Companions in the Neighborhood

– by Andy Wade –

hovering beeWhat does it mean to become a companion in the neighborhood?

Many of you know that I’m an avid gardener. You probably also know by now that the garden is one of my favorite places to talk with God. It’s probably no surprise that, while sitting around tables at a gathering in southeast Portland a few months ago with Parish Collective folks, my mind made another gardening connection.

The issue? How does intentional Christian community in a neighborhood connect with other churches and organizations? Are we just another competing entity, or can we bring something else to the table?

The question came out of that gathering at Lion’s Eye Tavern in Portland’s Mt. Scott-Arlta neighborhood. Actually it was a question toward the end and only a minor part of the larger discussion about what’s been going on with Bryan Dormaier and the intentional community he’s a part of there.

My mind raced to the garden with this question in mind: “Is there something we learn from garden companion planting that applies directly to the neighborhood?”

companion plantingA brief introduction to companion planting for those who are unfamiliar with it – Companion planting is the art of designing your garden with plants co-mingled in such a way that they protect and encourage the overall healthy growth of the garden.

First Nations brothers and sisters were way ahead of us on this one (and many other things). What has come to be known as “the three sisters” – corn, beans, and squash – is a perfect example of companion planting. How does it work?

Corn provides sturdy “poles” for the beans to grow on. The beans make the corn stalks more stable and able to withstand the wind. Additionally, beans “fix” nitrogen into the soil, giving essential growth nutrients to the corn and squash. Finally, the squash provides a “living mulch”, covering the ground with its leaves, keeping weeds down and helping the soil to retain moisture. When spiny squash is used, it also provides a level of protection from pests.

Sticking with this example, I wondered how this looks not in the garden neighborhood, but in the human neighborhoods we call home. When we look at our neighborhoods in light of consumerism and capitalism, we encounter cheap goods, low wages, stiff competition, and resources flowing out of the community. Not sustainable and not terribly healthy.

This is not unlike industrial farming with their mono-crops which produce massive amounts of cheap food by paying low wages to farm workers, pouring excessive amounts of dangerous chemicals and artificial nutrients on the soil – depleting topsoil and destroying the community of micro-organisms in the soil which make it rich – then sending this tainted food to big corporate grocery chains that in turn sell it in communities but take the majority of the profits out of the local neighborhood. In both gardening and the marketplace, this is unsustainable and destructive.

So I wondered, what would it mean to live in neighborhoods more like “the three sisters”? What do the various communities of faith and others in your neighborhood bring to the table?

  • Who/what “feeds” your neighborhood with rich nutrients so it can thrive?
  • Who/what gives support/strength/stability to your neighborhood?
  • Who/what provides that “living mulch” that keeps your neighborhood weed-free and well watered?
  • And finally, how do all of these parts of your neighborhood work together to provide a sustainable, healthy, living environment for all its residents?

I think there are many lessons of life and faith to be found in the garden and God’s creation all around us. If you’re interested in finding out more about garden spirituality, join us in Seattle this coming Saturday for our Spirituality of Gardening seminar at the Mustard Seed House. Can’t make the gathering? Contact us about hosting an event in your neighborhood or learn how to host your own Spirituality of Gardening event!