In my prairie farm home, spring always began with foil trays of potting soil lined up on our window sills. When green shoots of tomatoes, marigolds and geraniums began to poke above the surface, I knew that spring thaw couldn’t be too far away.
After last frost, my mother would sit down at the kitchen table and draw a map of the garden. With packets of seed scattered across the table rows of peas, beans, and carrots, plots of zucchini and corn would sprout from her pencil across the page. We would enact her map later that week: unrolling lengths of string and tracing straight rows along them, filling trenches with water, dropping seeds in and covering them over; taking bright green seedlings out of their foil trays and sinking them deep in the soil of flower beds and garden plots.
Perhaps it is because of this family history that I am fascinated by the Genesis 2 description of God as gardener: “Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (vv. 8-9). The LORD God planted—not spoke into being, but planted—got down on his hands and knees and dropped seeds into trenches in the earth, waited for them to grow.
Not only does God plant a garden, but he plants humanity within that garden (v. 8)—and gives humanity its first task: “to work [the garden] and take care of it” (v. 15). As image-bearers of our gardener God, we are charged with the responsibility of tending the earth.
This is a responsibility I took for granted when I lived on my father’s farm, worked in my mother’s garden. Now that I live in the city, with only a small balcony to connect me to the outdoors, I feel disconnected from the origins of food, experience few consequences of my actions in nature. When my garbage is swept neatly away every week, what does it matter how much of it I produce? When I buy my food in plastic trays and bags at the grocery store, what does it matter if it doesn’t rain? I have become seduced by convenience: throwing out what could be saved; expecting fruits and vegetables to be readily available, regardless of season; accumulating unneeded possessions that gather dust on my shelves before being consigned to some far-removed rubbish heap.
When the prophets pick up on the image of God as gardener, they give it a different twist. Israelis described as a well-watered garden under God’s hand (Nm 24:6-7, Is 58:11, Jer 31:12), or, when in rebellion against God, as a desert or wilderness, untended and unproductive (Is 5:1-7, Is 51:3). Living in cities, removed from the earth that sustains us, we struggle not only to fulfill our task as image-bearers of a gardener God, but also to understand the work of a gardener God in our lives, to understand ourselves as garden: as pruned, weeded, watered, as weathering the seasons.
For four years now, I have felt locked under a blanket of snow, barely surviving through a very long winter. Spring may still be months, or even years, away. The temptation is to despair. Instead, I cling to this image of God as gardener: God drawing out garden rows, in the midst of winter; filling foil trays with potting soil; setting them on the window sill and watching, with me, for the day that green shoots will begin to appear.
In the meantime, in my city apartment, I try to remind myself in as many ways as possible of this gardener God, to remind myself of my image-bearing role as gardener. I grow tomatoes, chives, rosemary and thyme on my balcony, and alfalfa and bean sprouts on my kitchen counter. I sort my garbage and haul recycling and compost inconveniently to recycling sites in the city. And, every year, before the last frost has left the ground—while it is still winter—I plant seeds in foil trays and set them out on my window sills.