A small garden of curly endive brought a measure of personal healing, nourished local families in need, and is giving rise to a collaborative project between local charities and gardeners, explains Ontario writer Irene-Grace Bom.
For people living with long-term health challenges, one season can blur into the next like a continuous dark line. Seasonal and daily rhythms of work and rest disappear.
Twenty-seven per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 – eight million people – have one or more disabilities. Living below the poverty line is twice as common among Canadians with disabilities.
While good nutrition contributes to health, those most in need of nutritious food – such as meat, dairy and fresh produce – are often least able to afford them.
I know these realities firsthand. Having battled chronic fatigue for years, any vestige of work/life balance, as well as employment income, became memories years ago.
The changes began this spring when, after much prayer for better health, I felt a stirring to eat more raw vegetables. If I could plant a garden, I thought, I could also reduce my grocery bill.
Those aware of my limitations suggested I might not have the strength. But God enabled me to turn the sod for a small garden plot. As I sowed the seeds, I declared, "Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy."
As I sowed the seeds, I declared, "Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy."
I was seeking a large amount of leafy green produce, so I wanted a crop that would grow back after cutting. Many of the vegetables that would do so were ones I don’t digest well. On the internet I found that a leafy vegetable called curly endive was hypoallergenic and would grow back.
So I planted it, not knowing what to expect. I was hoping to be able to cut it and have it grow back once or perhaps twice. Amazingly, it flourished in my small plot. In the hot summer months, with frequent rain as well as watering, the plants produced a harvest every week – far more than I had expected.
People around me worried hoeing a garden would be too difficult for me. But to my delight, the plants grew so quickly and with such large foliage that the weeds between the rows had no chance to grow.
A garden ready for harvest waits for no one. Instead of focusing on my fatigue when I got up, I now had to focus on my garden. Like a toddler who wakes early and demands attention, the garden forced me to care for it.
Now when I woke up, I threw on clothes and ran out to water the garden and wash the fresh produce in the allotted municipal watering time between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.
The garden brought me into a new life rhythm. I found myself reveling in the dewy calm of early summer mornings. As I watered, cut and washed, I began breaking into songs of praise.
But how to digest all this produce?
The large amounts of fibre in this harvest seemed an insurmountable hurdle to someone battling digestive troubles. Again, God provided. I pulled out an old juicer and began to juice the leaves. They produced an abundance of dark green juice that was very nourishing, easy to digest and could easily be frozen for use in the winter months.
But how to do the massive job of all the washing and juicing?
Again, God provided. My 10-year-old nephew Richard began to come and help. What began as a pleasant summer job for him became an opportunity for us to bond. When a friend broke his trust, we could talk about it over the juicing.
Again, God provided.
The window my nephew provided into a 10-year-old's world in 2023 was not always easy for me. Much of his conversation centred on characters in Minecraft and movies. Was his entire world virtual, I wondered? Where is the spiritual in a world that, for children, has become increasingly virtual?
One afternoon I asked Richard what he most enjoyed about his boys club at church. His answer surprised me: “Church history.”
Church history? This answer, from an all-out gamester?
Richard began to bubble over about a report he was writing for the club on a man who ran orphanages – nineteenth-century English Christian evangelist George Mueller. Richard told me, "He never asked for money. He just prayed and God provided. I'm going to write, 'God answers prayer!' "
Then he looked up and declared, “It’s such a nice day. Let’s stop and praise God!”
Stunned, I agreed. We did.
Then Richard returned to stuffing leaves into the juicer and babbling excitedly about Mueller. I looked at him and mused, "God answers prayer, indeed."
Could the impact from this little garden get bigger yet?
Amazingly, yes. The little garden began to nourish my church and a whole community.
The little garden began to nourish my church and a whole community.
When my freezer was overflowing, the garden was still pushing up huge green leaves ready for cutting. What to do?
I began cutting and bagging fresh endive for members of my church. The garden allowed me, without an income as yet, to support my church. I offered members bags of endive in exchange for a donation to the church. Thankfully, I had use of a small pickup truck.
Every Sunday I would drive to the church with two large coolers packed with endive, a value of about $350 per trip. The crop provided organic produce for those who had no gardens – priced according to the economic principles of Christ’s Kingdom in which people give what they can afford.
The garden continued to produce. By this time the members of my church had it up to their ears with curly endive. What to do now?
I called our local Salvation Army store. Would they like fresh curly endive to distribute to people in need? How much could they use?
One morning, from a plot no larger than a bedroom, I cut over 100 kilos – eight very large bags – of curly endive and brought them to the Sally Ann.
I related to the director – a woman who loved to teach her clients to cook and freeze food – that curly endive, although not commonly grown in Canada, is one of the healthiest green vegetables. Much like lettuce, it is slightly more bitter and far more nutritious. It can be eaten raw in juice and smoothies, placed in salads or steamed.
It can even (perish the thought to 2020s raw-diet foodies) be boiled and mixed with mashed potatoes, meat and gravy – as it was consumed for centuries by my Netherlandic ancestors.
The director passed on large quantities of the endive to local families in need. She shipped the excess to Salvation Army depots in other centres in the county as well as to charities who provided meals for those in need.
I saw how a small garden could provide maximum nutrition to low-income people at very low cost. So I began to dream. What if low-income people would be able to plant even a row or two of a cut-and-come-again vegetable like curly endive in their backyards? What if gardeners would add an extra row or two of such a vegetable to their gardens and supply local charities like the Salvation Army and food banks every week with fresh greens to pass on to people in need?
I began to dream.
I envisioned a new local program, perhaps called the "Add-a-Row Initiative: For gardeners who care."
The local Salvation Army director was enthusiastic. We hope to meet to plan such a project early in 2024.
This summer a small garden planted with a rare vegetable helped to pull me out of years of illness, broke through walls of virtual reality to bond me to my nephew, provided generous support to a church and became a model for providing nutrition to low-income families.
It's a story of a little garden that could.
Beyond that, it's a story of a great God who could, and did – far more than I ever expected.
Irene-Grace Bom lives, writes and gardens in Mount Elgin, Ont. Photo provided.