How Does Your Garden Grow?
by Alix McNitt
May 14, 2023
As I started preparing for this sermon, which was framed as “Gardening, Cultivate, Diversity” I reminded myself of an old nursery rhyme.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, And pretty maids all in a row.
Lovely little nursery rhyme, isn’t it? Perfect for snuggling a little child into bed for the night? Well, maybe. Like most old nursery rhymes, the real meaning is probably darker and more allegorical than it first appears.
Being a little bit of a history geek, I looked it up and found two leading theories on what the real meaning behind the rhyme might be, and I rather liked them and thought I’d share.
In the first theory, it’s suggested that it’s a story about the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, with "how does your garden grow" referring to her reign over her realm. The "silver bells" may be a reference to Catholic cathedral bells at a time when Scotland was being torn apart between Catholics and Protestants, Mary being a Catholic. "Cockle shells" insinuates her second husband was a cuckold or, not faithful to her, and "pretty maids all in a row" refers to her ladies-in-waiting – "The four Maries", if you will, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingston, her closest companions. Things did not end well for Mary of Scotland.
The second theory concerns Mary I, or Bloody Mary, daughter of Henry VIII. Mary was a devout Catholic and upon taking the throne on the death of her brother Edward VI, restored the Catholic faith to England, hence ‘Mary Mary quite contrary’. The ‘garden’ in the second line is again taken to refer to her realm. In this case, though, ‘silver bells’ were a type of thumbscrew and the ‘cockle shells’ were also instruments of torture, I’ll let your imagination consider how and where, used on Protestant martyrs to ‘persuade’ them to change their faith. The ‘maiden’ was also an instrument used to behead people, much like the later French guillotine, and the line ‘pretty maids all in a row’ is taken to refer to the mass execution of Protestants during Mary’s reign.
Wow, bet you’ll think twice before any of you order a Bloody Mary again!
So that is a little window into how the royalty of old cultivated their gardens, and rather than diversify, they sought to homogenize and secularize their gardens. I am glad I am not of that time; that I am of this time.
THIS TIME, NOW. For so many reasons.
Those that know me, know I love to play in my garden, my realm, or more accurately, mine and Christine’s. When April comes around, I can hardly stand waiting to get some color on the front steps and am among the first to have pots of pansies out on display.
Gardening, at its core, is an act of creation. It is a way for us to connect with the earth, to bring forth new life from the soil, and to cultivate beauty and abundance in our lives. But gardening is also an act of humility. Especially the way I do it. It reminds us that we are not in control of everything - that sometimes, despite our best efforts, our plants may not grow as we had hoped, or may fall victim to pests or disease.
And yet, even in the face of these challenges, we persevere. We keep tending to our gardens, with love and care, knowing that the act of gardening itself is a reward in its own right.
Last year, I put in four raised garden beds and planted twenty different vegetables, some of which I don’t even like, and one plant gifted to us, we didn’t even know what it was after the fruit started developing! Turned out to be a type of pumpkin. And the truth is, I don’t really care if all the plants make it to our table. In fact, I fully expect them not to and but for the grace of something out there beyond you or me, many of them thrive! It’s so cool! I purposely didn’t order zucchini or summer squash seeds last year, because it seems everyone is trying to push them off on you if they planted some of their own. But, one of our neighbors, intrigued with our raised garden beds, gave us some zucchini and yellow squash seedlings, so we had to include them. Just two of each, and we learned why people who plant them have to push them on friends because they are easy and prolific. Other plants, not so much. I have tried many times to grow broccoli, and I have never eaten so much as one floret from my own planting. Carrots have also decided they don’t care for my patronage. Another plant gifted to us last year by our neighbor was chard, which I had always assumed I would hate because it looks like kale. What an ignorant bigot I can be sometimes. Now, I do hate kale, unless it is in a Portuguese kale soup with lots of linguica, but otherwise it’s a hard no. The happy discovery, though, is that chard tastes nothing like kale, and is quite good. It also can last in the garden until the first hard frost, so when our other fresh picked veggies have long been gone, we can gather some chard for dinner well into October. This is all learned from our neighbor, a longtime gardener himself. He is also someone whose politics, based on his yard signs, is dramatically different than my own. Initially, we worried a little about what it might be like living next door to him and his family. Our realms, afterall, are exceedingly close to one another. Over time, though, our neighbors have proven quite neighborly. We share plants, agree easily when there are large trees on our mutual property line that need trimming, wave hello in our regular comings and goings. And all is right with the realm.
We have already started planting our veggies this season, and we have six chard plants in the first garden bed next to the red leaf lettuce and romaine. We have green beans, sweet peas and cukes in as well, and plan on cherry tomatoes, butternut squash, zucchini and yellow squash, among others, but I may have finally learned my lesson and will skip the broccoli. But then again maybe not, because I like it so much, I kinda feel like I need to keep trying.
That’s one of the wonderful things about gardening though, isn’t it? Trying. Exploring new things. Being open to them. If we keep trying, maybe their secrets will reveal themselves to us over time. Maybe we will discover a new food we thought we didn’t like. Or, we can cultivate friendly neighbors without having to be great friends.
What we choose to place in our gardens is a metaphor for cultivating diversity within ourselves. Just as a diverse garden is a healthy garden, a diverse community is a healthy community. When we welcome people of different races, religions, genders, and backgrounds into our lives, we create a more vibrant and inclusive world.
But diversity, like gardening, can also be challenging. It requires us to step outside of our comfort zones, to learn from others, and to confront our own biases and assumptions. But just as in the garden, the rewards of diversity are worth the effort. When we cultivate a diverse community, we create a world that is richer, more beautiful, and more just.
For all of us, this is our church garden... Right? Collectively, we choose to sow seeds here and cultivate our space.
Lately, we have had some beautiful, brave and bold contributions to our garden. And I am inspired by the learning and discussion I have seen and heard over the last several months. But just outside these doors, some of our neighbors have been quite contrary. Some in the realm are more comfortable with gun shows than drag shows. Not me. Much like my need for color on my front step as soon as I get a whiff of spring, Honey, bring me some of that color and flash of a good drag show! Let’s see and experience something different. Something with sparkle!
That is the world I dream of. The garden I want to help create. God knows that was not the world of Mary of Scotland and certainly not Bloody Mary. But it can be ours.
So my friends, as we go forth from this sermon and tend to our gardens, let us remember the lessons of diversity and cultivation. Let us embrace the messiness and uncertainty of life, knowing that it is in these moments that we grow the most. And let us always approach our gardens - and our lives - with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and love.
May the blessings of the earth be upon you, now and always. Blessed be.