Justice and Mercy at Harvest Time: A Gardener’s Reflection

Every September, I look out over my gardens, rank with weeds, half-dead tomato vines sprawling, gargantuan beans parching in the sun, and have the same feeling: can this just be done with now? Can a frost just wipe everything out, so I can mow it down, clean it up, cover it, let the gardens rest for the winter? Can I just let myself rest for the winter?

At the same time, I’m having a very different feeling: can I just start again? Can it be next spring, the soil lying like bare to the sky, loamy, rich as cake, ready for new plantings, the weed-seeds still dormant? I learned so much from my successes and from my failures, this gardening year. I look forward to putting into practice what I learned. Every year I think the same: next year will be better.

For ten years now, I’ve spent my summers working as an eco-gardener here on our little farm, growing fruits and vegetables using organic and sustainable methods. What’s eco gardening? This is probably the question I answer most frequently, at farmers’ market. Well, the meaning of eco, as opposed to organic, is that not only do we avoid chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the rest; we also emphasize locality and sustainability. This means we don’t invest in fancy equipment that creates unnecessary technological dependence. We focus on reusing, repurposing, and recycling, instead of relying on materials that have to be acquired new every season. As much as possible, we try to generate our own fertility, using animal or green manures, cover crops, and compost. We focus on layering, building the earth, instead of constantly tilling it.

Eco-gardening means cultivating within our hearts what Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, speaks of as an “ecological conversion.” One begins to think of the self differently, not as an isolated, solipsistic individual questing in solitude for some Faustian fulfilment. One comes to understand interconnection with the soil, and everything alive in it. The soil itself is alive, teeming with microorganisms. In one cup of undisturbed soil may be found as many as 200 billion bacteria, 20 million protozoa, 100,000 nematodes. These tiny organisms enter our bodies, connect us with the kingdoms of the soil: the average human body contains approximately 40 trillion bacteria – nearly as many as the number of human cells making up our bodies.

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (Laudato Si)

It also means that the food is produced and consumed within the community. I know the people to whom I sell produce. When I sit down for a meal of vegetables from my garden, I know of a dozen other families also sitting down to the same vegetables from the same plants in the same garden. There’s a kind of Eucharistic unity in such shared eating; our connection with one another is not simply symbolic, but real. To eat something is to become one with it, literally. When we all eat of the fruit of the same plant, we are one with that living thing, and with one another.

“There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” (Laudato Si)

Because I can’t go waltzing in and zap the pests and weeds to death, I have to work wisely and well. And because I’m the sole laborer on 22,000 square feet of earth, any sloth on my part comes with its own punishment. If I don’t get out there and surface-cultivate or mulch-over at just the right time, when the weeds are small, they’ll soon be too big to eradicate.

Last September, I said: next year, I’ll get all the weeds out. It will be the best garden ever!

Well, it wasn’t. This wasn’t entirely my fault; the cucumber and squash beetles were worse than they’d ever been, possibly due to the unusually warm winter. Long periods of dryness came just when immature plants needed the most water.

But I also was neglectful. For the first summer in years, the lingering effects of seasonal affective disorder just never went away. I stayed depressed and anxious even when the sun was high. The seventeen-year cicadas came, and did no damage, and I loved to watch and listen to them. They’re the only insects I ever met who have actual eyeballs, and will look at one, curiously, as one looks back. The females, a little larger than the males, choose the mates who woo them with the loveliest song.

But then they were gone: after only a few weeks of mating and song, they began to slow, to grow silent, to die. Tiny corpses littered the ground, the light in their eyes gone out. This seemed to me to be a portent of life itself: how brief it is, how eagerly we crawl into the light of day, looking forward to splendid things, and how rapidly it reaches its end.

I sat on my porch drinking iced coffee, listening to the cicadas, thinking about death, when I should have been weeding. I never quite got in step with the proper dance of time.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes, 3: 1-4)

When one’s life is so tied to nature and the seasons, one can’t force a schedule on one’s work, and the end of the growing year is always a time for facing finality. The year is at an end; never will it be this particular summer again, never these blades of grass or these leaves, never these cicadas. I can look back on all my failures and know that, for this year, it’s too late to remedy them. What I grew, I grew; what I wasted, I wasted. What’s harvested will have to last the winter. We tend to think, spiritually, of harvest as a time for being grateful to God for bounty, but one can’t ignore the centrality of human work. Or, in my case, human laziness, even if it was partially the result of depression.  Here we find nature’s irrevocable justice. I can only reap what I sowed.

But, if one is spared, there’s always next year. I can begin again, after all. I get another chance. My errors are not final. So the time of harvest is a time not only for confronting natural justice, but also accepting the gift of mercy. And in this gift of mercy, the mercy of a coming year and a chance to start fresh, we find reflected so many other gifts, things I did not achieve for myself: the gift of physical health, the privilege of owning land, the gift of gardening knowledge handed on to me by my parents and other wiser growers. We are all connected with one another.

Much of my garden did very well, actually, due to a new weed control and soil building technique I tried, shared with me by other growers. And, because we grow in community, not isolation, I’ll share it with you, too. It’s almost ridiculously simple: just a matter of covering the soil completely, with either cardboard or brown paper, then mulching over with organic matter, which both holds the paper in place, and keeps it from tearing. This keeps the soil moisture even, even in periods of drought or excess rain, keeps the weeds down, and encourages the worms to come to the surface, cultivating the soil for you.

Some of my garden I covered with broken-down boxes in the fall, before the snow came. I got old moldy hay from neighboring farmers, and spread it over the cardboard. In the spring, when it was time to plant, I just made holes through the mulch, or cut pieces out, and planted directly through it into the soil. In another section, after it was newly tilled, I worked in my organic soil amendments, planted, and then unrolled long strips of brown paper, “kraft paper,” as it’s called, available in bulk sale online, between the rows, layering old hay and straw over it. All the areas in which I planted this way produced bountifully.

Next year, I’ll do it all that way.

Next year, I’ll have the best garden ever (yes, I know, I say this every year).

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Rebecca Bratten Weiss works part time as a lecturer in English Literature, part time as an eco gardener. She has co-authored two novels, Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes her Debut, and Catholic Philosopher Chick Comes on Strong, published by Chesterton Press, and also published a chapbook of poems, Palaces of Dust. You may follow her at Suspended in her Jar, hosted by Patheos Catholic.

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