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  • Writer's pictureCherie Calletta

Columnist thoughts on ‘the catechism of the garden’

courtesy photo

I planted Bachelor’s Buttons recently, near the tomatoes. This flower always reminds me of my grandfather. He had an extensive garden in the back and side yards of his house: tomatoes, basil, fruit trees, eggplant… it was extensive and magnificent. Grandpa’s garden was a taste of old Calabria. The star performer was always the fig tree…

The figs would be tree-ripened and delicious. There is a tremendous difference between fruit that is ripened on the vine or the stem, and fruit that was picked, of necessity, long before ripening to make it viable for transport. That disconnect cannot be avoided, with commercial fruit. But the flavor of tree or vine-ripened fruit is incomparable. That’s one reason people spend so much money and exert back-breaking effort in gardening.

My first garden was back in the mid-1990s in Charlotte, North Carolina. I remember the first thing that came up and ripened. It was a tomato, probably a Big Boy hybrid.

I was astonished, humbled, amazed and completely in love with the idea that I could plant a seed in the ground, and a few weeks later fruit appeared. Fruit that was actually edible.

I brought the tomato into the kitchen and set it down on the table with reverence. “Look what God and I did! It’s a tomato!” What magic is this? What alchemy, what wizardry, where an unassuming little seed, laid in the dirt, given a bit of water and sunlight, would lead to something that you can eat and that would sustain life?

Maybe people who grew up on farms take this all for granted. For someone whose fruit and vegetables had always come from the supermarket, who had never had a functioning garden before, it was absolutely breathtaking. Yes, I as a child had known my Grandpa’s garden, but that was Grandpa … he was always a bit magical, because he could build things out of wood scraps and make me a bookcase, and turn bags of cement into fountains and statues. So of course, Grandpa could grow things: he could do anything. The fact that I could grow things too … that was the new information.

At one point in my gardening career, I fell in love with compost. Compost took on a genuinely sacramental quality for me. I was convinced the story of redemption was present in the compost.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds: compost and worm “castings” (nice euphemism) are what can enrich some nasty North Carolina red clay or some New Jersey mostly-beach-sand mixed with a miserly amount of loam into good garden soil. It’s all about the soil amendments, and compost is one of the best. (Horse and cow manure are good too, but they are not nearly as poetic as compost).

Plants that were once vital and flourishing have to die …they get thrown in the compost heap … they decay and decompose … and then, you have compost, otherwise known as garden gold.

To make good compost, some things have to die so that others may live.

There is no other way around this. Even in the case of manure, the cow or horse had to eat plants, process it in their systems, “render unto Caesar” … and produce manure.

In nature, some things have to die so that others may live.

There are no shortcuts. There is no way to avoid this. The flowers you enjoyed in the spring will die, and it makes no sense to throw them in the trash when you could put them in the compost bin and allow them to decompose. In a year or so those former flowers will enrich the soil and become part of your tomatoes and basil. Alchemy! Magic!

My first gardens in Charlotte were the best, because they were so full of life lessons …there was a whole catechism in the garden that encompassed the lessons of birth, death and redemption. I had never gardened before that, but once I got into it, I was hooked.

I think all religious instruction should begin with a garden. If you want to show a real life illustration of sacrifice and redemption, let them plant a garden. They will be able to see the whole cycle played out right in their own hands. They will also develop a very healthy respect for food, once they realize how exhausting it can be to produce even a small amount as a supplement.

There is a sign in my garden that says “He who plants a seed beneath the sod/And waits to see/believes in God.”

I hope I will never lose that sense of wonder and deep gratitude for what the earth brings forth.

Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002.


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