Here's the thing about gardeners: they tell great stories. Church gardeners, I have found, are even more gifted in this regard, and Stephen Bartlett, whose garden at his Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky has become a community center, summer camp, and urban food oasis, is no exception.
I hope to visit Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church next growing season, but meantime, help yourself to some inspiration, education, and great garden stories from Stephen, a true "grower in the spirit."
Photos: (top) Stephen Bartlett surveys a "three sisters" crop planted by SAL volunteers at a farm within the Louisville city limits. (bottom) SAL volunteers take a break during a Saturday garden work party.
Please describe your church and how it came to have a garden.
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church is an old church, but in recent years the church has been in a waxing mode (ie a waxing crescent moon), due to the active community surrounding the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church USA in downtown Louisville and also due to the proximity of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Some of the pillars of the church were avid gardeners and believed in working the soil and being productive as part of their raison d'etre, including an old gentleman by the name of John Leake, who died at the age of 96. He was such a committed gardener that when he died and his granddaughter moved into his house and neglected digging the old garden beds, the portraits on the walls of the old man kept getting turned askew, until the guilt of the granddaughter was piqued enough for her to get out there and plant the beans. After that the photos on the walls stayed in their places.
When another member and I began working the soil back behind the church, we decided to name the garden after him: hence the John Leake Memorial Community Garden was born. In 1996 or so, I proposed to the church the idea of turning a square of lawn over to a small community garden, on the far side of our parking lot beside the education building in back of the sanctuary. When another member and I came up with the name, the outcome was secured.
For the first, oh, 6 or 7 years of the garden, I was the main laborer, called to this little patch of soil due to my displacement from a 10 acre farm I had worked in the Dominican Republic. But then one year at another plot on the outskirts of the city, I grew a big plot of corn, beans, and squashes, and turned a lot of the corn into 800 tomales that were offered up with music and dancing on Sept 21, 2001 as a Tamal Festival, with the help of Mexican and Guatemalan cooks, and our organization Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville (SAL, or 'salt' in Spanish) was born.
This group decided that what might be useful was to use the community garden for educational purposes with children. Thus began the workshops I put on for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes of the nearest primary school, where my own children were students. Highly motivated pupils were then recruited for one of the two and then four weeks of gardening day camps help in June and early July. This past summer of 2008, another 55 or so children attended the camp, some of them for the fourth consecutive year. So the church-based community garden has taken on an important "ministry" function: that of bringing outdoor education and work with the soil (and cooking and food processing) into the worldviews of children ages 7-14, along with daily walks and swims at a local public swimming pool.
How did you ultimately get the congregation on board?
Very few members of the church got involved in the gardening efforts for several years, even as it expanded and diversified and even after many children began coming to learn and expend their energies there. However, as "local food production" has become more popular, and as the outreach of this garden has intensified, the church has come to feel a sense of pride and ownership of the garden and what it represents and what takes place there. Our current pastor has been a strong supporter and has endeavored to raise up the garden as an important ministry of the church.
On at least two Pentecosts, portions of the special offering designated for local mission have gone to help provide scholarships to the 40% of the gardening campers who are on scholarship because their families are low-income and they could not otherwise attend. Over time issues of "weediness" or garden appearance have become less an issue, as the overall productivity and social quality of the garden as an open "community" space has taken hold.
One of the core lessons I try to convey to children at either the workshops or the camps, is that the garden is a "commons" and any hungry person can eat there without asking permission from anyone. The kids ask: but who owns the garden? God is the owner, I reply. If you work here, every time you come you can eat. Even if you don't work here, but you are hungry, you can eat whatever you can find. We work here as volunteers, and God provides us this amazing delicious gift of food. Check out these figs!!
I often give tours of the food in season to church members when they pull into the parking lot or stop by. Many have come to learn how delicious the blackberries are, and what a fig bush looks like and how sweet the figs are. Or how delectable fresh blueberries are on a hot June day. Some Sundays when a big harvest is at hand, fresh peppers, garlic, spring onions, greens, tomatoes, beans, are given to people as they leave church.
You describe soil as "miraculous." Do you mean that literally?
Soil is miraculous. Soil scientists characterize the activity of the hundreds of millions of microorganisms, the hundreds of species of arthropods and critters, not to mention the worms, etc... as "exceedingly complex." The amount of thriving life and myriad interactions between the life in just one handful of soil is beyond the human capacity to understand. The bottom line is that life is gestated in soil, and using the nutrients there turns into plants that can nourish us. The better the soil, the healthier and more nourishing is the food. Soil is a wilderness beneath our feet. Mysterious and miraculous.
Can you describe one transformation moment you've observed in a child after they attended your garden camp?
There was a girl who was from a large inner city family. At the swimming pool we saw that she had a large scar on her belly where her liver had been operated on. One day we were digging up some carrots from the garden and offered her one to eat. She said she had never eaten such a vegetable and didn't know the name! We said: Carrot. Try it. We dusted it off a bit and then handed it to her. She bit in and chewed. We all waited. Well? we asked. Do you like it? She smiled: Yeah, I like it!
She became the chief corn grinder that week of camp, instructing others and monitoring the process of grinding and re-grinding last summer's corn into meal for the corn bread, then she wanted to be involved in the corn bread baking in a big way.
Which of the following ranks highest on your list of reasons for gardening, and why? Environmental preservation, personal spirituality, religious theology, health, social justice.
Gardening is a way to be truly neighborly, in a social, environmental, and spiritual way. Growing food to share is one of the most satisfying things to do in life. I don't know where hospitality lands in this list of qualities, but I think it is about hospitality, for yourself and for others. I don't know where environmental preservation ends and personal health and spirituality begin, they are so closely interwoven in my thinking and desire to be.
Do you think every house of worship should have (or participate in) a garden? Why or why not?
I think everyone on earth should participate in growing things or cooking or food processing. So I guess that includes houses of worship. The Bible is a book full of agricultural metaphors and concepts, so gardening and farming knowledge are important to understand what is in the Bible. The sharing of
food are so interconnected with church community life that it certainly makes sense to "vertically integrate" the food sharing with the food growing.
The importance of supporting local farmers as a justice issue and making sure the impoverished have enough to eat and enough income to buy food, are both so important that everything having to do with food justice should be a concern for people of faith. It is a pathway to genuine relationship with
others over things that truly matter.
What is the most powerful garden metaphor for people of faith, do you think?
Here is my suggestion, from 1 Cor 3: 7: "Neither he that planteth anything, nor she that watereth, but God who provides the increase." The idea that God is sovereign and that only God (ie Creation) can produce food, not human effort. It is a humbling and true metaphor. God provides the increase.
Do you pray in the garden? How often, and what kinds of prayers do you offer?
Meditation is easily done during long stretches of effort in the garden, digging or weeding or harvesting. Early in the season we have a cleansing ritual in the garden where we pray and share the elements of water and fire, burning incense and herbs, and pray in all the areas of the garden, kind of
centering ourselves for the relationship that constantly renews itself. Gardening itself, if done with the right frame of mind, is very much like a prayer. It is a form of gentle intercession with the powers of creation inherent in the universe.
Has your church inspired other area churches to start gardening?
I don't know, but there are several people who are now gardening because we got them working in this garden. Other community groups have come and worked and observed in our garden to improve on-going gardens and initiate new gardens.
When something goes wrong in the garden (a plant dies, weather hurts the harvest, etc), what is your initial reaction?
The good thing about a diverse garden is that when a disease or mishap causes some crop to be lost, there is always some other crop that has flourished. I learned the hard way of the need to rotate cabbage family crops out of the garden periodically in order to keep the harlequin beetle population down. I had about 150 transplanted seedlings of cauliflower and broccoli plants devoured by the harlequin beetles breeding on old kale one late August in a matter of two days, and had to do without anything from that family for the next year. I struggled to save them all, with pepper and soap sprays, etc... but to no avail. The garden was teaching me something about crop rotation in a small area.
One summer the kids noticed that lots of the young bean plants were being eaten by "marauding" rabbits. So the kids set to work collecting twigs from the wood mulch that the garden assistant (my 13 year old son, Emilio) used a pen knife to sharpen to very sharp points. The garden day campers then
placed these in a kind of miniature array of stick spears pointing outwards. A barrier so ominous and practical in its design that when weeding this patch months later it drew considerable blood on my forearms, hands, and wrists. The kids imagined that this would impale rushing rabbits as they tried to eat the beans. Some time after a neighbor and member of our church came up to the kids indoors and said: Hey, I saw a rabbit lying down next to your bean patch. The kids said: Yeah? Was it dead? To which our neighbor said: No, it had fallen down from laughing so hard. The kids looked at each other sheepishly. Ah...
I teach that we should expect that at least 10% of the crop, or more, would be eaten by wild animals. In addition, since this is a community garden, neighbors and other volunteers will come at all hours and harvest what whets their appetites. Thus the garden need be viewed almost as a wild area where food is gathered. One never knows what will do well and what will not in a given year, or what will be there when you go. But there is almost always something delicious to eat there, I have found, and I should know.
We are like fishermen casting a net of edible biodiversity and we will harvest what the soil conditions, wind, rain, children's clumsy feet, and neighborhood dogs do not destroy. All in all, we do pretty darn well in that respect. We put up dozens of jars of tomato, onion and pepper salsas last year, and nearly 20 volunteer gardeners and 55 garden day campers ate their fill of the salsa and the salad greens, not to mention the corn bread, peppers, and blueberries and raspberries by the handful for weeks on end. We sold two bushels of the sweetest plums you can imagine from our two young trees (bearing for the first time!), and ate several bushels more! Wow, I can still remember how good they were! It won't be long now until we will be eating asparagus spears...this should be the year we eat our fill of asparagus from our patch, now fully matured.
Stephen Bartlett is an urban agriculturalist in Louisville, KY with his wife and three growing children. He learned to raise food as a family farmer in the Dominican Republic for six years, in what he calls pickaxe and machete farming. He coordinates Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville (SAL) and in his work with Agricultural Missions, Inc (AMI) has supported and helped strengthen rural social movements and peoples' organizations across the globe, while striving to educate and advocate for policy changes that would allow small-scale farmers to flourish in the U.S. and across the planet.