Shouldering—growing, rounding, pushing its back up and out of the dark underground and into the air. When it’s halfway in and halfway out, you’ll know exactly how big it is. You’ll know when it’s ready. Somehow, God’s design for these root vegetables (carrots, turnips, radishes and beets) includes a totally foolproof signal of readiness. You’ll know. In fact, you won’t have to dig it up—it’ll come to you.
Seeds are tiny little packages of reactions, just waiting to be triggered. They get wet, get hidden in darkness, and they are impelled to begin a process of reactions that you have to see to believe: they pull nitrogen, oxygen, potassium, and any number of other invisible spooks, they gather them together from the sunlight, soil, air, and water, they twirl them about and ingest them, they combine them and kneed them and produce juicy, crunchy, sweet, spicy, color. How like pure supernatural enchantments.
In the Milky Way, the Grand Canyon, and the Pacific Ocean, God shows himself Lord of the macroglories. In gardening, he is Lord of the micro ones.
Gardening makes me feel more human in two distinct ways. 1) It humbles me, and 2) it does something that feels like the opposite of humbling, but isn’t: it dignifies me, elevates me, plugs me into a process that makes me feel like a queen and a steward. It connects me to the creation mandate, which was mine since the day I was born a daughter of Eve. I was born a human. Born to subdue the earth by fostering life.
In the garden, I have front row seat to God’s work of overflowing productive beauty. In one sense, I’m only an onlooker. I have no power over these spooks and enchantments. I don’t know how he made those little spiky beet seeds, resembling the top nub you pull off an orange before peeling. I don’t know how he encoded them to sprout into leaves of striped green and fuschia, secret underground bulbs of ringed red. He did it by methods which date to the third day of our world’s turning.
He did it under my nose, and after I put those seeds under a thin layer of dirt. But in this case, correlation isn’t the same as causation. It happened after I put the seeds in the ground. But can I really say it happened because I put them in the ground? I couldn’t have caused a beet if I dreamed, planned, and experimented for a lifetime. He built this beet—out of blocks he carved into the air and ground thousands of years back. I just happened to the be the one he blessed with it. He blessed me by letting my fingers be the ones to drop the seed, my knife the knife that slices open the beet to see the bleeding rings, my mouth and belly the ones that are fed by the fuschia.
I was there to see it—but I was only the most indirect of causes.
But I still feel pleasure in being that indirect cause. I feel pleasure to have done labor and seen return. I feel pleasure like a key in a lock, like a dam against water, like a man taking a woman to bed. Something in me is fitted to this work. Digging, mulching, suckering, planting, watering, fencing, and drawing plans are all little jobs—good for their own sake. But they also picture for me a greater work the gardener is doing.
Gardening in pictures
I love the illustrations built into the garden.
Weeds apparently act like sin, spreading quickly, growing without provocation, infecting any unused ground and space. They are a sign of futility (Gen. 3:17). They are like rebellious people, thriving servants of their father the Devil who grow in the same places as the children of the Father but will be winnowed in the end (Matt. 13).
Cultivated plants are like people waiting for the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13). God’s harvest of men. Jesus is a vine we want to be grafted into (John 15:5). Death precedes new life, like when a seed goes underground (John 12:24). When we’re baptized, it’s like the death of the grave, of the seedbed. Then we’re raised to new life, after which we’re meant to produce fruit a hundred fold (Luke 8:8). So put your hand to the plow and don’t look back (Luke 9:62).
There are other illustrations, implied in the act of gardening but not explicitly spelled out in scripture. Anyone who’s raising children and plants at the same time can’t help but see the similarities. Children, like plants, require care and protection when young so they can be fruitful and hardy when grown. Most of our relational lives are touched with futility, like gardening. Every time you turn your back on a garden, another pest has invaded, another blight has taken something down. The rain comes, and then it doesn’t. Then a storm comes and blows something down. A crop thrives. Then the second it gets ripe, it’s stolen by a raccoon, who literally rides a stalk to the ground before making off with the harvest (this is how they get corn… like little thrill-seeking bandits).
You can feel the cry of Ecclesiastes in the garden—the same cry in your heart when your child disobeys, when your spouse takes a wrong turn, when your country enters another vicious circle, when your heart is sick with frustration and self-loathing. The garden is yet another thing on this earth that can fail you. It’s yet another thing on this earth you can fail at.
But in touching this chord of loss and frustration, gardening can also touch a chord of longing and hope. Because in gardening you wait for the day when Eden, the lost garden, is remade. You wait for the day when moth and rust no longer destroy. You wait for the purging of weeds and the flourishing of cultivated plants. You wait for the creator to show you what this garden would look like if the fall had never happened. No, not if it had never happened. If it had happened, but had been used to produce a story yet more glorious—had laid the manure down for another garden even more glorious than the first. You’re waiting for the last Eden.
And in that waiting, you put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.
[Note: to read more about food and the kingdom of heaven, check out Tilly’s recent release, Broken Bread: How to stop using food and fear to fill spiritual hunger (Harvest House, 2020).]