Lo, the fair beauty of earth,
from the death of the winter arising,
Every good gift of the year,
now with its Master returns.
THE Easter season has transformed countryside and garden - and
allotments, too. Everything seems to be on the move. But there is
the usual dilemma: at what point shall I plant out or sow
vegetables that are susceptible to late frosts? I am still
learning: I read what it says on the packets or labels, but there
are huge variations between north and south.
I rely on the wisdom of more experienced neighbours, who know
what the patterns of late frost have been on our particular
The sudden burgeoning of growth will bring the burgeoning of
pests too, as we embark on another season of turf wars to discover
who is in charge of this allotment - them, or me. It isn't a new
problem: in the Old Testament, we glimpse the same situation.
Jeremiah scoffs at the carved images some people worship: "They can
no more speak than a scarecrow in a plot of cucumbers".
Just as Jeremiah looked around and saw what people were doing to
try to keep the birds away, I can look around today and see
scarecrows on our allotments. One wears a hi-vis jacket; others are
decked in glittering silver foil. Shiny CDs are popular
bird-scarers, suspended on wires or lengths of string. I wonder
what scarecrows looked like in Jeremiah's day.
Joel wrote about the plague of locusts: "What the cutter-worms
left, the locusts ate; what the locusts left, the grasshoppers ate;
what the grasshoppers left, the shearer-worms ate".
Plagues like that were utterly disastrous. On the allotment, in
a bad year, we have our own litany of woe: what the pigeons left,
the slugs ate, what the slugs left, the caterpillars ate; what the
caterpillars left, the aphids devoured.
LIVING in a city, the day-to-day experience of being dependent on
harvest is absent. We can see on television the consequences of
famine and pestilence, and hear about it from our partners in link
dioceses. But the words of Joel and others have a sharp ring about
them when you go down to the allotment and find that, because you
forgot to cover the young brassicas, you are left with a row of
stalks; or what was a bush bright with soft fruit one day has been
stripped bare by the next.
Responses to all this can vary. One friend, an experienced
grower and a faithful Christian, is philosophical and generous. He
says that we are all God's creatures, and we all have to find a way
of living - including the pigeons. Another friend has a rather
different attitude, and can sometimes be seen stuffing the pigeon
he has just caught into a bag, for cooking later. Someone else says
"Plant four of everything - one for the birds, one for the slugs,
one for a friend, and one for yourself." It's a pity pigeons and
slugs can't count. . .
AND what to do about those slugs? Let them drown in beer?
Discourage them with eggshells? Use "safe" slug pellets, i.e. with
no peripheral fatalities? I still get slight twinges of conscience
when I affirm the sanctity of God's whole creation on Sunday
morning, and stab the slugs with a fork a couple of hours
The balance between our needs and the needs of God's creatures
is rightly now recognised as a theological and moral issue. We see
it in miniature in our gardening. I have really enjoyed watching
thrushes on my allotment, knowing too that they deal efficiently
with snails. But, last year, when I mounted one of my regular
attacks on the Japanese knotweed that is too close for comfort, I
realised that the thrush whose song I enjoy so much had a nest at
the base of the knotweed, in thick cover by the stream. I delayed
my attack until the young had fledged.
I have always been moved by the plight of farmers who lose their
crops, whether in other countries or here in the UK. But it is on
the allotment that I encounter some of this at a personal level,
and thus the plight of those whose livelihood or survival is under
threat becomes more real to this city-dweller.
Canon John Austen is a spiritual director living in