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Growth depends on more than good drainage

24 April 2015

John Austen begins an occasional series looking at faith and spirituality from the perspective of an allotment-keeper


Growing green: a good year for parsnips?

Growing green: a good year for parsnips?

ALTHOUGH I've had my allotment for a few years now, I'm still a beginner at growing things. It's trial and error. Some of those around me have had their allotments for years (sometimes even taken them on from their fathers before them). They are the ones who win prizes, and whom one asks for advice.

Expert or not, however, I've discovered that having an allotment is not only really enjoyable, but also quite different from having a garden. Your garden is part of your home; on the allotment, you are part of a community of people growing their own fruit and vegetables.

I've heard of places where the waiting-lists for allotments are so long that you need to get your name down at birth; and where any momentary lapse from high standards of cultivation swiftly incurs a stern letter from The Committee, and the threat of imminent eviction.

Happily, our allotments are rather more laid-back; and with enough room on the plots for a shed and a greenhouse. In summer, when I've done a bit of work (or even when I haven't), I can put the deckchair out, sit under the plum tree, and have something to eat and drink. 

BUT spring is working time. Digging was done in Lent; parsnip seeds were sown early (on a day that wasn't windy - I learned from my mistake the first time); and now I'm wondering whether they will come up. I sow parsnips every year. For the first couple of years, I had no trouble, even though plotholders near by were less successful, so I indulged in a bit of Schadenfreude. The next year, not a single parsnip came up, though I saw them growing on my neighbour's plot. Maybe it was his turn for Schadenfreude. Last year, my parsnips were fine, but my friend was unlucky; so now I wait with trepidation. I sowed them with radishes, which come up quickly, and which mark the line where the slower-germinating parsnips should eventually appear. Watch this space.

For me, parsnips exemplify what all of us who have allotments know: in the end, we can't make things grow. That takes us back to St Paul: "It is not the gardeners with their planting and watering who count, but God who makes it grow." Some of my work as a priest has been in spiritual direction, or accompaniment; that, too, is a mysterious process. You can't make another person grow in his or her spiritual life. You can offer resources, suggestions, or courses, which frequently help people in their journey of prayer; but nothing is guaranteed. Sometimes people's prayer life grows very rapidly - my only task is to encourage, and to avoid getting in the way. At other times, people get stuck, and nothing much seems to happen - like parsnips failing to appear; beans rotting before they germinate; or a fruit tree that simply has a bad year.

But sometimes seeds come through much later than you expect, when you have almost given up on them. Progress in spirituality can similarly be a hidden process, perhaps at first not even recognised by the person; so parsnips are quite a good analogy, because they are one of the slowest seeds to germinate and appear. Spiritual growth has its own pace, and is the work of the Holy Spirit: it isn't about winning prizes, but doing preparation, and being patient. T. S. Eliot writes: "Take no thought of the harvest, But only of proper sowing".

Seeds don't grow if they are planted at the wrong time of year, or if the soil has not been prepared.

Sometimes they fail to come up for no apparent reason; at other times the reasons are obvious - a late frost; old seed; ground that is waterlogged. But you can follow all the advice to the letter, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Perversely, I rather like that. It stops me from pretending that I'm in control.

HAVING an allotment can be frustrating. The year my parsnips failed completely, I looked at those in the supermarket - smooth, tapered, washed, and neatly packaged - and wondered "Why on earth do I bother?" But, for us city-dwellers, who otherwise encounter the reality of bad harvests only in higher food prices in the shops, the crop that fails on the allotment is a salutary reminder that I am not in total charge of the process.

Canon John Austen is a spiritual director living in Birmingham.

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