Winter Compost

I love harsh winters and treacherous blizzards and snow-covered landscapes.  But the frozen world of the north can be hard for gardeners and composters.  So….

I contributed another composting piece for my friend, Tonia, over at Itty Bitty Impact, and it’s all about composting in the winter.  Check it out.


Composting Feature at Itty Bitty Impact

I was recently asked to offer some composting insights for my friend and fellow blogger, Tonia, over at Itty Bitty Impact.  The first entry has been posted, go check it out.

But while you’re here, enjoy these pictures of the first snowfall of the year.  We spent the last few days with relatives in Fergus Falls, MN and woke up Wednesday morning to 5 inches of the white stuff.  I love it!

Life from the Land

My brother posted this interesting quote from J.R.R. Tolkein, reflecting on the relationship between fantasy and the pre-industrial era.  My blog hasn’t tackled those same issues, but the quote actually gets at some of what I’ve been trying to say in the gardening posts.

[Family life must have been different] in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense real (not metaphorical) connections between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet…are artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

Let’s reacquaint ourselves with some of that strength.

Why We Garden, Part IV: Special Spaces

There’s a place at Grandma and Grandpa’s house where everything is always good.  Up the hill behind the kitchen window the woods are cleared and the sun hangs out all day above a little crest of earth where Grandpa used to pull tomatoes.  This June marks six years since he last turned a shovel in that ground, yet still, in the middle of the overgrown grass and twisted thickets is a small wooden sign proudly announcing “Grandpa’s Garden.”

Grandpa’s Garden has always held a sort of magic for me.  Before we lived in Minnesota my family used to vacation at their little house in the woods, and while Grandpa would be up there yanking weeds I’d be chasing garter snakes at a safe distance or catching the leopard frogs that sprung from the grass as I ran by.  Once, when it was just him and me, he picked a tomato and I followed him back to the kitchen where he sliced it and put it between pieces of toast and melted cheese.  I received that sandwich from Grandpa like a child at his first Communion – goodness and grace from the ground he’d toiled over.  The woods and rivers surrounding their house are full of all sorts of mystery and adventure, but that bright garden atop the hill is a special place, alive with critters and sunshine and images of Grandpa before he passed.

I often work night shifts patrolling our relatively quiet campus, and last week, during our third consecutive night of rain, I walked up to the garden with my powerful Maglite and studied the ground in its darkness.  I was in a place not used to visitors at that hour, and it felt like I was intruding on some mysterious secret, like a child walking downstairs late at night for a glass of water only to find his parents playing cards and drinking wine with strangers.  And there in the dark, with the rain falling sternly, the garden seemed to possess its own urgency.  In the daytime when the sun is bright the humans come with their watering cans and shovels and they poke around as best as they know how, but here in the darkness the earth and the rain seemed to be getting some real work done.  And the worms! Oh the worms! Wherever the light fell, the giant, swollen nightcrawlers slurped back into the dirt as if I’d just burst in on them changing underwear or toweling off after a shower; and there were hundreds of them, some as thick as fingers and others like spaghetti, working the soil as only worms can.

The more time I spend around gardens the more I appreciate them for their energy and beauty.  Whether it’s the wisps of steam curling from the giant compost piles at Growing Power or the way Grandpa’s hilltop feels warm even in the frozen January sunshine, gardens are fascinating and full of life.  Yesterday morning, as we enjoyed our first seventy-degree day in several weeks, a fellow seminary gardener commented in wonder at my impressive sunflower seedlings, “It’s amazing how dirt and sunshine can somehow take these little seeds and turn them into plants taller than you or me.”  And then, as I mixed rich compost at the base of my young tomato plants I marveled about how weeks previous this dirt was nothing more than the eggshells and coffee grounds I’d discarded after breakfast.  What wisdom and strength the earth must possess!

About the Triune God the Nicene Creed reads:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…


And in one Lord Jesus Christ… by whom all things were made…


And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life…


Those last words strike me – The Giver of Life.

The life-giving work of the Spirit can be perceived in various ways, but I can’t help but sense that the same Spirit that gave life to Grandpa as he shouted from his pulpit is the same Spirit that gives life to Aleah as she drops her granola bar in the dirt…and it’s the same Spirit giving life in a garden where the soil and sun make strawberries so sweet you can hardly stand it.  All of creation hangs on the life-giving breath of God.

Gardens are special places.  Some of Jesus’ last moments before his Passion were in a garden, his sweat turning to blood as he anticipated his death.  And Grandpa’s sweat dripped upon his garden as often as his wheezing chest and failing heart would let him six years ago.  And now, in my family’s corner plot of the seminary community garden, I can spy on worms as they soak in the midnight rain or listen as the stems seem to stretch and straighten in the morning sun, or kneel next to my wife while our necks turn red and sweat darkens our shirts.

Gardening isn’t always profound.  It doesn’t always remind me of Grandpa or witness to the Spirit’s work in creation.  Sometimes it’s nothing but blisters and ambitious bugs.  But spend enough time in a garden and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.  Gardens are fascinating, and if bright vegetables and stunning flowers aren’t enough to keep you interested, consider gardening simply for the fact that something amazing is going on in there.  You’ll see.


I wanna fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe in a volatile place.
And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.
–The Avett Brothers, The Perfect Space

Why We Garden, Part 3: Responsibility

Back when there was no such thing as the green movement, the food justice movement, or the organic movement, people gardened.  Before the industrial revolution and the rise of urban societies there was almost nobody who didn’t garden in some form or another; and in our recent history, most of our grandparents or great grandparents gardened to survive the World Wars and the Depression.  People have gardened in various ways and for various reasons since the beginning of time.  We are not entrepreneurs, pioneers or trailblazers.  We stand last in a long line of people who have held rakes and picked dirt from their fingernails throughout history.

But in another sense, people who garden nowadays actually are pioneers.  The reality is, there’s no reason we have to garden.  Most of us can drive to our local grocer and find anything we want at a reasonable price — we can survive quite well without ever having to put our hand to the plow.  So people who do choose to garden today do so for reasons other than sustenance and survival.  This series of posts has reflected on some of these motivations, but the “movements” mentioned at the beginning of this post reflect a different kind of motivation, motivations that aren’t primarily personal or recreational but draw from the social, economic, and environmental implications of a homegrown onion.

The danger of writing a post about the different movements that inspire gardeners is that we risk classifying those who garden and those who do not as either concerned or unconcerned with the various issues, but this oversimplifies the matter.  There are plenty of people who garden diligently but think the green movement is something led by Kermit the frog or crazy Irish people.  And there are people deeply concerned with environmental justice issues who do not garden because of certain practical limitations.  So this post is not about advancing a certain agenda or aligning gardeners politically, and it’s not supposed to be a slap on the back to gardeners and a slap in the face to non-gardeners, but it is about highlighting some of the benefits of gardening that you may or may not have been aware of when you first started digging holes.

Environmental Concerns – One of the growing motivations for gardening these days is that it offers an alternative to some of the environmentally harmful practices associated with major food production.  The first environmental issue often raised involves the distance your food has to travel to get to you.  The produce in your grocery store was probably grown thousands of miles from where you live, which means trucks and ships loaded with oil, emitting greenhouse gasses, were used to bring you your carrot.  Also, the further you are from your food source the less likely you are to concern yourself with the sustainability of the farming procedures.  If the forest next to your kids’ teeter-totter is burned down for a big factory farm that sprays pesticides, you might raise an eyebrow, but when it happens in a country across the Gulf we don’t offer it much thought. Thus, many people have taken up gardening because they don’t want to rely on major grocery stores that draw from large-scale food producers; and instead of eating a tomato that took I-75 up from Florida, they’ll settle for the one that made the walk with them from the backyard.

Social Concerns- A few months ago a friend and I road-tripped to Milwaukee for an Avett Brother’s concert, and before we drove to the concert hall we stopped at a community gardening headquarters called Growing Power. There’s a lot that could be written about our time there, but one of the simplest lessons I learned is that gardening in urban settings is about far more than environmentalism and the green movement, it’s about health and justice for people living in low-income, urban neighborhoods.  Here’s the gist of it:

Major supermarket grocery stores, by and large, cannot survive in low-income neighborhoods because the residents do not have the excess cash or savings to purchase large quantities of groceries at one time.  They cannot go to the supermarket and fill a cart with food for the week, which is exactly what supermarkets are designed for.  So instead, low-income neighborhoods are littered with corner stores, fast-food restaurants, and mini-marts that offer cheap, high calorie processed food that can be bought in small quantities over and over again.  The result is, of course, extremely unhealthy diets for low-income residents.  The concept of a community garden, then, is to provide access to affordable healthy food for the people of these neighborhoods.  Community gardens are often organized and subsidized by a non-profit organization, but are worked by the people of the neighborhoods, and everyone gets to eat fresh vegetables at the end of the day.

Even beyond urban community gardening, the social benefits of gardening are significant.  Whenever someone gardens their own produce, shops at a farmer’s market, or buys from a local grower, he or she ensures that the person who worked the land and picked your pepper receives a fair wage for their effort.  The same cannot be said for most large factory farms that hire workers who may or may not be legal citizens and may or may not earn a livable wage.  As nice as it is to enjoy a ripe tomato in the middle of December for a price that doesn’t make us return our kids’ Christmas toys, part of the reason we can do this is because someone else didn’t get paid much to pull that tomato.  Gardening is one way to avoid relying on that type of production.

Economic Advantages– This last discussion is probably the most universal in its appeal:  Gardening can save you some money.  Well, this is not entirely honest.  Gardening may save you money, but it will cost you time and energy, energy that could have been used making money doing something like delivering pizzas or mowing lawns (Yes, these are awesome ways to make that extra cash you need for baseball cards and firecrackers).  Anyway, the obvious point is that when I collect a bucketful of strawberries at the end of June, this means I don’t have to go buy strawberries for my wife’s inevitable pie – an annual symbol of summer.  More homegrown veggies means less money spent at the grocery store, less trips to the supermarket for those carrots we swore were still in the back of the fridge, and less money spent eating at restaurants because, of course, homegrown veggies and good ol’ home-cooking make a friendly pair.  There is nothing profound about this.  If you are tired of spending so much on groceries or at mediocre restaurants, start gardening.

(pie image borrowed from here, city image taken from Growing Power)

Why We Garden, Part 2: Family Stuff

It didn’t take Caitlyn and me long to figure out that our oldest daughter can only spend a few consecutive hours indoors before she starts climbing the walls or diving off the back of the couch.  She doesn’t really self-entertain and gets frustrated when constrained to our two-bedroom apartment.  With my busy class and work schedule, Caitlyn and I rarely get much hang-out time, thus it doesn’t do us a lot of good to sit around in the apartment while Aleah dances on the coffee table with marker on her face and play-do in her hair, insisting we feed the birds again…”Seeeeeds, mo seeeeds!”

We can go to the playground or push the strollers down the path, but perhaps the most rewarding activities for Caitlyn and me have come as we sweat beside each other in the garden while Aleah follows us around adding worms to her bucket or pouring dirt over the tops of weeds.  We need to be outside and we need to be together and my wife needs delicious, handpicked strawberries.  So, naturally, we need to garden.

Since marriage (and family) is, in some sense, a life-long commitment to shared purpose and interdependence, gardening is one of those microcosms where this relationship is really incarnated.  As is often the case, it would be easy for our marriage to become an echo of  June and Ward’s nifty little black and white utopia where I go off to seminary and Cait puts on her apron and coddles the kids while a hot-dish bubbles in the oven.  I don’t mean to caricature those families where this is the model or imply that this doesn’t reflect interdependence in some way, but it just wouldn’t work for Caitlyn and me.  We need to be beside each other, working together in situations where we can hear the other’s voice and knock elbows as we crouch in the dirt.  I think most couples find their own ways to make that connection, and for Cait and me, gardening is a big one.

So, for our little family, gardening is both a family activity that keeps our 22 month-old from carving her initials in the window screens, and a means for my wife and me to participate in each other’s lives in a productive and rewarding way.

One last thing: Something I’ve noticed about bloggers, myself included, is that we tend to present our lives as far more interesting or cute than they actually are.  So, in an effort to prevent that, I need to be clear that not every little family excursion to the garden is all that rewarding.  Just the other day Caitlyn and I both became flustered and tense while trying to plant our final seeds because Aleah was sitting in the dirt balling her head off.  She had only lasted about ten minutes before growing bored and tired, so we spent the next several minutes alternating between getting some actual work done and trying to amuse her with meaningless tasks.  I gave her the hose and a sprinkle can to fill with water, but after only a few minutes her jeans were soaked and the boogers pouring from her nose were glittered with dirt.  Defeated, I carried her inside and left Cait to finish planting the Oregano.  It wasn’t our best day.

But gardening is still awesome.

The Sowers Went Out to Sow

I haven’t posted in about a week, mostly because any spare time I’ve had has been spent up at the garden with my family, and as of today we are completely planted and awaiting growth!  It has been an unusually warm spring in the Twin Cities as we have had an entire month of 60+ degree weather with overnight lows consistently in the 40’s.  There is still a slight risk of a frost, but if nature is going to offer us a longer growing season we’d be fools not to take it.

All this to say, I have decided to try a bit of theme-posting, and since gardening is the deed of the day, I am going to devote several posts to the topic.  Thus, over the next several days I’ll share a series of reflections on why, in just two years of marriage, Caitlyn and my thumbs have turned an earthy green.

Why We Garden, Part 1: The Sun and the Seasons

Two months ago 18 inches of snow smothered the earth outside our apartment, layers of ice and crust and powder collecting since early December, forcing the land into unconsciousness through the steel-dark months of winter.  Today we spread compost over freshly planted seeds and then watched as the sprinkler twisted back and forth across our little plot of land, soaking our precocious strawberries and turning our soil into a squishy mess beneath the warm April sun.  Anyone who lives in a place with distinct seasons can appreciate these transitions, but gardening serves to heighten the anticipation and satisfaction carried along by each of the earth’s wild moods.

My brother-in-law is from southern California and sees no problem with “75 and sunny” day after day (Forgive me, Daryl, for using you as a foil.  I’ve watched enough idyllic snowstorms with you in the Belcher living room to know you appreciate some variety in the weather.)  He, like many from such climates, asks, “Who would ever want to live anywhere different?”  The answer is, of course, “Me!”  I don’t want to live where the weather never changes and the land always wears the same outfit and I don’t need seven kinds of jackets and three types of boots.  I want winter to be deep and treacherous, spring to be sloppy and sweet, summer to be so hot you have to swim ten feet down to find the cool water, and autumn to be serious and kind, full of apples and orange leaves.  I want the seasons.

I’ve always thought the seasons bear witness to something old and wise  — like a great tradition passed along from giant oaks to little saplings pushing their way through piles of leaves.  Anyone who has spent any significant time in the upper Midwest knows that we are at the mercy of a force far heftier than we can really handle.  Toys left in the yard in late

Grandma's flooded backyard

November can disappear overnight and not be found until after Easter, next to that rake and those gloves that never made it back to the shed; and about the time we can finally see the grass we have to go fill sandbags at the local high school or help Grandma hook up her water pump because the rivers have overeaten again.

So, as the opening paragraph suggests, gardening is one of those things that calls attention to the seasons.  After winter has run its course and the land can breath once more, we get to start arguing about the best mix of lettuce and if the tomatoes will do better next to the peppers or the garlic.  We watch the weather as the overnight lows gradually climb out of the twenties and we wait for the day that the frost goes out from the ground and the earth can start really drinking once more, like someone with an old, bad habit.  And then, when the excitement of planting, weeding, and watering has worn off, those first little lumps of color start forming beneath the leaves and we are once again inspired by the prospect of cherry tomatoes so sweet you can eat them like M&Ms.

I’ve always appreciated the seasons, enjoying each one for its different activities and fascinations, but with gardening it’s different.  The weather and the land aren’t just things to be entertained by but things to listen and respond to — our ability to eat a nice homemade salad on the porch in August depends on it.  And our passage through time isn’t determined by the numbers on the calendar but by the size and color of the fruit and the threat of a first frost.  I remember last year my summer didn’t end with the beginning of classes or a Labor Day barbecue, but with the numbness of my fingers as I pulled our carrots from the ground on a chili September night.  I filled the bucket with carrots covered in dark frigid mud, and then, because the water at the garden faucet had already been shut off for the year, I lugged them into my apartment and knelt beside the bathtub to rinse our last harvest of the year.  I waved goodbye to summer with sore knees and cold hands, and summer bid me adieu with a bowl of blaze-orange carrots.

I get frustrated when I hear people in Minnesota complain about the horrible winters and mucky springs.  I think if you can’t enjoy each season for what it has to offer then that’s your fault and not the weather’s.  Admittedly, I used to enjoy winter far more than spring and I loathed the day the piles of snow turned to lumps of dirt and ice, but gardening has served to fill that gap between winter’s furious excitement and summer’s easy satisfaction.  I now look forward to those muddy months and embrace the early stages of planning and preparation necessary for a juicy, delicious harvest.  And as we stand out in the April sun while water splashes across our burgeoning soil, the ice and crust that held us captive just months previous seems easily forgivable.

So if you too live in a place with surly seasons and haven’t quite figured out how to enjoy yourself, consider gardening.