Growing up, my mother’s garden was my heaven. There was no other way to describe it. We were blessed to have a decent-sized backyard in the heart of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where in the early 1900s the houses were built quickly and tightly to stuff as many immigrants as possible in an already overcrowded city. With ongoing competitive development over every last square inch of real estate, whoever planned Greenpoint to ensure the houses had lovely backyards must have wisely known that nature is the greatest respite for tired limbs and weary minds.
It was a total relief to head out to the garden to swing and slide with my sister, to play with our dog, to write, to barbecue with my dad, and to work alongside my mom. She taught me everything I know about gardening. Spring is for pruning and seeding. Summer is for trimming and transplanting and weeding. Fall is for planting bulbs and admiring changing leaves. Winter is for planning next year – and to breathe.
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My mother’s care for her garden was a maternal one. She approached her gardening like she approached raising her children: with nurture, mercy, and joy. God “raises” us in a similar way, as we are all his children. He knows us from seed, before we are even born, and guides us as we grow. As our Father, he guides, reproves, and embraces us—and, like a mother, loves us unconditionally.
Every day, my mother meandered about the garden to check its growth. Every climbing vine was accounted for; every blossoming sprig was examined for the health of its shoots. When we found earthworms, we rejoiced, happy for the health of the soil. Tomatoes were checked, the solitary bee condos were inspected to make sure no pesky squirrels got into their larva. The birds were consistently fed and provided fresh water.
By carefully cultivating the garden, my mother was cultivating my character, too. Gardening with her taught me to be patient and observant. And most of all, hopeful. The brown and naked rose bush in winter will bloom gloriously in the spring. Everything takes time.
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Her thorough attention to every living thing reminded me of God’s care for his creation and for us. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (12:6-7). Just as my mom knew each of her plants’ growth, so too, does God know the intricacies of our lives. He plants his will in us and, like a gardener, helps nurture it in our lives – if we are willing to put in the effort to grow and bloom.
To avoid sounding too idyllic, let me be frank: working in the garden was not some romanticized, Instagram-filtered perfect photoshoot. There were days when it would break our bodies: Our knees and backs would ache from transplanting; our arms were covered in rashes from pruning back rose bushes. Some days, we would collapse on the couch, dirt caked under our fingernails, and breathe a sigh of relief that it would rain tomorrow and we could rest.
Sometimes, the garden would frustrate us to no end. In the spring, squirrels rummaged through the flora, decapitating tulips just for fun. In the summer, they would feast on our finest homegrown veggies, chucking half-eaten tomatoes on the ground. We constantly wrestled with the wisteria that, in 30 years, never bloomed. Random aphids would pop up on flower stems, or fungus on peony leaves. One year, our majestic tree of heaven had to be cut down due to the Asian long-horned beetle invasion. Now spotted lanternflies are coming after more trees. The hurdles are endless. So why do we keep going back?
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My mother’s persistence was merciful and patient. No matter how often it caused her consternation, no matter how many bugs she had to battle, no matter how many scars she acquired from the rose thorns—she still had an unrelenting commitment to nourishing the garden into its full blossom. God has the same unfathomable perseverance when he calls us to live out our full potential as his faithful children. Even when the garden frustrated her, my mom kept going back. Even when we turn away from God, he keeps inviting us to his heart. God promises us that he “will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). What a deep commitment to his broken and sinful people.
There was a reason we were out in the garden so often together: it made us happy. Not just to be outside, but to be with each other. There was a joy in watching the earth burst forth in splendor from the work of our hands. There was a joy in toiling together, and in sharing the rewards. It’s such a wonderful feeling of satisfaction to have worked hard toward something, especially with someone you love. God feels this same joy in watching his will work out in our lives and our desire to follow him. We may fall and we may fail, but what brings the Lord great joy is us simply trying our best.
Every garden is a direct reflection of its gardener. Our Brooklyn backyard is small but teeming with life. I think this is proof positive of my mother’s love for her flowering oasis, and for us.
Interestingly, in the New Testament, God gets mistaken for a gardener. After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene did not immediately recognize him: “Mary Magdalene turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus…supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14, 15).
How fitting for God to be described in this way. After all, he cultivates our hearts as we cultivate the soil. We must allow him to prune and till and potter about our souls, too. If we do so, we will most certainly bloom, like all the glorious flowers in my Brooklyn backyard.