Gardening has never appealed to me, for two reasons. One, I am essentially lazy and it looks like hard work. And two, every house we’ve ever lived in has come with a mature garden, already planted out with lawns, borders, trees and shrubs. There has been no scope for design or imagination.
But for the first time I have moved into a house which is solely mine, and I can do what I like with it. And crucially, it came with a virgin garden. The previous owner had not attempted to do anything with it. The back garden consisted of a patio which has been built too high and breaches the damp course (so it has to go) and a scrubby patch of grass and weeds extending from one fence to the other. The south-west facing front garden consisted of a paved area surrounded by a six-foot hedge that formed a barricade, cutting me off from feeling part of the community.
Suddenly finding myself presented with a more or less blank canvas, gardening has taken on a new appeal. I moved in on 30th September, so I have had all winter to think about what I would do with it. First, I bought a compost bin. Next I mowed the back garden (the grass and weeds were 12 inches high) and overseeded it. I began filling the compost bin with grass cuttings and vegetable peelings. Then I had the top four feet lopped off the hedge so that I now feel as if I belong to the neighbourhood.
I set aside a patch below the kitchen window for vegetables, although I have not yet weeded and planted this. The week before last I went along the two back fences digging out flower borders. I put in some seeds of night-scented stock and giant sunflowers, and was excited to see the first cotyledons appearing above the soil yesterday. Then I bought some bedding plants – phlox, nicotiana and polyanthus and put them in. I have some tubers ready to plant next month. Apart from the polyanthus, all the flowers I have selected have wonderful scents, so that even if Ellen can’t see my garden very well, she can still appreciate the fragrance. I bought a trellis and fixed it to the wall of my outhouse, and planted a honeysuckle to grow up it. I bought a large container and put strawberry plants in it.
I had plans to plant a Peace rose in the front garden where it will benefit from the sun. I love Peace – my mother grew it in the garden of my childhood. I love its colours, its scent, and the story of how it got its name (http://www.bexrose.org.uk/RoseArticlePeace.htm). There is only one patch of soil in my front garden, and it was covered in scruffy grass and stones. I went to dig it out and found it was only an inch deep, with flagstones under the soil. Clearly the rose could not go there. I looked for a suitable spot in the back garden, and the only place where the soil was deep enough was in full shade – no good for a rose that loves the sun. So I went to the garden centre and bought a large wooden planter, set it in the front garden, filled it with soil and compost and planted my rose right where I originally planned. I thought it would look lost in the middle of the large container, so I bought a dozen blue petunias and planted them around it – I imagine they will look stunning against the creamy yellow tinged with pink of the Peace rose. Now I am weeding, watering and waiting, expecting a colourful and aromatic display front and back.
I have long loved the imagery of the garden. Even when I was not interested in gardening I still loved gardens, especially ones with varieties of open, sunny areas, hidden shady corners, trees, shrubs, flowers and fruit. Back in 1996 when I heard Chris Bowater using the garden as a symbol of worship, I immediately engaged with the idea.
He said that when we are in the congregation of the church, worshipping Jesus together, it’s like going for a walk with Him in the public garden, in the company of His friends. And when we worship Him on our own in privacy and intimacy, it’s like taking a walk alone with Him in our own secret garden. As it says in the Song of Songs, “My love is a garden enclosed”. I was gripped by this imagery and it transformed my times of personal worship. I could clearly visualise my own secret garden in my mind’s eye, and I loved to take walks there hand in hand with my Lord and Lover. I often wrote poems as my natural expression of love to Him during these times, and as they grew in number, I titled the collection “Poems in the Secret Garden”.*
Making my own first foray into gardening has really enriched my understanding of this picture. I look back on the barren wasteland of my early times of walking with Jesus, and I can see just how much weeding, fertilising and planting He has done. Not that He has imposed these on me – it has been a process of co-operation, learning to love what He loves and knowing that He appreciates those things that I have decided to plant in order to delight Him. I can see how some things in my life which have been culled and rotted away have become the fertiliser for beautiful new things. Where there has not been enough soil for Him to plant the beauty that He wanted to see, He has put structures in place which can hold deep soil and there He has planted the things He wanted to grace the garden. Between us we have redirected streams to irrigate dry areas, and life has sprung out of barrenness. He has done this with my agreement and co-operation. There are still barren areas, weedy areas, stony areas and shallow areas. But little by little He is completing the work He began, and I am enjoying my walks with Him in the romance and intimacy of a place that I share with Him alone.
In all my asking, can it really be that answers come, not at my own request; that I am Yours because You asked for me, and I petition You at Your behest? In all my seeking, Lord, it’s You who seek. I’m in my garden with just one intent: to seek Your face, to wait and hear You speak; but, being sought by You, I am content. I knock, and know the opening of the door is promised; but You also knock, to see if my heart, now ajar, will open more. There’s nothing that originates with me. Repentance is pre-empted by Your pardon, and You, not I, designed this secret garden.