It’s July — technically, mid-summer — and our yard certainly did not look like a dream.
We live in a neighborhood graced with mature trees — maples, oaks, and pines — which provide a shady respite. Given that much of the United States has experienced excruciating heat over the past several weeks, I consider these trees a great blessing.
Some of them, however, frankly needed a haircut. The brief Midwestern spring drought we experienced had resulted in dead undergrowth. In addition, the huge yew that had once been a ‘lovely little ball’ of shrubbery (that I once had humorously threatened to snip into a dog-shaped topiary in honor of our Manchester Terrier!) had burgeoned into the lilacs.
Because I had become a bit of a self-trained coiffeuse during the pandemic, I decided to help my husband tackle some of the dreaded summer pruning and weeding.
Fortunately, our next-door neighbor just happens to be an expert in native Michigan trees. Noticing my perplexity, he promptly leapt over the three-feet high fence between our yards with his hedge trimmers and gave me a primer on where and how to cut.
Pruning, he advised, is not haphazard clipping but rather a selective removal, a science even. If not done properly, it can be very damaging to a tree. Proper pruning of the yew would remove the damaged or diseased limbs. Thinning the branches would increase the exposure to sunlight and allow greater air penetration. Rather than spreading out horizontally, we wanted the yew to grow taller. Pruning would encourage this form and future growth.
As I gingerly began to clip away, I discovered that once the first cut is made, the pruning got a lot easier. Snip, snip, snip went the shears.
After a half hour, I stood back and examined my handiwork. The yew was a little scraggly around the edges. I have to trust my neighbor’s word that the tree will indeed grow straighter over the coming year.
In addition to the giant yew, the perimeter of our yard is framed by a veritable hedgerow of Rose of Sharon shrubs. In mid-summer, they explode into a beautiful border of pink and white hibiscus-like flowers.
Only problem is… the Roses of Sharon have a nasty habit of self-sowing. This translates into thousands of unwanted seedlings popping up in the earth among the other annuals I’ve planted in the garden areas. Should I allow them to continue to grow, I am certain they would take over the entire yard in two or three years.
Every other evening I was pulling out those darned proliferation of seedlings. Or should I say ‘weeds’? Every morning I woke up it seemed there was another round that had poked their way out of the soil, silently mocking me.
Our yard was now strewn with masses of hacked branches and seedlings. I sighed at the labor yet to be done. Likely we wouldn’t have enough containers to hold the refuse until our city’s designated yard waste pickup day.
However, just as I had hauled out the fifth monstrous pile of clippings to the curb, a tree service truck slowly stopped in front of our hose. ‘Hey, do you need a hand with that?’ the guy yelled.
I couldn’t believe it. What are the chances that a truck shows up just when you need it? Maybe God just had a hand in this.
A garden can be a metaphor for the soul.
As I was pruning that yew, I immediately recalled Jesus’ words from John 15:2: “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Naturally, in my pride, I like to think that I am bearing fruit for the Kingdom. I want to bear more of it. At the same time, I readily admit that I despise a season of pruning. The saw must be sharp, which means it’s painful. I come out, like that freshly cropped yew, looking a little disheveled.
I thought too how sin sprouts in the soul like that little Rose of Sharon seedling. At first, a bit innocuous. The seedlings are easy to remove, especially after a soaking rain. But if they are not pulled out early, it’s much harder to dislodge the taproot when it has extended itself deep into the soil.
In Matthew 13:13-32, Jesus lets the weeds grow alongside the wheat. As a farmer’s daughter, I find this behavior frankly baffling. I cannot tell you how many summers during which my brother and I hoed noxious weeds with names like ‘lamb’s quarters’ and ‘mares tail’ from our soybean and corn fields.
Maybe God allows this strange partnership out of his great mercy. Some of those ‘weeds’ may eventually have a conversion. All the same, I don’t think my weeds are going to metamorphosize into flowers. While I grow increasingly frustrated pulling seedlings every day, by his grace, God just seems to gently pluck up the weeds of sin in my life one at a time. And, unlike me, maybe he is not so astonished to see new ones sprouting in the same place where the previous ones had been removed.
I guess it’s no surprise that Jesus shows up in his resurrected body first as a gardener. As St. John Henry Newman writes: ‘He knows what He is about’…he has ‘some definite service’ for which he is preparing me.
I’m off to pull a few more weeds. And then head to Confession.
Tamra Fromm is an instructor in Old Testament for the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, an adjunct faculty member at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit), and associate academic in the Bachelor of Divinity program at Maryvale Institute (Birmingham, UK). She is married and enjoys traveling, running, and entertaining. Her first manuscript "Pre-Evangelization and Young Adult 'Native Nones'", is available for purchase via both Wipf and Stock and Barnes & Noble.