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How Dad nurtured a garden and the future

It's spring in the Appalachian Mountains, and gardeners are eager for good planting weather. Though I'm grateful for the promise each spring holds of flowers and vegetables, it's also a time of special memory of one particular gardener: my father.

Dad loved spring. A man of few words, he spoke of the joy of spring by planting trees and flowers. Not too many years ago, I counted more than a thousand plants he had put in the earth. I'm sure he never counted them, but having nurtured them was a source of great satisfaction. A visitor to my parents' home in any season except winter would be shown the gardens – vegetables, roses, grapes, blueberries.

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I grew up thinking that shovels, rakes, hoes, trowels, wheelbarrows, and garden tractors were as indispensable to a household as kitchen tables and bathtubs. When I was about 5, I asked for my very own hoe.

My parents responded by finding me a real child-size garden hoe. Dad bought good quality tools and kept them clean and dry. He taught my brother and me to respect tools, and never to throw a rake or hoe on the ground with the blade or prongs turned upward.

He was careful, too, about the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. He read labels and heeded warnings. His ethic was: Do no harm to the soil, the vegetation, animals, or human beings. His attitude toward gardening was never of control, but of reverence. Appreciating a simple lifestyle long before the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, he never wished to own things, but wanted simply to care for a plot of land.

Dad would often talk of his gardening as "cultivation," a familiar word for generations in my parents' families. When my mother was growing up on a farm, her family used a cultivator hitched to a mule. It had a wide blade to cut out unwanted grass growing between rows of beans, corn, and okra. They attached other plows for making rows before planting.

When Mom and Dad started their own garden, having neither horses nor mules, they used a cultivator that they pushed themselves. I remember talk of "using the cultivator." After several years, they bought motorized garden tractors and tillers, but they continued to call the process of gardening cultivation.

I am not the gardener my dad was. My family and I live in a townhouse with a small, fenced backyard. We plant every inch of soil with flowers and don't mow grass. We've kept a 5-by-2-foot strip of grass in case we long for it, but we cut it with scissors. It's a haphazard garden, not carefully planned. Only the hardy and self-sufficient survive: day lilies, iris, mint, sage, parsley, pampas grass, and rue.

I doubt that I'll ever enjoy the act of gardening as Dad did, but his legacy for me is a reverence for plants and for the season "when flowers appear on the earth."

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My parents' house has been sold to business interests that care not for their roses, camellias, blueberries, grapes, corn, beans, peanuts, morning glories, pines, pyracantha, ligustrum, azaleas, forsythia, redbud, rhododendron, crape myrtle, Burford holly, maples, nandina, and strawberries. The two acres have been cleared and made into a space for a business. Their great-grandchildren will not see many of the trees Dad planted.

Jim Nollman in "Why We Garden" (1994) tells of the seventh-generation context in which the Iroquois tribal government operated. When the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy met for tribal council, they began with an invocation of the presence of the seventh future generation. Then, whenever they voted on an issue, living council members took into consideration the interest and well being of their descendants seven generations hence.

If we don't have intentional concern for the seventh and eighth generations, we won't know when time to stop land development. We won't know when we have done enough economic expansion.

Dad was one who made green the earth. He would not have spoken of sustainable community, planetary agenda, or even the welfare of future generations, but I believe his care for his garden was a form of contemplation that resulted in good stewardship and practical concern for the seventh generation. As a cultivator, he loved the portion of the earth that was in his care.

Cultivating the soil can be a guide toward our vocation as stewards of the earth, now a more formidable task than ever, but somewhat less daunting if we see our role as nurturers, as keepers of the earth. If we are shaped by gardening into a nurturing relationship with our plot of land, then we begin to see ourselves as called to help creation thrive. In other words, we become cultivators of much more than our garden plots.