In mid-March we watched in shock as the world began grinding to a halt in the marketplaces and structures of society. It didn’t take us long to see that while so much was slowing down or shutting down around us, the garden and our work in it continued. The garden was immune to the effects of a global pandemic. In fact, as others reported cessation of work or business activity, our productive season was picking up pace.
Never before were we so thankful for our decision to begin this garden. It gave us a work focus to continue throughout a time of strangeness and uncertainty. Those who had committed to receiving our weekly veg box were more delighted than ever to have fresh, locally grown produce delivered to their door without them having to set foot inside a supermarket with all the risks and rigamarole that involved.
Globally we could see a wave of acknowledgement and appreciation for access to locally produced food. We felt privileged to be a part of the story of redeeming our world’s engagement with the earth and all it grows.
We also felt the stretch of the hungry gap as we kicked off mid-April, a time when most other growers are either importing or holding off until June to begin supply. With our desire to maintain local and seasonal produce, we supplemented what we were growing ourselves with mushrooms from Portarlington and potatoes, parsnips and leeks from another organic grower in Kilcullen.
Beginning so early in the season, when crop yields are still meagre, was a steep learning curve for us. Alongside getting our heads around growing for over twenty households, we were also undertaking some ambitious infrastructural tasks to improve our garden space. The lockdown meant we couldn’t get the same work party together that we had envisioned to assist with erecting a new polytunnel, but we managed to get it up and covered with some help from Claire’s Dad. We also expanded our packing area to create space for the increased number of boxes we would be preparing this season.
As the drought of April and May began taking its toll on our crops, we noticed our salads were succumbing to a root aphid outbreak. Seeing our beautiful salad leaves failing was a real hit on morale and on our weekly garden output. In mid-May we took another unexpected hit as Jeremy fell from the roof of our house and received a deep wound that required surgery on his upper left arm. Amazingly, although his lacerated triceps would require six weeks of careful healing, there was no other lasting damage. The accident sent shockwaves through us. The aftermath was a time to take stock and think about how to develop healthier, more sustainable rhythms of work and rest.
Although the global pandemic had not ground us to a halt, the roof fall made us remember we are not at all unstoppable. As Jeremy arrived home from hospital still groggy from anaesthetic and shock, we had to pause and draw breath and decide where to go from here. Once again, we realised that the garden continues, even if we would wish it to pause with us a moment.
There were weeds rapidly raising their heads in the beds and paths. There were trays full of pea seedlings becoming entangled with eachother’s eager tendrils. There were courgette and squash plants bursting out of their pots.
There were twenty two box customers still expecting their weekly delivery of produce. The garden continued. We pressed on with our one-armed head gardener and a whole lot of community and family love and support. Friends arrived to pitch in with a few hours of weeding and neighbours delivered meals: we were now recipients of the grace we wanted this garden to be all about. This grace is about knowing that we are not at the centre. This allows us to stop, even when the weeds continue to grow and customers await vegetables. In June we took the radical decision to reduce and then, for one week, completely pause our veg box output. This allowed us to refocus, to await more growth and create space for people to visit and connect with the garden (more on that in the next blog!).
The garden continues, and we continue but only in a rhythm of grace; for ourselves as well as others.
“Spring is for those who are willing to risk growing again”
I first heard this quote in the context of my Dramatherapy training. An apt metaphor for an emerging season of healing and hope when a winter of darkness has taken hold of life.
In the garden however, winter has been a time of rest, relief and reflection. Signs of Spring bring a skittish feeling of excitement and nerves at embarking on a second season of growing and sharing crops. February brings a ‘this time last year’ mentality of nostalgia, satisfaction and realistic growth plans. A photo of the garden in mid February last year shows a barren wasteland without bed or polytunnel.
When Jeremy sows the first seeds of 2020 on February 7th, he recalls that this action is completed exactly a month earlier than last year. It feels like such momentous progress to be starting so much ‘ahead’ of ourselves this time round.
Yet the newness of Spring brings fears alongside hopes. Growth shunts us out of Winter rest and reflective ideas into questioning and action. Are we ready? Have we done enough? Will the harvest be plentiful? Growth breeds questions.
We watch the snowdrops raise their white heads in January grass. The defiant blades of daffodil follow up with the call of Spring. Their bulbs burgeoning with anticipation until they can’t hold their yellow glory inside any longer.
It has come.
Reports from the garden of seeds germinating. Each seed on a journey through dark soil towards light. Each one heralding a story of future food.
As we look at the array of green shoots popping up in trays we receive replies from those interested in sharing in the garden crop this year. These tender sprouts will become food for families, nourishing and inspiring connections around kitchen tables.
At the end of January, our own kitchen table expands as we welcome a family from Germany with two young children to come live and work with us at Charis Garden for one month.
This invites the risk and growth associated with Spring. Sharing space and time with another family has real challenges and new joys. Thankfully the Schön family are true to the meaning of their name and fill the space with beauty and grace…along with hard work and the scent of freshly baked sourdough bread. As always when we open this space to people we see something of the vision we hope to create here reflected back to us. As Nadine scrapes moss in the yard she comments; “It is so good for us to be here, working with our hands, it feels so good to do physical work like this!”
Winter. The garden looks more like it’s beginning. Bare brown earth is revealed once more in the wake of verdant harvests. Dying crops are relieved of their efforts, pulled up and lain on a compost pyre. Wizened courgette leaves and tired-out tomato tendrils will be resurrected as rich nutrients for another season’s growth. The beds are mulched with whatever we can get our hands on to nourish the soil over winter. A neighbouring riding school provides poo a plenty. Home grown compost, straw and mushroom compost complete the cocktail.
We try out some artificial mulch, as well as a special paper mulch, which will disintegrate over time. Garlic bulbs are tucked through this crepe paper blanket, and then blanketed with straw. The garlic relishes the first frosts, their journey kickstarting towards spring. With each bulb pressed into cold earth, we anticipate summer stir fries, sauces and pestos.
We are still eating from the garden. Stored onions and potatoes. Beetroot, leeks and carrots pulled up for dinner, sticky with dark soil. The reliable winter greens: brussels, kale and spinach. The welcome russet and gold on our plate of rainbow chard. Salad leaves and winter purslane thrive under the canopy of our tunnel. It is a wonder to behold the growth persisting through these cold dark months, nourishing us while taking little from us in terms of labour at this time.
We acknowledge our need for this change of pace. We know what last Spring/Summer was like. There is something very fitting about beds lying dormant under straw as we exhale and let the garden lie a little quieter underfoot.
It has been a gift to learn the discipline and rhythm of seasonal growing and eating so far. We have tomato sauces, kale and basil pestos in our freezer and suddenly Spring doesn’t seem so far away after all.
There is much work to do in preparation for another season of growth in Charis Garden. In mid-November Jeremy put a week’s hard graft into a chainsaw course with a view to beginning clearance work in the old walled garden as well as processing firewood.
We continue to research, plot and plan for inviting hens to take up residence in Charis Garden. The threat of fox and mink mean we need to put some thought and effort into safeguarding our feathered egg offering inhabitants.
We discuss growing plans, crop rotation and plot the development of a community gathering space in the yet to be cleared wilderness of the walled garden.
The following is an excerpt from a sermon Jeremy delivered at the annual Church of Ireland Harvest Services in St. Brigid’s Church, Ballintubbert and Athy.
Charis Garden is a space of about 2/3 of an acre and situated in Ballyadams. Out of it, we have developed a small scale market garden that is now supplying a regular veggie box to between 10 and 15 local homes between Ballyadams, Athy and Stradbally. We fill the boxes with whatever seasonal produce the garden yields on any given week.
I want to tell you more about our garden. But, before I do, I want to dip into the Big Story of Scripture – because apart from that story, it is hard to grasp what Charis Garden is really all about.
The Big Story
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…
These are the words of Genesis 2.8. Right at the beginning of the Bible story – after God has created the heavens and the earth, and fashioned Adam and Eve – we read that God set about creating a garden.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…
And so we begin with a garden: the Bible’s sweeping narrative unfolds from here. It’s what we might call the Big Story: the catastrophic Fall, the tragic loss of Eden, the marring of the world through sin and hate – and, in the midst of this unfolding story, the loving determination of God to restore what has been lost.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear God speak through his prophets. And often in the imagery of the garden. For example, in Isaiah 27, he likens his people Israel to a vineyard:
A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!/I, the Lord, am its keeper;/Every moment I water it./Lest anyone punish it,/I keep it night and day./Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!…/In days to come Jacob shall take root,/Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots/And fill the whole earth with fruit.
Elsewhere, in Isaiah 51, he declares –
For the Lord comforts Zion;/He comforts all her waste places/And makes her wilderness like Eden;/Her desert like the garden of the Lord.
This green-fingered God describes the salvation he will bring to his people. He promises nothing less than cosmic rescue. The loss of Eden will be reversed. Creation, until now knotted with the thorns of evil, will finally be restored.
And by the time we meet Jesus – God made flesh and bone, walking on the earth he made – we hear him speak in garden images. He speaks of good soil, bad soil, hard soil; he speaks of thorns, wheat and tares; he speaks of sparrows, mustard seeds, trees and flowers; he speaks of fields and vineyards. He spins stories – filled with garden images – to illustrate the reality of his Kingdom.
And on the night of his betrayal, as the cross looms, we find him on his knees, sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And, on the dawn of resurrection, who is the first to meet him? Mary Magdalene.
And what does she mistake him for? A gardener.
This is how John tells it in his Gospel:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned to him and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).
There are no throwaway details in Scripture. John is telling us the Lord has returned from the thorny chaos of death. The resurrection of Jesus is proof-positive that God has followed through on all of his promises to save a world despoiled by evil
The gardener is not finished. He has returned, and he will finish his work.
As the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, closes, we are no longer in the company of a single couple, surrounded by a bucolic paradise of exotic creatures. Eden is no longer a garden but a garden-city, peopled with all the nations of the world.
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. (Rev. 21.23-24)
And so John brings us to a close. The symbolic language strains to communicate the incommunicable. But one thing is clear: God has been faithful to all his promises. The lost garden has been restored. We are dwellers of his garden-city, his presence is our light.
So much for the Big Story. So much for hope in anticipation of the garden renewed. But what about the present realities of a torn and broken world? As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, creation groans – not least because of the rampant environmental destruction caused by human greed.
And in fact, it is Paul, in a roundabout way, who brings us back to Charis Garden. For the name of our garden comes from the Greek word χαρις (charis) that he uses in so many of his letters.
The meaning of charis is ‘grace’, the loving-kindness of God. It also connotes joy, pleasure and thanksgiving. It occurs 155 times in the NT. And Paul opens many of his letters with the greeting, ‘Grace (charis) to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 1.7)
Paul’s letters call Christian communities in every age to persevere, to cultivate love in the midst of long-suffering; the patient garden-work of genuine discipleship. But it all begins with charis, with grace. It begins with who God is, and what he has already done for us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
And so Charis Garden is the name we chose for our garden. Our vision is threefold. Each aspect begins with an S: Soil, Soul and Solace. We want to bring these three strands together – tending the land (Soil), ministering to others (Soul) and providing a space of shelter and comfort, where appropriate, to those who may need it (Solace).
In the Big Story ofScripture, we glimpse God’s commitment to his creation. He does not abandon the beleaguered earth. Instead, he loves and restores what is lost and broken. Somehow, in some small way, we hope Charis Garden reflects the Big Story: God’s way of loving the earth and everything in it. We hope the garden space, and the food it provides, will be a blessing to those who partake…
Mid-September. The garden is still awash with colour. Each week we say we will be slowing down, and yet another yield of vegetables appears.
We start to hear stories of how our veg links with the lives of those who feast from Charis Garden. The boy who hates onions but eats the ones we grow. The woman who thought she didn’t like tomatoes until she tasted our varieties. The couple who tells us the veg box is the highlight of their week. The man who says he never thought kale could taste so good. We also share in the joy of feasting from the garden, skipping the vegetable aisle in the supermarket completely. The garden provides.
The daily work with soil, plants, rain, sun, slugs and caterpillars is what makes it all possible. By now, the lines on Jeremy’s hands are engraved with clay. Our three year old learns how to lift spuds and pick beans, without pulling down the whole plant. Claire realises she can pick and pack salad leaves with a baby on her back.
In the meantime, word of mouth continues to connect new people to the garden. The local Church of Ireland minister pays a visit, and mid-garden tour, invites Jeremy to speak at the annual Harvest Service. The thirteen year old niece of a friend, whose name is also Charis, comes to visit her garden namesake. Jeremy’s cousin Maebh travels from Sweden to lend a hand for a few days.
We are struck by the overwhelming weight of the garden, the way it gravitates us into rhythms of hard and constant labour. We are also struck by the hunger of our local community for good food, grown well. There is no shortage of people who want to eat what we grow. We feel the push to grow more, supply more, get bigger, better and busier. We discuss packing sheds and cold storage solutions as the Summer heat intensifies. Jeremy enrolls in a business course one day a week. We negotiate the rollercoaster of uncertainty involved in growing seasonal produce for a local community. Do we create a pick up point? Do we deliver? Do we have a fixed cost? Do we offer choice in weekly boxes? What happens if everyone goes on holidays all at once? Why are we growing all this stuff anyway? Should we put that first beautiful head of broccoli in a veg box for sale, or keep it for ourselves?
We come back to the garden. The bees hum their way through the Phycelia and Clover. Sunflowers stretch and open. We observe how everyone who enters Charis Garden is touched by how beautiful, how alive it is with the fruits of flowers and food.
Charis is a Greek word meaning grace: God’s way of loving the earth and all people. At times, in the stretch of the busy summer, it is easy to forget that we labour here in the midst of grace – God’s love, joy and beauty – and not primarily under the hard and unforgiving laws of market production. Our first priority is to nurture the garden so that it, in turn, can bring blessing to the lives of the people around us. If we can’t be kind to ourselves, we can’t extend this charis to others.
Three words define what Charis Garden is all about: Soil, Soul and Solace. For months now, we had poured our efforts into the soil, and the fruits of the soil’s harvest are richly evident. We are now beginning to explore the garden’s purpose as a place of soul-food and solace for people too.
As Autumn approaches and the garden begins to slow down, we sink deeper into the furrows of our path here, slowing down to reflect on how these aspects of the garden might develop. We plan our sowing schedule and think ahead through winter into spring again.
We also sow into Soul and Solace by beginning an intentional rhythm of prayer to keep our hearts centred in the presence of the God of grace. We sit with the uncertainty as seeds pressed into soil trust that darkness will not hinder their growth into light.