Jews and Gardens

A lulav and etrog. What the hell ARE they?

This article was written for the Jewish Quarterly.

Last week I finally tackled my garden (this is not a euphemism). What was once a small but impressive Titchmarshian plot we inherited from the previous owner had become in the space of a few years a sea of weeds and nettles – a bit like that Chinese Emperor’s terracotta army, only in nettle form. Despite the occasional surge and one or two attempts at shock and awe, the War on Nettles, like the War On Drugs, had proved unwinnable. It was time to do something about it.

I should say that it’s when failing at gardening that I feel my most Jewish. Show me a Jew with green fingers and I’ll show you a Jew whose pen has leaked. Technically gardening is better described as outdoors DIY and therefore, without resorting to stereotypes (OK, with resorting to stereotypes), it’s forbidden by the Bible. It is, as Leviticus might put it, an abomination. Granted, I’m not as bad as my rich Aunt Esther who was unshakeable in her conviction that a lawn-mower was a man who mowed the lawn, but growing things out of the ground or off of a tree is a mystery to me, as it is, I believe, for many Jews. Just look at the fruits we choose to celebrate in our holidays: a lulav and an etrog, hardly staples of cookbooks the world over (I’m still waiting for Jamie’s “confit of duck in a ginger and etrog sauce”).

I’m not one of these people who know what bits of nature are called. Green things that grow are either trees (over 6 foot), bushes (under 6 foot) or flowers (under 6 foot and with extra colour). My in-laws (and here’s where it becomes obvious I married out) know the technical name for every green thing on the planet. They’re always pointing out a beautiful “catoniasta” or a lovely “helianthum alpinum” or a wonderful “windgardium leviosa” (actually I think that’s a Harry Potter spell) but it’s all Greek to me. Or Latin. But definitely not Hebrew.

A bush or a tree?

Nor do I have any understanding of the countryside. The country for me is where wasps live. And yes, I know you get them in the city but that’s like playing away for them, we have home advantage. Going to the country is like going to play in the wasps’ very own 70,000 capacity Turkish football stadium and I’m just not John Terry enough to do that. Hell, every time I see that picture of a cow on a carton of milk I have to check my phone to make sure it’s registering at least 15 other people’s wireless networks or I have a panic attack. It’s a sort of Urban Compulsive Disorder and I do think Jews are particularly prone to it. After all, when did you last see a Hasidic Jew in green wellies, stepping out of a Landrover, shotgun over his shoulder, ready to shoot a few grouse for shabbes? It’s no surprise really if you look at the Bible: the last time we left a big city we spent 40 years wandering in the desert. The only nice garden we’ve ever had was Eden and look how that turned out.

Still, at least now I’ve finally taken on my garden. If “taken on” means “got a man in to put down a new lawn and lots of pebbles”. Yes, like the Babylonians and Assyrians before them, the nettle empire is no more. I even felt a bit like a gardener as I looked the man in the eye and nodded as he talked about “putting down a membrane” (it’ll keep the weeds out apparently). I’m up for it now. I’m ready to take my garden seriously, to tend it, to mow it, to show it off proudly, or maybe just leave it for another few years then get another man in. I know it’s not very cost effective but that would be the kosher thing to do. Either that or plant an etrog tree. If indeed they grow on trees – to be honest I’ve actually no idea.

  1. sam says:

    it’s not impossible to be a green-fingered Jew but it’s definitely not the norm. I grow all my own vegetables (right now I can choose between two types of bean, 3 types of lettuce, mange tout, sugar snaps and peas, as well as courgettes, leeks and potatoes, plus purple sprouting broccoli) and lots of fruit too, but get funny looks from my frum friends, who then ask me how do I ensure there aren’t any slugs in them, and how can I tell if the greens will be kosher!

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