I had always wanted a vegetable garden. But our first summer of marriage we were too busy getting married, honeymooning and writing thank you notes even to think of it. So I tucked some tomato and pepper plants in among the lantana and verbena in my flower garden and commenced dreaming of the enormous vegetable plot I was going to plant in the western pasture the following spring. Over the winter I studied my organic gardening book religiously. I drew out a plan and ordered my seeds in January. I showed Philip the exact spot I had chosen, just inside the gate, beyond the old cedar tree, and he marked it out with stakes and cord. And as soon as I was convinced the last frost of the year was behind us (the middle of April here in the South) Philip cranked up the Massey-Ferguson (sorry Gretchen!) and plowed the rich red dirt.
We cleared away the rocks (where did they all come from!) and worked in compost and manure. I bought an organic fish-emulsion fertilizer that smelled like all-get-out, so I figured it must be good. And finally, one magic spring day, I sowed my seeds and put in my plants. A block of corn; trellises for pole beans; mustard greens and okra and squash in addition to the trusty tomatoes and peppers. I weeded and watered and perspired most alarmingly. And then I sat back to wait on my bountiful crop.
A most extraordinary thing happened, however. To my surprise and dismay, the weeds came springing up out of the soft earth, hard and fast and more vigorous than any of my tender seedlings. No matter how many I pulled up, they came back tenfold. I fought them with all my might and main that summer. I laid down plastic between the beds and along the center aisle. This I covered with layer after layer of wet newspapers and on top of that I piled several bales of hay. But to no avail. I looked on, helpless, as the weeds in that carefully-tended plot took to the sky like enchanted things. I half-expected to see a beanstalk sprouting heavenwards, disappearing into the clouds above. Within a matter of weeks my vegetable garden was no more, completely swallowed in an tide of green.
Gazing out over our pasture, the disparity between our thriving weed patch and the rest of the neglected land was almost comic. Or, it would have been, if I wasn’t so heartbroken. It wasn’t until later that summer that I figured out what had gone wrong. If I had only known!—but it was too late to grieve over this year’s garden. My mind was already entertaining visions of next year’s, an 18×20 raised bed affair on the lawn outside the kitchen door.
The farmers among you may have already divined my fatal mistake. But for those not so agriculturally-inclined, I’ll let you in on my secret shame so perhaps you can avoid a like catastrophe. It bears mentioning that the land upon which my garden was sown hadn’t been farmed in at least fifty years. It had been plowed and re-sown with grass, but even that was a good twenty years before I became mistress here. I did everything in my power to insure a strong, healthy start to my dreamed-of garden, but I hadn’t taken into account the latent potential of that unplowed earth. For you see, as soon as those blades sliced into the dirt they turned over unforseen amounts of seeds that had just been waiting to get their start in life. With plenty of good fertilizer and water they outperformed any vegetables I had or hoped for. By the end of the summer my crop of weeds was well over both of our heads.
Looking back on those first baffling garden trials it is striking for me to consider their counterpart in my own life. With all the faithful planning and preparation I’d made over the years for marriage, with all the desperate longing for the day I would be not just any wife, but his wife, with all the groundwork we’d both laid down to build our life together upon a firm foundation, I have to say I was taken aback by the weeds that sprung up almost immediately in my own heart in those early days and months after our wedding. Weeds of sin and selfishness that threatened to choke me with the cares of life.
Break up your unplowed ground
and do not sow among thorns.
But these weren’t weeds that I could even try to cover with plastic and bury in hay. They were more hearty and hale than any of their wild equivalents in my garden. The glad upheaval of my precious new marriage was like a plow upon untouched land, reaching far into the depths of my personality and revealing things I’d had only hints of before. There rose a capacity to love such as I’d scarcely known existed—and with it, a whole crop of unimagined fears. I discovered a joyful pride in my homemaking, which all-too-easily transgressed over into perfectionism. And I realized with an inward shock of self-awareness just how deeply indebted I was to God’s grace for the kind of marriage He’d allowed me to dream of.
Marriage has been likened to a microscope or a magnifying glass, identifying and examining your deepest imperfections with a loving, exacting precision. In my experience that has been only too true. There is nothing in the world like a selfless love, poured out upon you day in and day out, during ‘that’ time of the month as effusively as all the others, to show you your own flaws and frailties. That is, in effect what Christ’s love does for us, searchingly, redemptively. Are we ever so aware of our need for His grace as when we are drowning in the seas of His love? ‘The goodness of God leads us to repentance’. The same is true of marriage, that great sacred oneness in the image of His oneness with us. It is almost too wonderful for me to believe sometimes that loving this dear man is in itself loving Christ. But, as I learned and am learning, the closeness—the holy joy—of a God-honoring marriage comes with an nonnegotiable price: nothing less than your whole self.
Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until He comes and showers righteousness upon you.
There is a very telling passage in Elizabeth and Her German Garden that states: Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary in gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better. How radiantly true I find that principle to be in the garden of my marriage! The sunshine of God’s presence, the gentle showers of His good Word are essential. But the dirt must be cleared of rocks and thorns, and the wrenching of weeds must be performed on a daily basis. Hearts must be laid bare to His searching gaze, like soft, tilled beds. And it must be tended constantly with words like, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Will you forgive me’ and ‘It’s okay’.
And the beautiful flowers that will surely bloom in such a treasured place will mirror His beauty and will send up their aromas in unending praise.
Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
is my lover among the young men.
Song of Solomon 2:1, 2