Still Life with Garden

By Cara White Lowrimore
Photography by Leigh Jackson

Whether providing food for the needy or instructing a hundred energetic kids at vacation bible school, the members of The First Baptist Church of Austin know how to respond. But when their downtown church suddenly inherited 65 acres of land some years ago, they didn’t have a clue what to do with it. “There were all sorts of opinions,” says one longtime member. “Some people wanted to turn it into a home for abused kids; some wanted it to be a sports complex. A lot of people just wanted to sell it.”

Though a quandary, the inherited property was without question an amazing gift, with its wide-open spaces, hilltop house, long vistas and winter pond—all less than 15 miles from downtown. Slowly, an answer materialized in the form of a retreat center, and Still Waters: A Spiritual Outpost was born to serve as a venue for workshops, retreats and contemplative prayer.

Soon, a fledgling organic garden was created as a natural addition to Still Waters. “Part of the vision of this place was connecting people to the earth,” says Minister Leigh Jackson. “That’s important to contemplative life. The process of gardening is spiritual. It makes you slow down, notice the details. You open yourself to God’s presence.”

But the garden, like the retreat center itself, held some questions and surprises. “Because the soil is so dark and beautiful, we assumed that it would be wonderful,” Jackson says with a laugh. “But it’s not.” After months and months of amending the soil and seeing nothing grow, Jackson finally sent off a sample for testing. The results were telling. “We were at 80 percent clay, and we needed to be at 20 percent.” So they imported 5 cubic yards of new soil and the garden took off.

Though the primary gardener, Jackson invites the congregation to come out and help her on what the church calls “Sustainable Saturdays.” Sometimes five people show up, sometimes twenty, but all arrive eager to plant, spread soil, harvest vegetables—whatever needs to be done.

In its first year, the garden has yielded an abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers, Amish melons (the squirrels devoured them), tomatillos, lettuce, spinach, cilantro, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, carrots, cabbage and onions. And as the garden flourished, Jackson had a new problem to solve. “I started using the produce at our retreats—I’d make a big salad or make pesto to go with pasta. But there was more food than we could possibly consume out here.” So the church formed its own farmers market of sorts.

On most Sunday mornings, just as the final hymn is being sung, Jackson opens her market at church. No pop-up tents, gourmet coffee or outdoor café—just a simple card table, tablecloth and cashbox. As the congregation pours out of the sanctuary, repeat customers grab their favorite items while newcomers mill around the table admiring the bounty and asking questions. Each item is tagged with a price, or a suggested donation, but many people give extra. A typical Sunday brings in about $80 dollars, which goes directly to supporting Still Waters.

And the garden-to-church-market relationship continues to evolve. “Hopefully we can figure out how to match what we can grow with what people want,” says Jackson. Interestingly, summer herbs were not very popular. Tomatoes, however, sold like crazy. And this past winter’s zesty cilantro pesto, made with almonds instead of pine nuts, was a big seller.

Since Still Waters is miles away from the church, the market serves as a way to maintain a presence there, and to encourage members to spend time at the retreat center. But the market is also a loving reminder. “Caring for the earth and eating in a way that is compatible with the rhythms of nature can be a part of the spiritual journey,” says Jackson. “Not everyone has a garden in their backyard or visits a farmers market on Saturday, but they can see our table in the hall and be reminded oh, tomatoes are in season now!

Jackson and her committee envision many future possibilities for their garden: perhaps a community garden for neighboring residents, a supplement to the lunches at the church’s adopted east side elementary school, even a living classroom for the kids to learn where food comes from. But for now, the garden is moving at its own pace.

“Our next goal is to really step up our composting efforts so that we can expand our amount of workable soil,” Jackson explains. “What we’re doing now is what we can do. There will definitely be a what’s next for the garden; we’re just not sure what that will be.”