The Bigger Benefits of Gardening

“It may be too easy to underestimate the power of a garden.” Wendell Berry

“To farm or garden is to become acquainted with amazement and bewilderment in the presence of the world.” Norman Wirzba

We have a small vegetable garden at our house, and for most of the summer and early fall, a favorite routine is walking out with my wife and daughter to see the garden. We might pick a few weeds, but we’re really there to see the progress. It’s exciting to see plants growing and fruit ripening every day. The best days arrive after several weeks when the hard work pays off and we get to pick something.

I include my daughter to build this rhythm into her life from a young age. It’s not just Daddy’s garden; it’s also hers. Since she’s only two years old, this doesn’t always go well. She occasionally picks something way too early and it’s a waste, or she steps on plants when they’re small. Those aren’t my favorite moments, and how I respond depends on the day, but it’s all part of gardening with a toddler.

Though we try to make it a family activity, I’m the primary gardener. I do the bulk of the work, like planting seeds, transplanting, weeding, caring for the soil, and remedying problems. I’ve grown to love gardening. There are a lot of benefits. The obvious one is picking a fresh tomato you grew that tastes way better than what you find in the grocery store. Other benefits become evident over time, not just physical benefits like eating healthier—or tastier, saving money, and having enough to share with people around me—but also benefits for my soul.

Some of these benefits prove helpful in our day. An excuse for why someone might not garden, such as busyness, ends up becoming a benefit of gardening, such as interrupting that busyness. Below are five of the many benefits I’ve experienced.

1. To See the Value of Slowing Down in a Frantic World

As Kevin DeYoung describes in his wonderful little book, we are all Crazy Busy. We fill our life and calendar up, running from one scheduled event or task to the next. We run at unhealthy and unsustainable paces.

But, a full schedule isn’t the same as a full life. What makes it onto our calendar isn’t always what we should prioritize. The more frantic we live, the less we enjoy what we’re doing. Busyness squeezes the joy out of one thing because we’re already thinking about what’s next. It can create tunnel vision where we only think about or see what’s in front of us. This tunnel vision causes us not to see so much of the beauty, wonder, goodness, and even the pain surrounding us.

Despite what the Miracle-Gro adds promise, horticulture isn’t a fast-paced, microwavable activity. You interrupt your day, put on gloves, and perform a series of ordinary routines: watering, weeding, pruning, feeding, evaluating, and responding. It takes time and attention to nourish soil and plants.

I can’t fill my schedule from sunup to sundown every day and maintain a garden. A “yes” to gardening requires a “no” to some demands running my life. This slowing down and saying no for the sake of being present and attentive is a gift. It creates breathing room in my life. It allows me to not rush from one thing to the next, but to pour energy and attention into the nurture of something over a long season. What makes it such a helpful practice today is what makes it so neglected: the time and attention it requires by people with not much margin for either. As some of these other benefits will indicate, when we are not ruled by haste and tasks, we are freed to be present. Tolkien wisely wrote, “Don’t spoil the wonder with haste!”

2. To Replace a Digital Existence with Embodied Practices

The digital world constantly allures us, asking us to fill up any “free time” between the busyness with screen time. I have a smartphone, computer, iPad, and a decent sized TV, so I’m not anti-technology. These things are gifts and tools if wielded correctly. But they’re also snares and idols. We see how enslaving and consuming digital technology is for people, and studies increasingly show the side-effects: poor health, stress, depression, loneliness, sadness, strained eyes, addictive behaviors, and the loss of critical thinking skills, to name a few.

Gardening has become a helpful guard to counteract the allure of the glowing screen. It requires putting down my phone, computer, iPad, or the television remote so I can enter into the earthy tasks of digging hands into dirt, snapping off tomato stems that leave their distinct smell on my fingers, looking closely at plants for signs of pests or disease, bending down to smell the fresh basil, or filling my bucket with the fruit of my labors.

Technology isn’t bad, but it is dangerous, and accompanied by a long list of side-effects. Other than the occasional progress picture of my plants, gardening gives us a space where technology isn’t needed. The digital age is a distracted age, but gardening offers a place to be present. I give my attention to the land and the growing flowers, fruits, or vegetables. And this being present in a real place rewards with the revelation of the wonder and mysteries within the created earth.

3. To Imitate God’s Nurture and Care for the World

God did not merely create the world as a backdrop for human life—what He really loves. God loves all of His creation. He nurtures it. He cares for it. He hands off to His sons and daughters the task of caring for it and stewarding it in a way that images His nurture of the world. He waters the plants with rain and feeds the animals with those same plants (Psalm 104:10-15).

God delights in His creation—including but not limited to human beings—and I learn to delight in creation by being in it. Rather than seeing the earth as an untapped resource to exploit for selfish purposes, I see creation itself as a gift and responsibility from God to us. I’m called to steward it wisely but also to delight in it gratefully.

When I garden, this little plot of earth becomes my plot of earth. I care for it, meaning I both take care of it and I care about it. I protect it from attacks, as much as possible. I invest time, energy, money, and attention to see the soil go from neglected to nourished. My green space becomes for me a microcosm of the universe, revealing what it must be like for God to care for, delight in, work for, and want the good of His creation. I learn to image God better by understanding God’s relationship to the world through my time in the garden. I also learn not to take this life or creation itself for granted, but to receive them with gratitude as sacred gifts.

Norman Wirzba writes, “God is the Essential Gardener, the one who relates to the world in modes of intimacy, protection, and delight. Given that God is cast as the First Gardener (Gen. 2:8), we are led to think that human participation in the work of gardening is also a growing in our understanding of God’s creative, attentive, patient, and nurturing ways.”

4. To Reflect on God’s General Revelation

The most basic Christian understanding of Creation sees nature as God’s general revelation to mankind. “The universe … is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” (Belgic Confession, article 2).

We learn about God and from God through the natural things from His mind and hands. To reject the world as such and ignore God’s teaching through creation is to be ungrateful, an idolater, and a fool (Romans 1:18-32).

Gardening provides a close-up seat to view creation and hear what it has to say. Even the slowed, unhurried, and undistracted nature of gardening lends itself to reflection. The mind is at work in the ordinary tasks of the trade, but it’s not so caught up in distractions that it can’t contemplate on what’s seen and experienced.

This could include considering the dependency of my vegetables on larger factors (ecosystems, weather, soils, bacteria, etc.) than myself that God oversees and holds together. It teaches me about God as nurturer and caretaker (see point 2 above). Or it might be a small lesson laid out through gardening that takes me back to something I seen in the Bible.

I see the way my plants stretch toward the sun. Whether it’s a bed of seedlings indoors or growing plants outdoors, the plants are drawn upward to find what they need for life. May I be like them.

Or the weeds remind me I’m in a fallen world. They point me to temptations, idols, bad habits, and sins. The more you let the weed grow, the harder it is to destroy and the more damage done. The same is true of my sin, and wisdom should teach me to pluck it up fully at the first sight of it rather than letting it grow.

And then I consider a basic lesson of gardening. As hard as I work and as much attention as I give the land, how it turns out depends on factors bigger than me. I can’t contrive the results I might want, though I can work towards them. So much of life, parenting, or ministry parallels this aspect of gardening. It encourages me to be faithful as a worker, and yet cautions me to trust God for the fruit.

A garden gets our feet into God’s creation, His “other book” teaching us much about Him and life in this world.

5. To Learn Patience and Endurance

Gardening is hard work. I’m an impatient person. I like immediate and maximum results with minimal effort. Gardening teaches me I’m not in control. The season isn’t short and the work can be tedious, but through much patience and endurance, there’s usually a payoff.

Gardening is not the same as grocery shopping, or even harvesting. When shopping at your grocery store, you get the end product with none of the work. Sometimes we want that out of a garden. We want to walk out and enjoy fresh produce without having to do the hard work of tilling the soil, pulling weeds, fighting off pests and birds, figuring out why your plant is struggling, putting up a fence or cages, or the regular watering with mosquitoes biting. We like reaping the fruit but don’t like the hard, routine, patient work.

Learning this kind of patience helps me on many fronts. I need to endure when it’s not. My perspective must factor in the long-haul rather than what I see or feel today. Much of parenting, investing in relationships (including marriage), discipleship, evangelism, or any church ministry, requires a patient outlook and a commitment to letting God work over the long-haul.

Months of routine garden work often pay off at the end of the season, but the daily grind of gardening requires endurance. So also, our small seeds of sowing in the lives of people, day after day, week after week, and year after year, must be done with patience. God is often doing more than we realize, even though the progress is slower than we want. Gardening teaches me this, and it rewards my patience…eventually.

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