It started with a garden. All we really wanted was fresh vegetables for the summer. The kind for which you can walk out to the backyard and pluck right off the plant and use for that night’s dinner. Garden-to-table.
We got that–and a whole lot more.
We expected the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the squash. We were surprised by how quickly the winter squash we planted from seed took over the garden and matured. We have pumpkins in August. #gardenfail
We did not expect the community.
We planted a garden, but we didn’t do it alone. One neighbor offered extra tools. Another gave us a tomato plant that is producing the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen. A couple of kids who go to school with our kids came over to see what it was all about. They helped set up the fencing to keep the bunnies out. They watered. And we all waited.
“Hey! Hey you!”
Our neighbor with the noisy dogs hollered to me as the kids and I pulled up in the van. We had just gotten home from somewhere and I was tired, hot, and sweaty–the norm for summer.
“Hey, those kids that are over here all the time were picking your tomatoes!”
“Okay,” I said. “We told them they could.”
“Well, they didn’t look red.” He was more upset about this than I was.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “It’s all right.”
“Those kids” live in a nearby apartment complex, and I figure the garden is partially theirs. They show up to eat tomatoes right off the vine. They help us pick, and we send them home with bags full of harvested fruit.
And because good news travels fast, they’ve brought friends. One night, the two kids who know my kids brought a friend. The next night, that girl brought another friend. They circle our garden as if it’s a wonder of the world. They ask for more tomatoes, please.
The biggest attraction is the ground cherry plant. These husk-wrapped fruits fall to the ground when they are ready to eat and taste nothing like a tomato or a cherry, though they bear a resemblance to both. They make for a tasty salsa ingredient, and my kids eat them straight off the plant and offer them to any person who happens to set foot near our garden.
Sometimes I feel weird about feeding other people’s kids right out of the garden. And about putting them to work harvesting. But they show up and they ask and so I answer them like I would my own children.
Now, my kids are teaching what they’ve learned.
“Just pick the reddest ones.”
“Be careful where you step.”
“No running in the garden.”
These are some of the rules, and now they are being passed on. One night, my daughter filled a bag with tomatoes to give to her friends before asking me if it was okay. A selfish part of me wanted to keep the tomatoes, but every day brings more tomatoes than we can keep fresh, so out the door they went. She has seen us do the same, after all.
Some of what grows in the garden is obvious. We can see with just a glance the red tomatoes dangling from the plants. A closer look is necessary for the peppers and the cucumbers and the squash. That fruit is unmistakable.
But there is fruit we cannot see.
For every frustrated utterance at day’s end when the kids are tired and cranky (as are the grown-ups), there are moments like the ones where our daughter gives our produce away because she loves her friends and is a generous soul. Something is growing in her. Kindness. Generosity. Things that are hard to name because they are sometimes fleeting.
For every seemingly out of nowhere scream from our over-excited son, there are moments like the ones where he picks a ground cherry off the lawn, unwraps it and hands it to a new friend. “Wanna try one?” he says, offering the fruit in his hand. Our son, who once could not talk to a stranger, is freely engaging with new people over food. Something is growing in him. An appreciation for good food. Encouragement for others to try new things.
For every green tomato that is “wasted” in the learning process, a relationship is building.
For every battle my husband and I have had with the weather and our largest tomato plant’s propensity for falling over, there are these moments of heaven on earth, where people we do not know are walking across the lawn, drawn to this garden.
I’m not saying that hordes of people are coming to know Jesus because we have a garden. In all honesty, we haven’t even mentioned His name. What I’m saying is that the air shifts when we are in the garden. I can hardly explain it. Some nights, it’s only a feeling of gratefulness for this bounty, and a joy when we’re able to give it away. Other nights, it’s an overwhelming sense of the kingdom of God breaking through our ordinary lives.
We’re growing a garden, and God is growing His kingdom. And us.