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Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.

6421 W. Poinsettia Drive

Glendale, Arizona 85304-2419

623-334-8014; chemnitz@uswest.net





A layman, a pastor and I were on the phone discussing some of the things happening in the Lutheran Church today. I decided to relax with an article on gardening. In addition, I have a pile of bills to sort and pay, so I thought this would be more fun. Some people clean the house when they have an essay to write. I work on an article when I have a house to clean.


Members of A Mighty Fortress get to look over my gardening efforts once a week. Some have shown toxic levels of Schadenfreude, a wonderful German word meaning “shame joy.” Starting in December I did almost nothing for the yard or garden, except for some quick efforts at planting. By June my neglect was bearing fruit, yielding the aforementioned Schadenfreude. “You really are letting the yard go this year. We were just commenting on it.”


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I finished a large tomb (that is how Jack Cascione spells tome) in May, passed the Cisco CCNA test, and then passed the double-barreled A+ computer test. Something had to slip. I did not want to excuse failing the CCNA test by saying, “But you should see my zinnias.”


So I decided to invent a new discipline, retroactively: Serendipity Gardening. The term “serendipity” comes from Horace Walpole, who used it for some gentlemen who kept making happy discoveries. Originally, Serendip was a name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Many of us who have spent too much time in libraries have realized how much good can come from serendipity research, just walking down dimly lit aisles and falling upon the ideal title. Or we might have stopped at a used bookstore and found a long desired book for $3, the same book that would auction at a seminary for $50-100.


Serendipity Gardening works the same way. Instead of following prescribed and stultifying methods of gardening, the gardener goes against the rules and watches the results.


Needless to say, this is almost exactly the way the parable of the Sower and the Seed reads. Some seed falls along the footpaths and is devoured by birds. Some falls on rocky soil and withers in the heat of the sun. Some falls among thorns and becomes choked. But some seed falls on good soil and flourishes.


The Word of God is compared to seed because it is always alive with power. I see so much creative power in God’s Creation that I enjoy seeing it at work. For instance, one nagging problem comes from several persistent low growing weeds: goat’s head and spurge. Goat’s head is the worst, since it produces hundreds of prickly seeds that travel into the house and all over the yard. A common name for the week is “puncture vine,” since it can puncture tires, not to mention tender feet.


I was spraying goat’s head for the hundreth time when I imagined this touching scene in my yard:


Mother Goat’s Head – “Gather round children. I am dying and I want to say something before I go.”


Chorus of children – “No. Mamma. No. Maybe you are just sick.”


Mother Goat’s Head – “Dearie me, children. It’s Round-Up. I have only a short time to live.”


Children – “Maybe it’s only Weed-b-Gone. You will get better. Just wait. That Weed-b-Gone is no stronger than spit.”


Mother Goat’s Head – “No. I saw the bottle. Round-Up for sure. Listen, children. I am going soon, but I am counting on you to carry on. We can take over this whole yard and get rid of the humans for good. When I shrivel, the genocidal owner will gather me up and throw all of us away.”


Children – “No, Mamma, no.”


Mother Goat’s Head – “Listen up. When I am thrown away, most of you need to stay on my vine to make things look good. But others can drop off one by one in the distance between the ground and the garbage can. Later, when the big truck picks up the container, some more children can drop off into the wind. Not all of you or the mess will be swept up again. Just a few. Our motto is seductive. We are few. We are weak. We will not harm anything. Just tolerate us blowing around a little. Then, when they are not looking, spread and thrive. Send filaments fanning in every direction. Bloom with little yellow flowers. Keep them small. The loveless owner will say to himself that he must get at that new weed. But turn those flowers into wonderful grandchildren—oh how I long for them—and get rid of those conspicuous yellow colored blooms fast. Blend in. Stick to the dog. Travel. Bite a few bare feet. Yes, get into the skin and get thrown angrily into the tall grass. Not 20 seeds at once. If you coat someone’s bare feet like cloves on a ham, they will come into our yard with blowtorches and gallons of Round-Up. Work smarter, not harder. We will conquer.”


Children – “Yes, Mamma, for you. We will listen and thrive and take over.”


Given the nature of the desert valley, I have to find ways to overcome the clever and persistent goat’s head family. My answer is purslane, a salad plant brought over in colonial days, which has found a place in my yard. Because it too spreads easily with watering, I have decided to let it take over as a ground cover instead of spurge and goat’s head. Now large drifts of purslane spread around the swimming pool and provide an organic blanket for the soil. Sure enough, the goat’s head, with a similar growth habit and flower, tries to insinuate itself within those drifts, but I pull those strands out. (It reminds me of Kokomo justification spreading into the Lutheran Church, similar to and sounding at times like justification by faith.) In time the purslane will be the lawn around the pool, improving the wretched soil thrown in as filler by the contractor. Any rapidly growing plant will improve the soil by growing and dying, spreading roots and rotting roots, shading the soil while encouraging earthworms and other soil creatures.


Our sheltie, Precious, also nicknamed Agent Orange for her devastation of crops, has learned to love resting on top of a bed of purslane.


One experiment this year was planting about 5,000 zinnnia seeds. At first I thought this amounted to nothing. Perhaps I took the parable too seriously and planted too casually, as some claim. Schadenfreude is difficult to suppress. But now I have jungle of zinnias growing in several areas where they get an abundance of water. They are thriving and blooming even now in the 110 degree heat, when most crops are withering or suffering from heat prostration. Roses are barely alive in this weather.


I planted some hollyhocks and forgot about them. Later I saw one hollyhock rise behind the citrus tree and put out the most beautiful pink blooms. Like the zinnias, the hollyhocks will seed themselves and keep growing year after year. Hollyhocks are especially good at this. I have heard that zinnias will seed themselves, but I have to see if that will happen here.


Hollyhocks are a wonderful old-fashioned plant, often found along fences. They grow shoulder high, so they make a good background plant. Little girls can make dolls out of their blooms. Because hollyhocks grow so easily and attract bees, some people do not like them. But the serendipity gardener is happy to find blooms in neglected areas.


One of my great triumphs, because I did nothing on purpose to accomplish this, is a great sunflower bush. Once again, my mammoth sunflowers did well and produced some huge seed heads. But I also started some gourmet sunflowers with small and multi-colored blooms. A common gardening term is “habit,” which describes how a plant grows. The habit of the mammoth sunflower is growing 12 feet tall with a single large complex flower surrounded by bracts (fake flower petals). Enormous leaves on the mammoth sunflower collect solar energy and serve as instant, inexpensive shade plants.


In contrast, the gourmet sunflower plant has multiple small branches filled with many small complex flowers. The result is a multi-flowered bush-like plant, not so tall, filled with flowers gone to seed and newly forming flowers. One day I rounded the corner and 15 birds flew off their sunflower bird-feeder. Oblivious to me, bees and other insects worked the fresh flowers, getting their food while setting up the newly pollinated flowers to feed the birds later. I estimate that the sunflower bush has a diameter of 4 feet. Once the plant is done producing, the birds still enjoy perching on it. I also find other insects, even a dragon fly, stopping by for a rest.


I thought borage would sail into the summer heat with enthusiasm. But borage deserted me in the high temperatures and disappeared. Early in the year we had “large weeds with pretty blue and pink flowers” near the chapel. (I love quoting the members on this subject. I now refer to London rocket as “false ragweed” and mallow as “crypto-mallow,” since my precise weed identifications were challenged openly. My London rocket looked exactly like the London rocket in my “Weeds of the West” book and mallow looked just like mallow. Now I have Schadenfreude. It is very contagious.)


My guess is that borage would do well in most Midwestern yards all summer, loving the sun and plenty of water. Earlier this year, members often gathered near the plant and ate the cucumber flavored flowers. Here borage grows waist high, but they grow smaller in areas less blessed by sun.


Warty gourds fell victim to Agent Orange and the heat this year. I planted 1,000 of them among the sunflowers but hardly one grew. I planted a few leftovers near the pool fence and two plants grew. I found one reason for the crop failure when Precious sat down near one gourd plant and began munching on the leaves, as if I had grown a salad plant for her. In Phoenix gourds should be grown in the fall garden along with peas and other cool weather crops. I proved last year that blue hubbard squash could be grown in the summer, but it is better to start them in August.


Of course my thought was this: the squash family likes a long growing season and hates cold, so they should take over my yard in the summer. However, I forgot that one component of squash growth was soil moisture. I often watered them in Michigan! So I think heat and dry weather made the majority of warty gourd plants easy pickings for the dog. I grew a couple of gourds and brought them in for the children. They looked at them as if the gourds were alien pods ready to absorb their bodies. I will toss the dry gourds into the tall plant area (well watered) where they will rot and grow their seeds. Or maybe not. It is serendipity, after all.


I am working on the new garden, ordering seeds for the congregation. One gardener has caught on, ordering in increments of a pound instead of  packets.


I am planning on using the old sunflower plants as pea-sticks, to let the pea plants climb. I think it is easier to grow the plants into the ground and leave them there rather than plant some kind of support artificially.


My garden of serendipity continues to amaze me with the way in which the Creation can reveal itself. Opponents will grow their purpose-driven gardens (the new term for Church Growth). Every year we will have the same experience. Variations in the weather will make some plants grow gloriously. Others will fail for the same reason. I expect that now and do not grind my teeth about it.


In our congregations, too, most of what happens is pure serendipity. That is God’s design. Whenever we figure out how the Word of God should work, God surprises us by revealing another plan, His plan instead of ours, His thoughts instead of ours. Pity the purpose-driven congregation ordering God to give them specific results and then adulterates God’s Word to accomplish what they have planned with their covetous hearts.


KJV Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: 11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.