Ever since social distancing measures came into effect in mid-March, our community organization (EAT MAKE PLAY) has been working with third sector and community groups to support the emergency food response. Alongside the direct distribution of food parcels, we have also been distributing plants and establishing a new grow site. The plants and the growing are part of a well-being offer during emergency and—we hope—a way to come together to sow the seeds of new relationships between people, place and food production as we move towards a greener recovery.
A few weeks ago, I headed out on my morning routine of walking the dog and watering the plants. As I approached the polytunnel, I realised that someone was already there—watering can in one hand and plants in the other! Wondering who this could be, I could hardly believe the answer when I heard it:
“Hi, my name is Guillermo (or Will). I am a permaculture gardener from Chilé. I am kinda stuck here in Birmingham during lockdown, and I cycled by and noticed the polytunnel and plants. I would like to garden with you while I am here . . .”
(*Quick aside: If there had been a speech bubble coming out of my mouth, it would have said: “Thank you Jesus for sending me a permaculture angel!)
Ever since that meeting, Will (along with his girlfriend, Francisca, and their hostel-mate, Mathilde) have been regulars on the work days as we establish the new grow site. Alongside long-time neighbours and new friends (like Will and co), we are finding out afresh that to do intensive growing, you cannot do it well by doing it alone. You need companions.
As we began to transplant seedlings from the polytunnel, Will recently reminded us of a guiding principle in permaculture gardening called “companion planting.”
Gardeners know that plants do not flourish in isolation from their environment; rather, they flourish because of it. Too enable healthy plant growth, gardeners do not just focus on the plant, but on the soil, light, water and even relationships to other plants. By “companion planting” chives next to cabbages, the scent of chives repels or distracts pests that might prey on the cabbages. Companion planting is also a way to attract insects, for example, by planting calendula next to tomatoes in order attract pollinators. In effect, companion planting is micro-practice for what gardeners do all the time — which is create and facilitate beneficial interactions in an ecology of relationship.
Will’s insight about companion planting is a practical reminder about how we might think about human ecology in terms of the practices of gardening, including companion planting.
For if we approach our discipleship in terms of gardening, then we are invited to reimagine our neighbourhoods not a a random assortment of people and things in a place, but rather in terms of the ecology of relationships in a place that we are called to tend.
In this way, discipleship can express care as a form of community gardening in both sense of the term: gardening in the community as well as gardening of the community. Our gifts and the gifts of our neighbours are likes seeds, powerful, yet dormant unless exposed to the right conditions. The friendships that spring up among neighbours are the soil, water, warmth, and light that allows these seeds to grow. When these plants grow in companion-ship with other plants, a magical synergy happens . . .
We no longer are “neighbours by accident” (I.e., those who happen to share the same postcode or locality); through our gardening together we become neighbours on purpose.