Franciscan Joy: Gardening is a hobby that grows on you
BY FR. CARL LANGENDERFER, OFM
I have been growing vegetables and flowers ever since I was a child. My Mom and Dad came from farm backgrounds, so it was natural for us to have a large vegetable garden in back of our house. We raised all kinds of vegetables: corn, tomatoes, beans, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, and even strawberries and grapes. Dad planted the garden in the spring, and Mom harvested produce in the summer and fall. We ate whatever was in season.
If we had an abundance of anything, Mom canned or froze it, and we often had a vegetable stand in front of our house where we sold the extras that we couldn’t use. I remember as a kid taking my little red wagon through the neighborhood, selling corn on the cob, usually for 50 cents a dozen. I also remember planting morning glories near the house, and had them climb up strings attached to the chimney. My Mom raised African violets and lots of other flowers in pots around the house. She was known to have a green thumb, and could make almost any plant thrive.
When I was assigned to Holy Rosary Church in Houma, La., a couple parishioners volunteered to create a garden in our yard. They tilled the soil and suggested that I plant tomatoes, pole beans, peppers and okra. In Louisiana you plant the vegetables on top of a slight ridge so that they don’t drown in the frequent rains. That was new to me; in Cincinnati our gardens were flat to catch the rain water. Another difference was that you could plant two crops each season, one in February and another in August, so I often had two crops of tomatoes and beans. Okra required warmer soil; it didn’t usually get planted until April. Did you know that okra seeds have to be soaked overnight in warm water to soften the outer shell so they can germinate? We had an outdoor patio area that I decorated with flower beds and planters. Gardenias were my favorite.
At St. Clement’s in St. Bernard the yard was much smaller, so I built a raised garden about 8-by-16 feet and raised mostly tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. I received many of my plants from a parishioner who had a small greenhouse. I tried spinach and cabbage, without much luck. There I also branched out into flowers with hanging baskets of petunias and beds of impatiens. We had a courtyard and deck with built-in flower beds, so I experimented with lots of different flowers and even some grape vines and wisteria. I learned that most plants like sunshine and don’t grow very well in areas shaded by the building.
When I moved to St. Anthony’s there was already a fenced-in garden that Fr. Kenan Freson had created some years before, and he offered me half of the area, a space 10-by-20 feet. So I again focused on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, along with radishes and lettuce. I like to experiment, buying plants from a local greenhouse and planting about a dozen kinds of tomatoes, including small red and yellow ones. I haven’t gotten into heirloom tomatoes; I’m not sure they’re worth the trouble. Over the years we have improved the soil with compost and fertilizer and manure, and last year I had some of the best and biggest tomatoes ever. Some people suggest that I use Holy Water on my plants, but I confess to using Miracle-Gro when I plant them, and later side-dress them with granular 11-11-11 fertilizer.
The friars at St. Anthony say the fresh tomatoes taste so much better they no longer bother with the store-bought variety. I often give away the extras to the Poor Clares and other friaries.
I have also built up a variety of planters for flowers in front of the Chapel, near our entrance doors, and by the parking lot. Since our Chapel faces west, those areas get plenty of sun, so the planters need to be watered every couple of days all summer. Sun-loving plants like petunias, dusty millers, cannas, sweet potato vines, lantana and marigolds do best in those planters. I try to follow the dictum that planters should have a "thriller," a "filler," and a "spiller" to be complete and attractive to the eye. The trick in Mt. Airy is to have attractive planters that are not attractive to deer. One deer can destroy a planter in one night of dining. Squirrels also like to dig in the planters to bury their walnuts, but dried animal blood mixed with ground cayenne pepper tends to discourage them.
This year I experimented with starting tomato plants from seed; I have about 80 small tomato plants growing on my windowsills. There are Roma tomato plants, Giant tomato plants that are supposed to reach 2 pounds, and tomatoes I’m growing from seed gathered in Rieti, Italy. Usually after Mother’s Day I transplant some of them to my garden, and the rest I’ll give away or dispose of. I confess that I’ve already planted some in the garden, taking a chance that the temperature will not get down to freezing. (I believe in global warming.) If they do freeze, I have lots of replacements. I also have about 20 coleus plants, started from cuttings, growing on my windowsills. I intend to put some of them in planters in front of the Chapel.
As you can tell, I enjoy growing things. Flowers and vegetables speak to me of God’s infinite variety and abundance and beauty. I find it amazing that a tiny tomato seed can become a 6-foot-high plant and have hundreds of tomatoes. Being able to plant flowers and vegetables and bring them to maturity helps me feel closer to God and enables me to have a part in the creative process. In Genesis, God says humans should have dominion over the seed-bearing plants of the earth and bring them to fruition for the good of humankind. Gardening is my way of doing that for the glory of God and the enjoyment of my brothers and sisters.
(Fr. Carl is Guardian of St. Anthony Friary & Shrine in Cincinnati and Secretary for Initial Formation & Studies.)