“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
–plaque in a public botanical garden started by a nurseryman.
Recently, I’ve visited several gardens, taking in their winter beauty, the quiet, the restful time before Spring gets started.
One garden was the kitchen garden begun by a Jesuit missionary in the 1690s. Walking hundreds of miles through the desert to a dry, almost abandoned area, he brought a new religion and new crops to a community on the verge of starvation.
His first task was to build a church, but I’m sure near the top of his list, like any gardener, was laying out and planting the beginnings of his garden. An irrigation ditch soon brought essential and dependable water. Plants from his beloved Italy found new homes. In a few years, an orchard flourished, and grains and vegetables supplemented the local diet of roots, seeds, and other traditional local fare.
The herbs were planted in orderly beds, near the tomatoes, peppers and other plants that thrived in the hot, sunny climate. An ancient wrought iron hoe laid against a gnarled fruit tree, likely the third or even fifth generation of the first orchard planted here. I wondered how many generations of gardeners had held that hoe, steadily weeding and tending this fertile space next to the church.
A substantial adobe storage building wasn’t very far away, a symbol of the bounty of this land and the investment in sustainable agriculture, 1700s style. Inside, large terra cotta bowls stored next year’s seeds, and the winter supply of the year’s harvest.
The priest must have smiled, seeing his garden feed his parishioners, helping the community to thrive and grow. How many gardeners started here, gently nurtured by others, learning of the miracles of seeds, the tending of plants, the pleasures of harvest?
In good years, there was enough surplus resources so that the villagers could make more adobe bricks, hew more wood beams brought from the forests in the mountains. They slowly added on to the church, making it into a bigger symbol of their faith in God, a rising symbol of their success as a community.
Now, the ruins of the church dominates this place, bringing visitors, teaching us of old ways, the power of faith.
Yet, the real church, the real symbol of faith is here in this simple garden.
Over three hundred years later, the Jesuit’s garden still produces fruit, and the irrigation ditch still brings water to this thirsty garden. In a few months’ time, a new gardener will plant tomatoes and peppers, prune the orchard, trim the rosemary and deadhead the oregano. The new gardening year will start again.
That Jesuit priest left his mark here, his love of the land and his design still apparent to those who now visit his garden. If I began the spring work, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him looking over my shoulder, perhaps even discussing where to set out the tomatoes this year. We probably could talk for hours about this place, how to make it an even better garden for next year, for yet another year of tomorrow.
–Neal Lemery 1/11/2017