Gardening as a Spiritual Practice

It’s Lammas, and since I’m one of those people who associate this holiday with Frey, I’d like to talk about one of the main reasons why Frey gets a lot of worship from me.

When I was a kid we had a small vegetable garden in the backyard. We grew cherry tomatoes, sweet banana peppers, yellow crookneck squash, and blue lake bush beans. The tomatoes and peppers were plants purchased from the garden section of Home Depot or Wal-Mart. The beans and squash were Burpee seeds from the seed rack there. We fertilized it with Miracle Gro, killed bugs with Sevin, and killed weeds with Roundup.

Eventually my mom said she had grown tired of the garden and I was old enough to be in charge of it now, if I wanted to still have a garden. The garden was now mine.

Soon an obsession was sparked in me. This was pre-internet, so I had to read books on the subject that I got from the library. I started to read about how harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides were, so I went organic. I started reading about heirloom varieties that they didn’t have at the big box stores, so I started growing those instead. I started tomatoes and peppers from seed in yogurt cups in the windowsill of my room instead of buying plants from the store.

When we moved into a new house with a postage-stamp yard, I had to downsize. I was constantly frustrated that I had so little room to grow much, just four tomato plants, four pepper plants, two bush squash plants, and some pole beans climbing up chicken wire I attached to the fence. I kept dreaming of one day having a huge garden where I could grow fruit trees, berry bushes, long rambling melon and pumpkin vines, and enough tomatoes to can and freeze.

Then I went off to college and lived in a tiny studio apartment. I couldn’t stand not being able to grow anything. I felt so cut off from Mother Earth and the cycles of the seasons. Eventually I heard about a community garden in town, so I got a plot there. It was great at first. I could finally grow things, and had a lot more room than I did in my mom’s backyard. The problem was I now I had to drive a few miles to putter in the garden, instead of just walking out the back door. For a while I had a part time job in the bookstore across the street from the community garden, so I would visit it every day after work. I didn’t want to get my work clothes and shoes dirty, but at least that way I could check on my plants almost every day, harvest anything that ripened, and take note of things I had to do on my next day off when I’m properly prepared to dig in the dirt.

But then I got a job further away and visiting my garden required a 15 minute drive to get there. And then I had a car accident and wasn’t hurt but totaled my car and now relied on public transportation to get there. Now it was a 45 minute bus ride to get to my garden, because public transportation in Texas is terrible. I have a vivid memory of dragging a large sack full of freshly harvested potatoes and onions onto the bus after spending a few hours digging them up. The bus driver and I had an interesting conversation about it.

The garden started getting neglected. Sometimes tomatoes would rot before I got to them. The weeds started taking over because I never had enough time to pull them all. I was going to college full time plus a part time job, so I could only visit the garden once a week.

The other gardeners at the community garden were almost all retired people who had a lot of time on their hands. Some thought it was really cool that a college student was trying to grow a garden there and were friendly and encouraging, but the lady who had a plot next to mine started getting increasingly annoyed. She kept her garden perfect with no weeds and little cherub statues and lattice fences around. She started making rude comments about how unkempt and ugly my garden was looking. I started trying to avoid being there when she was also there, which cut into the time I could spend in my garden even more.

Then one day I got to my garden and there was a yellow flag. That happens when someone puts in a complaint that a garden had excessive weeds or unharvested crops, so the garden might be abandoned. You had a week to clean it up or they would put up a red flag, and now that means you lost your garden and they were going to rent it to someone else. I don’t know who complained about my garden, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to clean it up in time, so I sent management an email saying I was giving up my garden. I didn’t want to get that red flag signifying it was abandoned, because I’d heard the complaints about all “those people” who come and get a plot and be enthusiastic for a few weeks and then realize it was hard work and disappear. I didn’t want them to think I was one of “those people.”

I ended up going to graduate school at a different university in a new town which had community gardens, but I had learned my lesson that I didn’t have time to tend a garden I had to drive to. The old saying goes that the best thing for a garden is the gardener’s shadow. A garden really needs to be checked on daily.

The best I could do was get a CSA membership, so I got fresh produce delivered once a week to my apartment. I made friends with the farmer, and would sometimes come and help him with his farm, which was about a 20 minute drive away. One time I went and helped him pick peaches for a few hours, and he let me take home all the bruised ones he couldn’t sell. Another time I got a bunch of imperfect tomatoes. I bought a canner and canned them in my tiny apartment kitchen. I bought a Meyer lemon tree and a Key lime tree for my apartment balcony. I even harvested a few lemons or limes from them each winter. It wasn’t much of a harvest, but at least it was something.

Then I met the man who would become my husband, and we moved in together in a rented house. Shortly after that I graduated during the recession and was unemployed for almost a year. We did ask permission from the landlord to have a garden, but I bet he didn’t realize I’d take up the whole back yard. When you’re unemployed they say you’re supposed to make looking for work your full time job, but you can really only keep that up for a few weeks before you run out of places to apply to, and then what do you do with your time? I also looked for places to volunteer at, but they were all full and said they didn’t need any more volunteers. I guess many other people out of work had the same idea.

At least my garden made me feel like I was doing something productive, and I did get a bountiful harvest, especially of tomatoes, squash, and garlic. I doubt I made a big dent in our bills, but I think it certainly helped with my mental health.

Then I finally got a job, we got married, and bought our own house. And that’s where I am today. Our house is on a 0.8 acre plot, but most of it is heavily shaded with oak trees, which is nice, but gardens need sun. I have two vegetable gardens, one in the front and one in the back, in the two sunny spots we had. I also have fruit trees in a row in the front yard between the oak trees and the road: a pomegranate, the Meyer lemon I used to have on my balcony, a satsuma, a kumquat, a loquat, and a fig. We tried planting the Key lime where the kumquat is now, but during its first winter it died down to its roots. We dug it up and put it back in a pot, and replaced it with the kumquat. I guess my area isn’t quite warm enough yet for a Key lime to survive in the ground (it did manage to sprout back from its roots and now seems to be thriving in its pot). I would like to have more fruit trees like apples, peaches, and pears, but I’m not sure where I have the room to squeeze them in.

I know most people don’t have gardens, but I simply need to have one. Fellow gardeners will understand that, and other people don’t get it at all. When my husband and I were looking for a house, my first priority was that there had to be room for a garden.

 

The main deity I associate with my garden is Frey. I know some people might think that my gardening doesn’t count as an act of devotion to Frey, since it’s something I enjoy doing anyway, and would do with Frey or without him, but that’s how it is with me. It’s also shaped how I view Frey. I’ve seen other people’s depictions of him where he ends up looking like Fabio, with long flowing blonde hair, but I have a hard time picturing him like that.

To me, Frey has hair and a beard the dark brown color of fertile soil and green eyes the color of healthy vegetation. He has the physique and tanned skin of someone who works outside most of the time. If he’s wearing clothes, they’re also green and brown, and he smells like soil and fresh cut grass. His sacred animals are the deer and the wild hog, which is ironic since both of those animals are very destructive to gardens. Deer are overpopulated here since we removed their natural predators, and wild hogs are a non-native invasive species. Maybe there’s a lesson here somewhere.

The idea that Frey is sacrificed and reborn every year is probably a bit of modern lore. I don’t remember anything about that in any of the Norse mythology I’ve read. But I don’t care, because it fits so well with him. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is so obvious when you garden, and especially when you save your own seeds, like I do. It also makes sense for him to die on Lammas, because here that’s the hottest time of year, and that’s what ends up killing most of the spring-planted crops (the tomatoes, beans, etc. that were planted in February or March). Then there’s a second planting season for overwintering crops in fall when it cools down sometime around the Autumn Equinox.

In order to be a good gardener I also have to be on good terms with the local land spirits and the plant spirits, and that’s where things get a little trickier as a Heathen, because most of them are not European. Yes, Europeans have been here for a while, and many of them are buried around here and still haunt the place, but they are in the minority as far as local spirits go. As for the plants I grow, most of them are either native to the New World (squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes), or to Africa (okra, black-eyed peas) because of the hot climate here. In the winter I can grow some peas, carrots, turnips, and other European things, but for most of the year my garden is full of stuff that wasn’t domesticated by white people. I don’t think it’s right to ignore native spirits when I’m using their land and growing their crops, but cultural appropriation is always such a touchy subject. How I deal with this is still in the learning stages.

And I mean “growing their crops” quite literally sometimes. I get a lot of stuff from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is an organization in Tucson, Arizona whose goal is to preserve Native American plant varieties from the Southwest. Some of their plants are native to the New World (like corn, beans, and squash), and some were brought by Europeans and then adopted by native tribes (like melons). Tucson is a bit hotter and drier than here, but that often means their plants think South Texas is a lush paradise. Sometimes I hardly have to water them at all. They do have a few varieties that are from the San Antonio area, like what is now my favorite okra, but I’m on the very eastern edge of the geographic range they cover.

But with climate change, maybe things from further southwest might be even better adapted to growing here over time. That seems to be the opinion of the founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Gary Nabhan. He’s probably right that the world is going to need these desert-adapted crops in the future. I’m just not sure if it’s going to get wetter or drier here overall. So far it seems like we’ve just had more extremes: floods, then droughts, then a flood, then more drought. That actually makes it even harder than it would be if it was just getting consistently wetter or drier. Plant something from Florida during a dry year and it roasts to a crisp. Plant something from Arizona during a wet year and it rots.

 

Now my gardening has progressed into seed-saving to preserve heirloom varieties. I’ll probably join Seed Savers Exchange soon because I’ve gotten to the point where I have enough to share. I’ve also started a little bit of amateur plant breeding to get varieties that are even better adapted to my growing conditions, inspired by an author named Carol Deppe. I own all three of her books, and she’s one of those people who I think would make a good pagan (even though she says she’s a Taoist). There’s a lot of animism in the way she writes about the relationship between a gardener and her plants. She’s one of those gardeners who is not afraid to admit that she talks to her plants, and talking to them helps them grow better, and sometimes they do actually talk back.

Saving your own seeds closes the circle. I associate it with the rune Ingwaz. In general I think of Ingwaz as the rune for the legacy you are going to leave to future generations. It’s a counterbalance to Othala in that way, as Othala is the rune for what the ancestors left us.

I like to think that I’m doing my part to preserve seeds and knowledge for future generations who are going to really need them when climate change forces us to adapt the way we obtain our food.

But even if there wasn’t some “greater purpose” to what I do in my garden, I’d still enjoy doing it anyway. It’s just fun.

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One thought on “Gardening as a Spiritual Practice

  1. I love your vision of Frey. 🙂 I generally have some sort of garden going, though it has ranged from a big permaculture mandala to a few straggly silverbeet, depending on my health, where we live, and the time of year, but i rarely have nothing on the the go. Tending to my animals and plants is part of the good of life.

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