The Homesteader of My Heart

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I remember my first glimpse of our new backyard, the way that my heart (and my feet) sunk a bit as I surveyed the gray sludge covering what we hoped to make a garden. The clay soil was packed so tight, so impenetrable to the delicate roots of new plants. Could a garden ever grow there?

Over the spring and summer and even into the fall, though, I worked with the soil. Before planting anything, I added a thin layer of compost and tilled it in. I planted seeds and seedlings, watching as their roots slowly broke through some of the clay. I mulched around all my plants with straw, sprinkled chicken manure fertilizer, and dug in more compost. Our house faithfully saved all our fruit and vegetable scraps, lugging stinking buckets of them to the compost bin and mixing them with straw and leaves. At the end of the season, I pulled out all of our old plants and tilled in the straw by hand. We drove around the neighborhood one Sunday afternoon, filling our little car with bag after bag of our neighbor’s leaves, later spreading those leaves in a thick blanket over the whole garden. In the spring, after rain and snow and time have broken them down, I’ll till those in, too, along with more compost.

It has been a process of adding and tilling. Of adding some more and tilling some more. Of waiting.

As I look over the resting winter garden (barely recognizable now under its blanket of snow), I am so aware of the slowness of this process. In just one season I saw definite improvements, a gradual loosening of the soil, better growth in the second planting than the first, but it’s just the beginning. A garden like this needs long-term commitment. It needs a gardener who will faithfully, slowly, work to amend it over the course of years, not just days or months. It needs a homesteader who is willing to claim it and say, “This is my land,” before they see any fruit.

The process of healing and growth in my heart right now feels equally slow, marked by a similar pattern of digging and adding and pulling things out by the roots. But my heart has a homesteader, the Homesteader. He lay claim to this territory long before it bore any fruit, naming it as His own while it was still tight-packed with the mud of fear and hurt and striving. He knows just what this soil needs. And He is committed to it for the long haul, for years, not just days or months. As I feel my boots sinking into the mud of this messy healing process, that reality feels so comforting to me.

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“Beautiful Things”

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

– Gungor

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Good Soil

I realized recently that I never posted much – or anything, really – about our garden this year. Any moments this spring when I might have written about it were instead engulfed in schoolwork, weddings, moving, and traveling.

The garden was part of the initial vision and invitation for this house. When Maggie bought the house, the entire backyard was a big expanse of blacktop, the former parking lot for a business that once used the house for its offices. But Maggie, with her farmer’s heart and a desire to see land restored, saw beyond the blacktop. After she bought the house, she had the pavement broken up and removed and fill dirt trucked in. She built pathways sectioning the garden into four square plots and sectioned off a row in the back for berry bushes.

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Over scones, Maggie and I sketched out ideas for how to divide the space, listed available tools, meticulously wrote out conditions for participating in the garden, and brainstormed a list of friends who might want to garden a piece of the land this first year. She accompanied me to the Kansas City Community Gardens where I picked out an armful of seeds – spinach, lettuce, kale, beets, bush beans, black-eyed peas, zucchini, pumpkins, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, marigolds, and zinnias – and ordered sweet potato, raspberry, and blackberry plants.

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And then Maggie moved to France, leaving the garden and our plans in my hands.

Derek and I spent a chilly Saturday in late April, just weeks after our last snow storm, spreading compost, tilling the garden, and planting the earliest seeds. As my rubber boots squelched in the gray mud, sodden from the rainy spring, and the tiller stuck in the thick clay of the soil, I struggled to imagine how anything could grow in that space. Even so, when our friend Lebeka (now our newest housemate) joined us to help spread compost and plant seeds and as everyone who planned to participate in the garden stopped by during the day to work in their own plots, I felt hopeful about the garden and the relational fruit that might grow from it, even if no vegetables or flowers flourished.

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Despite the initial sense of hopefulness that sprung out of that first planting day and the literal sprouts of vegetables that followed soon after, discouragement soon burgeoned as well as I watched nearly all of what I planted struggle to grow at all in those first couple months. I learned firsthand the importance of good soil as I watched the heavy clay of the soil fall aside in solid chunks whenever I dug into it with my trowel and witnessed the pools of water that settled on the surface around the plants before drying into a solid, impenetrable crust. No matter how much I weeded, watered, and mulched, the plants struggled to thrive. They simple couldn’t. Their delicate roots couldn’t push through the heavy clay and even with the compost we mixed in before we planted (too little, we realized), the plants couldn’t access the nutrients they needed. In those conditions, they quickly began to starve. Many of the sprouts soon withered and yellowed and what remained of our spinach went to seed before it grew even two or three inches high.

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I felt tempted to give up on the garden, to wait and start fresh the next year with more compost or perhaps even with raised beds that bypassed the soil entirely. But instead I began loosening the soil around each row of plants before watering to allow the water to seep deeper down. I sprinkled nitrogen-rich chicken manure fertilizer around my kale, lettuce, and beets to provide more nutrients. I dug out the dirt around all my pepper and tomato plants and replaced it with compost from our compost pile. As I began to give the plants the air, water, and food they needed, slowly they began to revive and grow.

Now, over four months after we first planted the first seeds, I have a bowl full of fresh tomatoes on the counter and a jar of perfectly dried black-eyed peas in the pantry. I have eaten one zucchini (bugs and bacteria consumed the rest of my squashes) and stir fried green beans and gypsy peppers. We have more kale than we can eat and vases of zinnias adorn several rooms in our house. A fall crop of spinach, kale, beets, and arugula is already sprouting and just yesterday I noticed that several of our bell peppers are finally starting to blush red. I have weeded, watered, planted, and harvested in the garden alongside friends and had some hard, stretching conversations about use of the space and tools.

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The garden (and the relationships within it) are still far from perfect, but when I remember the parking lot that covered that space when Maggie first showed me the house less than nine months ago, I can see that life has undoubtedly grown out of that space, with even more restoration to come.

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