Be a gardener and custodian in God’s Garden

An article by the former Bishop of Birmingham The Rt. Revd. Hugh William Montefiore (†2005) in ‘Preaching for our Planet‘ pp. 82-86. Mowbray Publishing Preaching Series 1992.

A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.

Song of Solomon 4:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
Buckfast Abbey

You might think that, with a text taken from the Song of Solomon, my subject is erotic poetry, or, as writers like St. Bernard understood the poem, that it concerns the love of Christ for his Church. If you think that, I’m afraid that you will be disappointed. In fact, I am going to speak about gardening, and my text describes an oriental garden, with water, fruit and spices. It conjures up a delicious picture of sun and shade, fragrance and blossom, and the background tinkle of water. It is worth our noticing that when the writer of Solomon’s Song wanted words to describe the seductive beauty of a beloved, he turned to the imagery of a garden. Earlier he calls her ‘a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.’ (Song of Solomon 2:1.) Metaphors from the garden spring naturally to the lips of lovers, because the garden is a thing of beauty and fragrance, precious and well loved. It has been so down the ages. The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Bible ends with a city, the city of God; but let us not forget that it begins with a garden, the garden of Eden. That is what the word ‘paradise’ means in the Greek language. 


In Britain people love their gardens. Selling plants for gardens is big business— you only have to visit a garden centre to see that. In many European countries people live in high-rise blocks without gardens. Of course we have many of these in Britain, and that is one of the reasons why there is such a large demand for cut flowers in a big city. Yet despite this, two out of three houses do have gardens. Sometimes these are large. When I was a diocesan bishop my See house had a three acres of garden attached to it. It was by far the best perk of being within the diocese, but it was not easy to give it all the attention that it deserved. Most gardens are small. Now that I am retired, our garden measures only 37 feet by 35; but every inch of it is lovingly tended, and this is typical of many such gardens. Why is this?

It is refreshing to be able to renew our contact with nature. Something stirs within us when we see the natural processes of germination and growth. We find the beauty of flowers, plants and trees deeply moving. The variety of their shapes and colours and fragrances delights us. The presence of birds and wildlife is a further source of pleasure — although not the pests like the slugs and greenfly! As we keep down the weeds, we are reminded of their spiritual undertones which we find in the gospel parables. 

This love of gardens seems entirely proper. Francis Bacon called it ‘the purest of human pleasures’. But it is more than mere pleasure. Gardens speak to us not only of the beauty of creation, but also of the creativity of the Creator. We know that the striking colours of flowers attract bees, which enable plants to propagate their kind; but this does not explain the gracefulness of their shapes or the wonderful harmony of their colouring, or even the marvellous fragrance of some of their flowers or leaves. They are part of the beauty God imprints on his creation. Frances Gurney wrote: 

One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth. 

I don’t think that that is quite true because I am nearer God’s Heart when I receive the Blessed Sacrament, but I’m sure you all know what she means by God’s presence in a garden. 

Because we think of gardens as something very personal, we forget that in the aggregate the gardens of this country cover some 12 million acres! That is a very considerable amount of land. It constitutes an important habitat for wildlife. I know that wildlife is often encouraged by birdtables and the like, but unfortunately some gardening activities are not in the best interests of the environment as a whole. 

Let me speak about one of these. Do you use peat in your garden? Judging from the number of bags of peat sold in garden centres the odds are that you do. Do you realise that by so doing you are helping to endanger a diminishing national and international resource? Please don’t think that this is just the cry of an ecological fanatic. It is endorsed at the highest levels: for example, the use of alternatives to peat actually has government support. Most British peat-bogs are located in the North, especially the north of Scotland and, thank goodness, they are too inaccessible for commercial exploitation. It is the so-called Lowland Raised Bogs in England that are under threat. Only about 5,000 hectares of primary bog of this type are now left. It cannot be regenerated. When it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Peat Bog Yorkshire


Peat is not a soil nutrient, but it has a great capacity for retaining and releasing water and at the same time for retaining air, which is very useful for some plants. It is also very long lasting if it is not dried out. These are the reasons why people buy it. Surely, you may be thinking, peat-bogs are not all that important. But that is not so. They are unique habitats of great importance for wildlife, and for some species their last refuge. They are a valuable genetic source for the future. They act as natural reservoirs of highly purified water, and it is important to retain our wetlands for they have vital ecological functions. Peat-bogs are also important for storing and releasing carbon dioxide, although the mechanisms by which they do this are not yet fully understood. If you heed the call not to help in further diminishing peat-bogs beyond the stage where they cannot regenerate, then you could easily use alternatives, among which are included bark, coir (coconut fibre) and many, many others. Even with your little garden, you could in this way help to retain some of our ancient and valuable natural resources. 


Do you use pesticides in your garden? It would be surprising if you didn’t. Every gardener knows that pest is the right word to describe the insects and wildlife which spoil our growing plants, and the viruses which infect them. Indeed, those who say that all pesticides are wrong are usually not aware of the vast amount of damage that pests can do, not only to plants, but also to food in store, not to mention the 30 per cent loss that pests would inflict on crops if pesticides were not used. But did you know that, quite apart from farmers and professional nurserymen, domestic gardeners spend £30 million each year on pesticides? Some of these are: derived from natural sources, such as pyrethrum, and do no lasting harm. Others are very toxic. They linger in the soil. They can affect wildlife, and even human beings. It is the synthetic pesticides and fertilisers of which we should beware. It would be possible for you to avoid using any of these synthetic varieties and to start gardening organically instead. Have you ever thought of that? I am constantly amazed by those people who insist on buying organic vegetables in a supermarket, but who never dream of gardening organically at home! 

Press here to see bee-toxic pesticides

There are other ways in which we can be ‘green gardeners’. We can be careful not to dispose of any toxic substances such as paint and oil by throwing them on the ground. We can make our own fertiliser by creating compost through putting vegetable peelings, grass cuttings and other organic material in a compost heap or compost tumbler. We can plant species that attract wildlife. We can insist on native species of plants and food in our gardens. We can even consider growing some of our own food. These, you may think, are all small matters. Indeed, seeing the size of our gardens, that is true enough. But there are millions and millions of us, and in the aggregate all this adds up to a considerable sum. Furthermore, it can help each one of us to feel that we are doing our bit. When it comes to ecology it is the easiest thing in the world to complain about what others are doing, especially in the world of big business, without in any way changing our own life-style or our own habits. 


And the earth really does matter. It belongs to God, not to us. We are only trustees for God. This was made perfectly clear by the Old Testament law of jubilee, whereby after 50 years all land returned to its original owner. The earth, like the sea and the rivers and the air, are our primary resources. The topsoil has taken hundreds of years to form: it is an amazing amalgam of living organic matter mixed with trace elements and inorganic substances. We must not spoil it, because it will take a very long time to regenerate. Again, we must not use up valuable and endangered resources like peat. We must not use violent means of killing insects and other pests which result in lasting damage to wildlife and future plant life. The fact that so much good land has already been wasted makes it even more necessary for us to conserve what remains. We owe this to God, and we owe it to those who come after us. 

I began by extolling the beauties and pleasures of a garden. I end with a warning, lest in the care of our garden we unwittingly endanger the future. Today is Sunday. The probability is that you will be at leisure for the rest of the day; and no doubt many of you will be out in your gardens. May I ask you to look at them this afternoon as revealing to you something about the creativity of the Creator? And may I also suggest to you that, if necessary, you decide to make some changes in your future gardening practices? 

Like palm groves that stretch far away, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall have abundant water… Numbers 24:6-7

God’s Garden

Dorothy F. Gurney († 1932)

The Lord God planted a garden

In the first white days of the world,

And He set there an angel warden

In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,

That the hawk might nest with the wren,

For there in the cool of the even

God walked with the first of men.

And I dream that these garden-closes

With their shade and their sun-flecked sod

And their lilies and bowers of roses,

Were laid by the hand of God.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,–

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

For He broke it for us in a garden

Under the olive-trees

Where the angel of strength was the warden

And the soul of the world found ease.