As I explained here, I was new to the culture and practice of pine straw when I moved to the South. When I was growing up in California, at least in my family, we didn’t spread any kind of mulch on the garden beds. There were plants stuck in the ground, they got watered, and some grew while others didn’t. Sometimes the leaves from the oak trees scattered on the beds. And otherwise, there was just dirt. If there was a patch where the gardener did not want to show dirt, that patch was planted in some kind of ground cover: creeping myrtle, ivy, some sort of evergreen shrub, or lawn grass.
Since I have been an adult, though, I have followed the trends of my neighbors and carefully spread mulch on my flower beds. Since I have lived here in the South, I have learned that, if pine straw is your material of choice, it has to be applied two or three times each year to really do its job. Last Friday, I finally had a day clear in my calendar when I could provide the spring treatment for the beds in my back yard.
As I looked over my back yard, I saw plenty of my sins. There were tree leaves everywhere; more fastidious gardeners would have carefully pulled them out or, God help us, used one of those leaf blowers favored by the lawn maintenance services and power-tool-hungry homeowners in my neighborhood. The sound of those things rising above the fence line from dawn to dusk is more than just an annoying interruption to an otherwise peaceful suburban day; it rattles my brain to mush, so I walk around in a daze until the thing turns off and I can reconcile myself to my surroundings again. I will not own a leaf blower, and I do not have the patience to collect the leaves by hand. They stay where the trees left them, right on the flower beds. But still, although I had good reasons to leave them undisturbed, their presence made the beds look a bit unkempt and me look a bit lazy.
And there were more sins. Earlier that week, I knew I needed to add compost to the perennials in the back yard. Since the bin which held the older compost was empty and the bin which holds the newer compost is still working its magic on our family’s apple cores and squash skins, I purchased bags of composted cow manure from the big box store (please don’t judge me). I generously spread the richness around the base of my plants. However, other than to make sure I was not burying the stems of my plants too deep in that rich humus, I saw no point in moving the leaves and the old pine straw around. The microbes in the compost, which are what really bring the miracle of life to otherwise dead soil, would be just as happy if they had some organic matter to chew on as they made their way into the dirt. So, I just layered the good stuff on top of whatever was there.
And I saw still more sins. The shriveled and dried remains of last season’s leaves still clung to the bases of some plants. The walking iris were particularly bad. I tried just pulling on the dead leaves, hoping they had rotted at the bottom so they would come off easily, but no luck. The alternative was to go down the whole row with a pair of scissors and remove the leaves one at a time, wrestling around the thick new growth to avoid accidental snips of the good leaves among which the flower stems should emerge any time now. That sounded like too much fussiness for me, so I left them in place.
In other words, the place looked a mess. Tree litter here and there, piles of decomposed cow poop showing around the base of my perennials, shriveled up old leaves competing for visual attention with new greenery. And I just knew that, lurking under all of that, there were thousands of seeds of weeds just waiting until I turned my back to poke their devilish little green leaves where I didn’t want them. Bless their hearts.
And then, I spread the pine straw. I shook the needles and pulled them apart to let them weave themselves into a single layer, tucking them up close to the stems of the plants, so all the dirt and mess was hidden. And then, when I stood back to look, immediately, everything looked even, without any undue variation in level, color, or texture. I realized that I was looking at God’s grace. The scattered signs of the inadequacy of my tools and my patience; the crap I spread all over the place, the evidence of my laziness, everything about me that was especially ugly; none of it was visible any more. I know that the ugliness did not vanish; that’s not the way human inadequacy works. But under the protective blanket of fresh straw, with time and thought and moisture, the ugliness will be changed.
Under God’s grace, our sin has a place, not to disappear, but to be transformed: to decompose, to be consumed by the microbes, to be spread out by the force of the water, and finally, to work itself into the soil of our minds and souls. And then, still under the cover of God’s grace, that sin transformed becomes useful in making beauty: new roots penetrate to be fed by it, and new stems emerge from it. Leaves unfurl and flowers bloom because all that ugly sin has been left in place to change and rot and make fertile ground. Well, ground that is fertile for everything but the devilish little weeds; they are smothered by that same blanket of grace.
I finished the job, pulling the stray needles of pine off of the leaves of my plants, sweeping the wayward bits off of the lawn and patio with my shoe, and giving a little shower from my garden hose to the beds. I filled the bird baths, put away my tools, sat down in my chair, and I sang a little doxology to myself: praise God, from whom all blessings flow.