When we weed for beauty
Updated: Jul 17, 2022
“Talk about the big Poppy takeover” commented the daughter who was initially responsible.
Alongside our house there is a 30m flower border, one third of which has been totally overwhelmed with poppies, long pricklyhead poppies to be precise: a riot of red. This has not happened by accident but a direct result of skilled and sustained weeding. By me, the head gardener.
This week friends took us to the new RHS gardens at Bridgewater in Salford. Impressive but what impressed me most was the society’s commitment to social gardening, welcoming those who are vulnerable and in need of social interaction to enrol as volunteer gardeners. It is now well documented how gardening nourishes our mental health.
No surprise to readers of the Hebrew scriptures. So in the second creation narrative in Genesis we read: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15).
As it happened I mentioned this to my Hebraist daughter and she mentioned that the word for “work” is ebed, an extremely common word meaning to serve. So a literal translation would be for the man to serve and to safeguard the land, our very calling as human beings.
Gardening is placed in our very DNA: to handle the soil is how we relate to God’s creation from which we have been formed. This is made explicit even in Adam’s name: adamah means earth or soil. To quote the author Mike Bucchianeri: “There's something satisfying about getting your hands in the soil.”
However, (and there’s always an however) Adam and Eve decide to go independent of God – and to some extent, of the land. The result, as it affects Adam: “thorns and thistles.” (Genesis 3:18).
Which brings us to weeds and the importance of weeding, for some a controversial subject. For as you know what defines a weed is entirely subjective. For me a poppy is never a weed.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness?
Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins may have been one of the greatest poets of the 19th century but in his appreciation of gardening and understanding of scripture, here he was entirely wrong. In fact, he actually wrote to a friend delighting in the beauty of the gardens at Lancashire’s Stonyhurst College, where he lived for three years. They’re still impressive – and of course, well weeded!
It was over 20 years ago when I realised the importance of good weeding. Upto then each May I ruthlessly hoed our entire garden to remove every single unauthorised growth. Otherwise summer would be a weed nightmare. However, one year we were too busy to weed, and that summer we were surprised by a lovely display of poppies clearly visible in the dense undergrowth.
And since then, especially in the last few years, I have learned to distinguish poppy seedlings from potential weeds, especially milkweed and willow herb. Both are invasive from other lands and reproduce aggressively. They’ll take over if you let them.
Just four years ago when we moved here, we had to start the garden from scratch and one daughter presented us with a packet of wild flower seeds from Aldi,. And since then poppies have taken over that part of the garden from May to July, starting out each April as tiny seedlings.
And this is a visual aid of how Christian ministry best flourishes - when we see what God is already doing and do it with him.
Some years back I presented a paper to the Bishop’s Council on how the Holy Spirit usually works, bottom-up rather than top-down. Alpha, food banks and street pastors, for example, all started locally and then spread rapidly. They didn’t happen because some Bishop or Synod decided to plant them.
So as Christians we learn to look around us and see what God is already doing, even on a very small scale. We may notice the equivalent of a tiny poppy seedling, almost insignificant - but it’s already growing. We then start to care for it, giving it scope to grow. This may mean clearing the ground, even taking resources from other ministries.
This takes some discipline and patience, above all the ability to notice things. In fact, Jesus stresses this need to notice what God is about to do. So he tells us: “Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner.” (Matthew 24:32)
And this works on the personal level too. We need to notice what’s happening in our lives, to be alert to what the Holy Spirit is doing, sometimes imperceptibly, even “the merest hint of green.” So much so, in fact, that others may see it before we do. To do this we need to clear out all the mush which can so easily throttle spiritual growth, some determined weeding.
Saint Teresa of Avila had the ability to notice through the discipline of prayer where God was at work. She counsels: “A beginner must look on himself as one setting out to make a garden for his Lord's pleasure, on most unfruitful soil which abounds in weeds. His Majesty roots up the weeds and will put in good plants instead. Let us reckon that this is already done when the soul decides to practice prayer and has begun to do so.”