It is early spring – April time – and the Goat Willow has begun to flower. As I walk towards St Columba’s Community Garden, the willow is alive with the low melodic thrumming drone of our hungry bees, who have recently emerged from surviving another harsh wet winter. The simple joy of watching tree blossom and gorging bees are moments in life that cannot be bought, sold, traded, licensed or bottled. It is wild, it is free and above all else it is naturally nature.
Our community garden was started almost immediately after we signed our long lease on the heritage farmstead recorded on the OS map as Great Barn Farm – now renamed St Columba’s Community Farm. Everything we need to know about our new home is contained in the earth beneath our feet. Our greensand clay/chalk soil has hosted millennia of people who have lived, farmed and made their livelihoods and prayers in this place. We have found knapped Neolithic flints and roman table utensils all within 100 yards of our small garden.
We dig, row after row, turning the grass into exposed earth, removing the chalk and flints as we dig. The ground is heavy and the diggers anoint the earth with their sweat. The ground demands our physical presence and receives our toiling muscles and deep breath as a down payment on our intention to build a lasting relationship. Gardening is not about creating picture perfect coffee table book gardens, it is like any relationship it demands you turn up and invest love.
Our early gardening experiments consisted of one dug bed and one allotment sized no-dig bed. We need to try different approaches, what will work for the type of soil we have? The purists among us want no-dig, yet this ground, although fertile, is also heavy clay and claggy after rainfall. With a year of experimentation, we make the pragmatic decision to do both. In the early years we will dig, rotavate and till the ground, adding the rich cow manure that can be dug out of the old animal barns we have earmarked for retreat spaces. As the beds mature we can migrate to the no dig methodology.
Every garden needs a Queen of the Compost – that person who understands the nature and nurture of creating quality compost from the garden waste that will never be eaten. Equal in status and importance is The King of the Worms – he or she who makes sure that these most precious of God’s creatures feature in every bed, every compost bin and every shovel of turned soil. Without them a garden dies, so we venerate their presence and honour their vital role in creation.
Our whole approach to seeding, nurturing and growing our community farm is rooted in the simple sustainable ethic of reduce, reuse, recycle. Our compost bins are created out of recycled free pallets from the abattoir we use, our community hut from wood salvaged from building sites that ordinarily would be thrown into landfill, as is our quail run.
Jesus was an agrarian. I have always marvelled at how Jesus used the lives and livelihoods of ordinary working people, the people of the land to communicate the spiritual life of the Kingdom. Shepherds and sowers of seed, farmers and fishermen, vintners and builders. The simple folk, the working classes, the artisans and agrarians who support the very fabric of our human order. They are the ones who interact daily with creation and the tasks they undertake add fruitfulness, dignity and integrity to the soul of the human species. The Kingdom of Heaven is revealed through these people and the way that they are treated by those of power and privilege who are equally exposed in their greed and exploitation of human and natural resources.
Our community garden is more than a vegetable patch, it is our teacher, it is becoming the ground of our encounter with the life-giving Spirit of Holiness. It is a place of work, nurture, encountered community and generosity. You can take home the produce that the ground gives to us.
If you wish to get involved in St Columba’s Community Garden or the wider life of St Columba’s farm feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org, you will be most welcome.
Greg Valerio is Founder of the Society of St Columba, a Celtic Christian monastic community based in Chanctonbury, Sussex.
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