March 2011
Caring for God's Creation

Meeting God in a Faith Garden

The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he placed the man and woman whom he had formed.  -Genesis 2:8

Gardens have always been places to meet God and God’s people. God can be found in the first green shoots of spring, in the setting sun, or in the face of another gardener. Sometimes we work in silence, intent on hoeing around one plant after another like repeating a wordless prayer. Other times two gardeners work closely together and help each other with the planting. Voices murmur and then erupt in shared laughter.

Generations mix and mingle as high school students intent on fulfilling their community service unit receive instruction from elder Master Gardeners. Boy Scouts earn merit badges and undertake Eagle projects. All are drawn to the garden in response to Christ’s call to discipleship as the vegetables grown in the garden are donated to feed poor and hungry local people. Such is the ministry called faith gardens. This is the story of one faith garden: how it started and how it continues to grow.

The Faith & Grace Garden, located on a grassy lot next to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, has proved to be a vibrant ministry bringing together members of local churches, high school students, and the Boy Scouts to work in the garden. All vegetables grown in the Faith and Grace garden are donated to area food pantries and the local food bank. Last year over 4,000 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables were grown in the quarter-acre garden.

For over ten years the parish vegetable garden beside St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, was a small plot tended by one parishioner, Mark Marshall. Mark tended the garden in the evenings after walking seven to nine miles each day in his job with the post office. Mark distributed the vegetables to needy parishioners or gave fresh vegetables away to church members after Sunday services.

In 2009 a conference called “Hope for the Hungry” was held in Des Moines that focused on eliminating childhood hunger in Polk County, Iowa, by 2015. As a speaker at the conference, Mark told the attendees about the parish garden. There he met a member of the Izaak Walton League who volunteered to plow up the parish garden if Mark wanted to make it larger. The difficulty of breaking the sod with a small rototiller stopped Mark previously from expanding the size of the garden. Mark returned to St. Timothy’s and found support for increasing the size of the parish garden and its mission.

The garden became a project of the community ministries commission at St. Timothy’s and grew from less than 1,000 square feet in size to almost 13,000 square feet in the spring of 2010. The location of the garden along a busy street helped turn curious onlookers into volunteers, as did word of mouth. Twelve garden volunteers from St. Timothy’s were joined by some 50 volunteers from outside the church; mostly friends, neighbors and passersby. Nearby churches sent volunteer gardeners. Email served to keep volunteers informed and interested, as volunteer help was frequently needed with planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting the garden. Other volunteers helped by delivering vegetables to local food pantries and the area food bank.

Friday night is family night in the garden starting with a potluck at 6:00 pm followed by gardening and then closing with evening prayer. The children divide their time between the garden and the nearby church playground. Young families enjoy this affordable evening out and then have the children in bed by 9:00 pm. For adults and children alike, this experience in the garden is a time of discovery about creation care and social justice.

For the 2011 planting season the Faith & Grace Garden has grown to over 26,000 square feet. Our hope this year is to grow 10,000 pounds of organic vegetables. As we become closer to the people who eat the vegetables grown in the Faith & Grace Garden, we have learned more about their culture and dietary preferences. This year we will grow more hot peppers, tomatillos, cilantro, collard greens, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, and fava beans.

This year we will experiment with several innovations that we talked about while working in the garden last year. The garden now has a “no-till” section as we consider ways to reduce our carbon footprint while saving labor. We are developing a plan to harvest rain runoff from the church roof, store it, and then apply the water as the garden dries out over the summer. The garden will be fertilized with casings or “tea” produced at a local worm farm employing people who are homeless.

We are becoming connected with other faith gardens in our area through a new Internet site that will allow us to co-ordinate our efforts, share resources and communicate with volunteers:

The garden is one of several important local efforts targeted at food, hunger, and nutrition. A community health movement called "Healthy Polk 2020" has engaged the community and found that this is one of the ten most important health priorities of local residents. The garden fits hand in hand with other efforts to achieve the Healthy Polk priority "ensure access to affordable, healthy food for everyone."

Timothy Goldman
is a member of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in West Des Moines, Iowa and, with Mark Marshall, one of the shepherds behind the Faith and Garden

Let’s Move! Faith Community Garden Guide
Tips for Parishes Considering a Food Pantry Garden

This article is part of the March 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for God's Creation