a quiet reflective time for me. My mind wanders to lessons from nature and scripture. The stories that Jesus told as he walked his dusty path on earth resonate as my hands are busy with the very object lessons he described to the crowds. Thoughts of the fallow ground of my heart being tilled and prepared for the good seed; reminders that the husbandman prunes with love and great care; and that the sowing and watering of seed is necessary, but ultimately it is God who yields the increase. Such lessons come to life in a garden.
When we moved to Winnipeg in 2013, I feared that I would have to forfeit the pleasures of gardening for the duration of our time lived in the city. I pined for a patch of earth. Then a friend from St. Margaret’s Anglican introduced me to her friend who needed a partner at a community garden. Bingo!
People who love to garden seem to find one another. At St. Margaret’s, I soon heard about their gardens. Years ago, this forward-thinking church adopted what might now be termed Hospitable Landscaping. They took down fences and dug up the parking space directly beside the church building to create a garden plot for growing food for people in the neighbourhood, especially those who did not have access to fresh vegetables. By removing barriers and reaching out to vulnerable people, they became more approachable.
In 2010, A Rocha Canada piloted a program at St. Margaret’s called Just Growing. At the heart of their plan was the foundational concept of creation care. By supporting the practical work of producing and sharing food with those in need, they encouraged parishioners and community residents alike to be aware of creation and work together to preserve and protect the local flora and fauna. In a sense, they were encouraging people to seek God in the garden.
I was drawn to this beautiful approach to loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and loving your neighbour as yourself. A Rocha was no longer involved when I came on the scene, but St. Margaret’s continued Just Growing and sharing food with those in need. Before long, I was at the helm and loving it.
We brought some raised beds that we had out in the community back to the church because they were in the way of a building project. The neighbours along the back alley became very interested, and some offered garden soil from their yard, while others cheered us on as we set up the gardens and began to plant. With the soil improved and the building radiating heat, the gardens were vibrant.
People are beginning to recognize the benefits of gardens in fostering better mental health. In an article entitled “Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy,” Bonnie L. Grant explains certain microbes in the soil serve as antidepressants that stimulate serotonin production. Serotonin, sometimes called the happy chemical, not only reduces stress, but may also increase cognitive ability and induce better concentration. The thought that the Creator incorporated this ingredient into the soil delights me.
God’s image is stamped on each person who stops by to talk while I work in the gardens. He gazes out from their eyes, asking to be seen. Some ask questions, some make small talk, and many have their own stories and experiences to share, but almost all mention what a joy it is to walk by these gardens and absorb the beauty and peace that emanates from them. The lonely have found solace and a purpose. If they wish to, they are welcome to take part in the enchanting discoveries.
One year, we planted peanuts early, under a greenhouse cover that we later removed. Word got out that there were peanuts growing in Winnipeg, and soon there were people stopping by regularly to keep tabs on their progress. Even the City crews who were out checking trees for disease found an excuse to walk down the back alley and take pictures. The crop was small, but we learned so much from the experiment and we connected with so many new friends.
In another area of Winnipeg, newcomers to Canada are gardening in Rainbow Community Gardens, operated by the Immigrants Integration and Farming Worker Community Co-op and funded by Food Matters Manitoba. They are finding, as I did, that there is a patch of earth for them to grow the food they love. Instead of paying a high price to have it imported, they can grow what is familiar to them and teach their children traditional gardening practices in the process. These gardens were established in 2008 and provide many families from all over the world the opportunity to meet and learn from one another.
In Malawi they say, “God is as the wind which touches everything.” Sometimes I think about Adam and Eve in that first garden, and I wonder how God walked in the garden with them. When I feel the breeze against my cheek, I wonder if perhaps it isn’t God brushing a smudge of dirt off.
Nora Lynn Hogman lives with her husband in Winnipeg and attends St. Margaret’s Anglican Church.