Sarah and I rent a house in East Sacramento.  We’ve experimented with gardening, but putting down roots is difficult when you rent.  Our small backyard is nicely landscaped with several birch trees and a beautiful Japanese maple.  The shade is great for hot summer days, but unsuitable for novice gardening.

Between our driveway and our neighbor’s driveway sits a narrow plot of dirt enclosed by a few layers of red bricks.  The dirt was dry and cracked when we moved here.  I spent part of an afternoon turning it with a shovel.  We planted three heirloom tomato plants, two pepper plants, and several marigolds.  The results were pretty pathetic.  A few tomatoes and a handful of peppers wasn’t what we were imagining.  We read a little more about gardening.  We talked with the folks at our local nursery.  I took the shovel to the soil again the next spring.  This time we added compost, organic fertilizer, top soil, mulch, etc.  We planted and watered.  Similar results.  Our vegetable garden was anemic.  Sacramento has endless sun in the summer.  Gardening should not be difficult here.  Soil + plant + sun + water + a little love = BOUNTY.  Not for us.

Since we’ve noticed the enormous rosemary bushes emerging from small cracks in the concrete downtown, we decided it would be the plant of choice this year.  We planted three small starter plants early in the spring.  They’ve barely grown.  In contrast, we planted in wine barrels on the driveway near our garage and our heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini have taken root and produced abundantly throughout the summer.

I’m learning that gardening takes patience and attention and practice and skill.  Perhaps most importantly:  soil matters.  The bottom line is that we didn’t do the work of taking care of the soil in the small front plot.  The same varieties of plants that looked so pitiful in the front, grew decently for months in the wine barrels.  To be sure, our best heirloom tomatoes still paled in comparison to the tomatoes from Terra Firma, Good Humus, and Soil Born.

Wendell Berry describes how “farmed-out soils in Indiana” have been restored in an essay titled “Seven Amish Farmers” in Bringing it to The Table. Berry writes,

The remedy has been a set of farming practices traditional among the Amish since the seventeenth century:  diversification, rotation of crops, use of manure, seeding of legumes.  The practices began when the Anabaptist sects were disfranchised in their European homelands and forced to the use of poor soil.  We saw them still working to restore farmed-out soils in Indiana.  One thing these practices do is build humus in the soil, and humus does several things:  increases fertility, improves soil structure, improves both water-holding capacity and drainage.  ‘No humus, you’re in trouble,’ Bill says.

As I look toward the mostly barren narrow plot of dirt in the front and our still producing plants in the wine barrels, I’m reminded of the significance of humus.  It is the bottom line.  Without humus, roots fail and plants die.  With humus, roots are able to thrive and fruit is able to grow.  Cultivating humus takes time, work, and thoughtful planning. It takes risk.  It means getting dirty.  It requires paying attention to the earth.  Ultimately, it depends upon a reorienting of time and attention to the interconnectedness of creation.

This feels equally true in terms of our own spiritual lives.  In order to do justice and love kindness, we must be rooted in healthy soil.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as the true vine, God as the vine-grower, and those who seek to follow Jesus as branches that will produce much fruit.  The soil matters in our interior lives as well.  God longs for creation to be rooted, yet too often we don’t take time to restore our over-worked and over-burdened souls.

The Amish are restoring the soil of Indiana by returning to the traditional practices of diversification, crop rotation, etc.  Perhaps the ancient practices of early Christian communities (i.e. prayer, breaking bread, searching scriptures, fasting, living in community, caring for the marginalized, giving generously to others) can function in similar ways.

God’s gift to us — to you and to me and to all of creation — is love.  God’s love is unconditional.  Unbound.  May this gift be the humus that allows our lives to take root, grow, and reach others.

Step Two - Look at Nature Healing Cloth by Christine Schmoeckel Exhibited at Spirit in the Arts

Step Two - Look at Nature Healing Cloth by Christine Schmoeckel Exhibited at Spirit in the Arts