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Gardening: Food, Connection, and Awareness

Colette Nies, MSSW, MDIV

Planting a garden is more than access to healthy food. We meet our basic need of sustenance by the sweat and toil of our own making. In these last few weeks, those of us whom are able, are practicing the imperative to stay at home. And while the myriad of emotions, fears, doubts, and confusion may exist, being home may have also spurred a creativity and desire in some of us to start or finish projects long imagined.

When is the best time to start that garden? Now.

Gardening and farming for millennia have been ways to become stewards, to liberate, sustain, nourish, connect, a way to feed the circle of life in which we are a part, and like Fannie Lou Hamer and many others, it even can be an act of resistance. Gardening as an act, teaches patience. It teaches us to plan ahead and to be flexible, as not everything is in our own control, as well as how to give abundantly. It can be the ongoing action of giving, to the sustainability of our world, as well as to those who may not be able to afford to put food on their table or have access to nutrient dense foods that heal and satiate. Having access to culturally appropriate, healthy food is a basic need and right we all share.

You do not need a green thumb to grow your own food. As with learning to paint, play an instrument, build a house, or any other craft, it takes trial and error, practice, and some luck. I am a third generation organic gardener and every year I have a plants that do not produce or do not live up to their potential. It may be of my own doing, Mother Nature’s, or simply that a squirrel, dove, or deer prefers to take one bite out of the best fruit or vegetable on every single plant or tree. It may be that the balance of the ecosystem is off and insects, mites, and aphids have their fill. With life and situations like the one we are all in currently, we learn to keep on keeping on, putting one foot in front of the other, and doing our best to survive, and when the time is right and a bit of luck and grace, we thrive. We continue to learn and grow from our mistakes and not allow our failures to deter us from trying again.

Any seasoned gardener will tell you the smell of healthy soil is different than a handful of dirt. It smells of life and possibilities. A teaspoon of rich soil has more microorganisms than people living on the planet right now. Cultivating that symbiotic relationship and balance of this miraculous network is kin to the complexity of how our own bodies heal. Building up your soil to health and regenerating life back into it if it is depleted, either from lack of care or drained from a growing season, are ways that mimic our own health. It needs time to rest, needs to be fueled from proper nutrition, have caring attention, renewed by clean water, and like us, it needs an abundance of grace and diversity of life to become healthy and whole. Getting our vitamin D from the sun, experiencing the immunity benefits of playing in the dirt, getting our exercise and fresh air, energizing our spirit by grounding, decreasing anxiety and helping to heal trauma, we can lift our sights and work on becoming grateful for all that is around us, gardening does a myriad of things for the soul other than simply filling our belly.

And yet there is also a connection to the sense-inspiring act of eating a homegrown tomato with a douse of good olive oil, sprinkle of sea salt, and a sprig of basil that may bring back memories for so many of us, to our parents and grandparents, to the seasons, and our sense of place in the world. Food connects us with our ancestors, with our stories of how we were raised, and for some it is the lack thereof or story of toil and hardship. The realities of where we were born, the systems of power, labor, and access all are mirrored in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Being able to grow a head of lettuce, or transform cabbage by fermentation, produce a crisp green bean, or pick the strawberry so ripe and sweet, there is no possible way it can even make it to your kitchen before eating it, we are taking part in the most basic of acts of survival. Yet it is so much more. Exploring the varieties of heirlooms, understanding the flip side of propagation and creating your own pepper tailored to your own palette, the ability to cultivate a depth of taste that is impossible to buy in any store, and taking part in establishing a system of currency that feeds your family and doesn’t get taxed, gardening is connection and communion. By growing even one thing to eat empowers and revives that long history of humanity where for some of us, even our own spirituality began…in a garden. It was our first act of being and our first job.

Healing and preparing your soil for gardening are the most essential aspects to begin a garden, but do not be discouraged or over-whelmed if you are a beginner, there are a myriad of sources in our own community and online that can help guide you. From the wisdom of the Texas Master Naturalists and the Texas Master Gardeners, the Texas A&M AgriLife Center, local radio shows, nurseries such as the Plant Haus, or even your neighbor who may have perfected the art of keeping squash borers at bay, if you begin the process of gardening, opportunities for growth and conversation will surround you. I have blogs on how to build raised beds, the benefits of organic gardening/agriculture, etc., yet there are an infinite number of resources in our own community and online to help you along your journey. Just get started.

If you have been thinking about it, start a garden this week. You can build a raised bed, plant directly in the ground, or even use a planter. There are a myriad of ways to get started. You will lose a plant, we all do. Like all existence, the circle of life and death is constant. Be a part of this awe-inspiring mystery in which we live, move, and have our being. So during this time of social distancing, the stress of finances, and emotional uncertainty that exist for many of us, go outside and plant something. Connect with the land you live on, however small it may be, share with those that cannot, breathe in and appreciate the diversity of life around you, and as my grandmother, Irene, used to say, “leave the land better than the way you found it.”

Colette Nies, MSSW, MDIV, is a Socio-Ecological Theologian, Presbyterian Chaplain, land and energy researcher, Doctoral candidate in Land, Food, Ethics, and Faith Formation, and political candidate. She has started The Heritage Project, which intersects food justice issues and land stewardship by building organic, community gardens on church lands. She lives in downtown New Braunfels with her 16-month old foster daughter, Emberlyn, and new puppy, Mensa. Questions?

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