Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Evergreen Winter Gardens

December 5, 2020

Jordan Durbin


The Space Between


The bit of land between our driveway and that of our eastward neighbors has been a bit of a Lantern Waste for the five years we’ve lived here.  Mostly, we’ve neglected it as much as possible, leaving it to grow long, meadow grass, and occasionally picking up the piles of brush that accumulate there.  The places where we rub up against others are curious philosophers, aren’t they?

Last fall, I conceived a vision of evergreens in a natural, foresty sort of planting in this particular strip.   They would give a sense of nobility and purpose to an ignored and controversial lawn between my driveway and my neighbor’s.  My husband and family and I planted them in late October, and they were truly grand specimens!  My daughter and I named them Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Doc, and so on. It seemed appropriate for seven giants.  We watered them well, mulched them with the offerings from our rabbit flock, and delighted in their beauty!  This battleground had become its very own garden with a rich wood of fragrant needles, reminding my heart of the way into Narnia.

Throughout the remaining fall, our trees looked splendid!  Planting them was such a small thing in the scale of a life or a home or a garden, but they changed the whole way I viewed the good soil where God has planted me.  I began to envision some tall, textural grasses interplanted with our arborvitae for even more winter interest: in another unplanted corner I imagined fruit trees, and a better home for my prized golden raspberries.  All winter, my garden exploded in my imagination, sprouting ideas and fruit and flowers faster than asparagus sends up shoots!  I knew not all of my ideas would grow.  Germination is never one hundred percent on this sin-steeped world.  But I also knew there were quite a few that were really prized seeds, and I would plant them.

Christmas passed and the true winter hailed.  First one, then three, and finally all seven of my arborvitae turned dark, dismal bronze-brown.  Brown isn’t really a color we gardeners appreciate unless it’s in the form of a bean (cacao or coffee, preferably!).  Brown means that the life sap is draining away.  For one reason or another, chlorophyll is no longer being produced and the plant is not being nourished.  For two months, frustration oozed from my pores whenever I looked across the yard or came in that driveway past our trees.  I eventually suspected that someone must have poisoned them, because while one or even two trees might not survive because of poor husbandry, there was little to no chance that all seven would not have taken root.  As the winter began to fade, my attitude did as well.  I knew that I was going to have to either replace those trees (a costly endeavor) and hope for the best next time, or leave that poor strip of unwanted land alone.  Either way, I would need to remove and clean up the dead trees, a horrible job, but what I noticed above any sorrow was that I had grown.  My trees may not have spread their branches, but my ideas and knowledge and enthusiasm had all sprouted and taken deeper root.


Behold!  A Branch!

Gardens are tenuous things.  A vine that looks strong and healthy can today can be completely wilted and dead in the morning, the product of a squash borer or other minuscule worm.  A deer can do more damage in a half-hour than should be possible! At the same time, there is a mystery at work in living things that defies understanding.


There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and might,

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide disputes by what his ears hear. -Isaiah 11:1-3 ESV


 I must have been four or five years old the first time I saw a shoot coming from a stump.  I can still hear the crunch of the leaves under my feet and smell the gas engine from my daddy’s chainsaw as he cut firewood for our family for the winter.  It was sunny and cool, I had a pink puffer jacket and undoubtedly pigtails of some variety.  I can’t remember what kind of tree it was, but I distinctly recall the awe I felt that the huge main trunk of the tree was on the ground, split by a storm, and out of the splintered heart grew a new tree.  Those must have been some incredible roots, determined to nourish and give life even when the weather of the world was against it.

There are places in every one of our lives that are splintering and breaking right now.  This very minute, I feel pulled in a thousand directions, and I know that I will not be able to sustain the stress of this many demands for very long.  Something will have to be cut down, pruned, removed before I break under the weight.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure what will have to go yet, but I have a very good Gardener who does.  I feel blessed to recognize that there needs to be some culling. Hopefully, that means it won’t be unexpected or even unwanted when it comes.  But I also know that for many the pruning, breaking work is painful beyond what it seems we can bear. 

I pray that the whisper of the angel to Mary will echo into your heart, too.  “Fear not,” beloved.  A shoot will come forth, and it will bear fruit.  It may not be the fruit you were expecting or even the fruit you had wanted, but it will be the harvest that you need.  Dig your roots down deep into the good soil of the very words of God, plant something new (it’s the perfect season for planting garlic!) and see if it won’t bear fruit. 

Winter is a season for boldness.  Winter is faith’s proving ground – in planting bare-root trees and shrubs that look completely dead, bulbs that display none of the exciting sprouts we gardeners rejoice over, and even in the barren emptiness of our plots.  The work is silent and cold and sometimes invisible.  A slow, organic breaking-down occurs as last year’s leaves and stalks and soggy pumpkins are turned into bits and pieces that can be used.  Holding fast with courage in the wintery places in our lives is hard work.  It’s not flowery, and occurs deep under the surface, like roots or anchors buried in our souls and clinging to the Rock which cannot be moved.  But fear not, for deep roots are the kind that can grow something new even when the old stump is broken. 

When I planted those brown evergreens, they grew something much more than a landscape.  They grew a gardener.  They grew my imagination and my creativity and my confidence.  Yes, my confidence!  Even when they appeared completely dead, and they disheartened me with their visage, they still encouraged me to try again. 

Interestingly enough, Green Giant arborvitae turn bronze in frigid Ohio winters.  My daughter and I walked by them this morning, as well as the additional four that we planted this fall, and they’ve grown by almost half!  Every one has a whimsical sprout spiralling upward high over my head. 

The featured image is courtesy of Jordan Durbin and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. 

Author’s note: Jordan highly recommends listening to the new album by Caroline Cobb ~ A Seed, A Sunrise while reading this piece and entering into the season!


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  1. Dear Jordan, How your trowel, pen and heart were God’s voice to my ear this morning as I read and sniffled over my breakfast hash all the way thru your piece. My garden was one of the first things I had to let go of as the whirlwind of our pending transcontinental move sped up. But oh the lessons I caught…and missed. Thank you for filling in so many blanks for me today.

  2. Beautiful Jordan. 🤎

  3. June says:

    “It may not be the fruit you were expecting or even the fruit you had wanted, but it will be the harvest that you need.” The harvest we need, yes. Thank you for this offering, Jordan.

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