Divine by Design

Lessons from the Garden.

As we eagerly anticipate the triumphant return of spring, what better way to celebrate the season of renewal than by planting a vegetable garden. Cultivating this God-given bounty nourishes both body and spirit while reaffirming our faith.

Winter’s final months of icy winds, gray skies and snowy terrain can seem interminable—testing our patience and sapping our hope of feeling the welcoming warmth of sun. Thankfully, each year spring always comes through as it arrives in verdant splendor, lightening our hearts and reconfirming the Earth’s cyclical rebirth.

Similarly, as we are confronted with bleak and challenging times in our lives, it is easy to question (and sometimes doubt) our spiritual beliefs. As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for Him there.” Indeed, when one witnesses the miracle of a handful of tiny seeds transformed into a bumper crop of delicious vegetables, it is easy to see the Creator’s hand at work.

Cultivating a vegetable garden connects us to life’s natural rhythms and the cadence of the seasons­­—an opportunity to observe firsthand how the circle of life is mirrored in the garden. Even after the harshest of winters, rebirth and renewal are inevitable.

Gardening benefits physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. As we engage muscles to prepare soil, dig, plant and weed, our mind is calmed and relieved of distractions, enabling us to be mindfully in the moment of natural surroundings.

From the beginning, planting a garden is an act of faith. It can be difficult to imagine that a tiny seed has even the most remote possibility of surviving, let alone the potential to grow and flourish. Nevertheless, we place that seed in the earth and hope. That hope enables us to believe what is not immediately visible. And with time, after much nurturing and careful tending, we are rewarded by tender green shoots tentatively emerging from the soil.

Many lessons learned in the garden can bear on our spiritual lives as well. Just as plants cannot thrive without nutrient-rich soil, sunlight and sufficient water, our faith in God cannot be sustained unless we nurture it with prayer, Scripture and the fellowship of worship.

The cultivation of faith requires patience, hard work and a willingness to believe in what may not be immediately apparent. If we persevere in our efforts to establish a strong relationship with God that is rooted in trust and the certainty that He will provide what is needed to bloom and grow to our potential, we will yield a harvest more fruitful than ever imagined.

Reap the Benefits

Experience the joy and benefits of raising healthful, nutritious produce—just as God intended. 

Gardening offers many benefits that help to maintain a healthy body, mind and spirit. Planting, watering, weeding and harvesting provide exercise at our own pace. We work muscles and burn calories while getting a dose of vitamin D from sunlight.

Surrounded by nature, a proven stress reducer, we feel vibrant. According to research, gardening can reduce risks of heart attack and stroke—by as much as
30 percent—in people who are 60 and older. Another study shows gardening could lower the risk of dementia by 36 percent among seniors.

Caring for plants has a meditative quality. It is calming to see creation up close and to have a time to talk to God. It can also be a creative outlet, a form of self-expression. You choose the design, color scheme and varieties, growing whatever you wish: herbs to flavor recipes, healthful vegetables to nourish the body and flowers to feed the soul.

Flavorful homegrown produce can save you money. Consider that the supermarket price of a big red bell pepper in winter is close to that of a packet of seeds, which can produce hundreds of peppers. The other return is equally compelling: taste. Homegrown produce simply tastes best.

Gardening can be kind to the environment, minimizing pesticide use and ensuring organic produce while encouraging healthful eating. Researchers discovered that college students who gardened as children or who garden now tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than their peers who did not garden.

Getting Started

If you're a first-time gardener start small—raised beds or pots on the patio, for examples. A well-maintained 8-foot-square vegetable plot is better than an overambitious large garden that may become unmanageable well into the growing season. Increase the size of the garden later as time and energy permit. When planning a garden consider what you and your family will likely eat, store or give away. Also consider time for maintenance.

Raised beds are convenient, especially when sized to
easily reach the center without
stepping in the bed and compacting the soil. Garden centers sell 4×4-foot raised bed kits—or construct one with cement blocks or straw bales. Place the bed on flat ground in full sunlight (6–8 hours a day). Remove sod (if any) and loosen the soil for good drainage. Fill the bed with equal parts topsoil, coarse sand and compost, a rich mix allowing for spacing plants close. Other ways to maximize space:

• Grow vining plants such as pole beans, cucumbers, peas and squash vertically on trellises and obelisks.

• Place sprawling plants along bed edges to trail downward.

• Intercrop plants. For instance, sow radishes and carrots together. After harvesting radishes, slower-maturing carrots have more room to grow.

• Grow plants in their season—peas in spring followed by beans or cucumbers in summer.

• If you live in an apartment, condo or townhome, grow vegetables and herbs in containers, hanging baskets or window boxes on a balcony, patio, deck or in an entryway. Herbs are well-suited to containers—regular clipping ensures plants don’t outgrow their home.

Tips for a Healthy Garden

Daily Check: Keep up with chores to maintain a productive garden plot. Pull weeds while you stroll through the garden, morning coffee in hand. Look for pests and diseases, then tackle them before they gain hold.

Insects: Early detection is key. Inspect plants regularly and flick insects into a jar of soapy water. Dispose of all plant debris at the end of the season to disrupt insect life cycles and rotate plants year to year. If you must spray, use an organic alternative to harsh chemicals. Remember Numbers 35:33 (NIV): “Do not pollute the land where you are.”

Diseases: Grow plants less susceptible to disease. For example, disease-resistant tomatoes list the initials VFT after variety name. Local cooperative extensions can suggest specific cultivars that are less prone to disease in your area.

Animals: To prevent squirrels from sampling tomatoes, feed them away from the garden. Deter rabbits and deer with fencing (2 ft. tall for rabbits, 8 ft. tall for deer) or a repellent. Sow clover, a favorite, into the lawn to distract them.

Weeding: On bare soil, remove juvenile weeds regularly with a hoe. Or mulch plants with shredded leaves or grass clippings from a lawn not treated with herbicide. Some gardeners use a natural pre-emergent product, such as Preen, to keep weeds from germinating—but this works only if planting vegetables, not when sowing seeds.

Fertilizing: Spread slow-release granular fertilizer according to package directions. Augment with water-soluble fertilizer on plants that lag. For containers, use soilless potting mix that contains slow-release fertilizer and water-absorbing crystals for easy maintenance. An annual topdressing of compost enriches the soil.

Watering: Most plants need an inch of water per week. When soil is dry 1 inch below the surface, it’s time to water. If using a sprinkler, water in the morning so foliage can dry before sundown to avoid disease. Soaker hoses are efficient, reducing evaporation by directing water only to the base of plants.

Harvesting: Seed packets and plant tags list the number of days to harvest. To extend harvest, space planting over several weeks. For specific harvesting advice, enter the name of your state and the words “vegetable harvest” in an
online search.

Storage: Keep harvested vegetables in a cool, dry space. Herbs can be refrigerated short term or dried long term. Many vegetables lend themselves to canning, others can be cut up and frozen either fresh (as with peppers) or after cooking (as with squash).


Radishes

Radishes are among the easiest and fastest vegetables to grow, with some varieties ready to harvest in just 25 days. A good source of vitamin C, this root vegetables is a low-cal snack (one cup of sliced radishes has 19 calories). Common in salads, radishes also flavor many European dishes. Edible leaves are sometimes added to potato soup or sautéed side dishes. 

Bell Peppers

Developed a century ago in Hungary, bell peppers are as versatile in the kitchen as they are simple to grow in the garden. Yellow, orange and red bell peppers are rich in dietary carotenoids such as lutein and beta-carotene, which may decrease the risk of certain cancers and eye disease. Levels of these antioxidants can be even higher when peppers are grown organically—reason enough to grow these vegetables.

Green Beans

Green beans, known by common names such as string beans, snap beans and French beans, are distinguished from other types of beans because they are harvested and served in pods—typically before seeds have matured. Classified by growth habit into two major groups: bush beans are short plants that grow no more than 2 feet high and produce fruit in a relatively short period; pole beans produce a climbing, twisting vine that needs support with poles or a trellis and grow up to 15 feet high. Green beans are commonly blanched, steamed, boiled, stir-fried or baked in casseroles. low in calories and fat, they are a wonderful source of protein, carbohydrates and dietary fiber.

Snap Peas

Peas are believed to be among the earliest cultivated crops, dating back to perhaps 8500 b.c. a member of the legume family, pea plants produce pods that contain seeds. During the middle ages, dried seeds helped fuel peasants through long winters. The fresh garden peas we know today started to become popular in Europe in the 16th century and soon made their way to America. President Thomas Jefferson grew 15 varieties of his favorite vegetable at Monticello. Once planted, peas need little attention other than watering and harvesting. They even make their own fertilizer, capturing nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it through their roots. Peas thrive in cool weather and should be harvested before the weather turns hot and pods become lumpy. Some peas have edible pods, which are flatter and sweeter than other pea pods and can be eaten fresh or cooked in Asian dishes. In other cases, peas are removed from pods before being eaten. Rich in protein and fiber, low in fat, peas are said to aid digestion, promote healthy bones, regulate blood sugar and reduce unhealthy cholesterol.

Lettuce

It’s said the best lettuce is sown before the last snowfall of the season. That’s probably because lettuce is a cool-season vegetable that starts to turn bitter when the summer heat comes on and plants bolt, or flower and form seed heads. Lettuce has been cultivated for thousands of years, starting with Egyptians, passed down to ancient Greeks and then romans. There are two general types: loose-leaf lettuce, which is harvested a few leaves at a time; and hearting lettuce, which has a dense center and is generally harvested whole. There are countless varieties of loose-leaf lettuce in particular. Some seed packets contain a mix capable of producing a tasty salad in a bed the size of a desk. Darker leaves have more nutrients, which is why leaf lettuce and romaine are more nutritious than iceberg.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomatoes were once called “poison apples” in Europe because it was believed that several aristocrats had died after consuming them. The real culprit turned out to be pewter plates and their high lead content. By the 1850s, the stigma had vanished, and the popularity of tomatoes surged. Today, tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in home gardens. They're not only tasty, but research confirms the benefits of tomatoes for both the heart and blood, thanks to the presence of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.

Red Cabbage

Round-head cabbages were brought to America in the 1540s by the French. The most common cabbages are green, red and savoy. Cabbage grows best in temperate to cool climates and tolerates frost. An excellent source of nutrients, cabbage is high in vitamins K, C and B6 as well as dietary fiber, potassium, folate and calcium. Popular raw in salads and coleslaw, cabbage is also fermented into sauerkraut, steamed, stewed, sautéed or braised.

Onion

The onion family, which includes onions, garlic and leeks, has been part of the human diet for more than 7,000 years. Archaeologists found evidence of onions in settlements from the Bronze Age. Leeks were prized by the ancient Greeks for their beneficial effect on the throat and reportedly eaten by Roman emperor Nero to strengthen his voice. Onions contain significant amounts of flavonoids to protect blood vessel linings and polyphenols to inhibit oxidation leading to cellular damage.

Brussel Sprouts

Brussel sprouts are a reminder of Romans 8:25: "But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." This slow-maturing crop can take up to 110 days before it’s ready for harvest. The wait is worthwhile, because they’re a delicacy when cooked fresh from the garden—especially after a light frost sweetens the flavor. First cultivated in Belgium in the 16th century, Brussels sprouts are a good source of iron and vitamins A and C.