Those who eat without labor are the sick ones of this earth

The third week lesson for the Relief Society in January, 1914 included a twenty minute discussion on home gardening. After an overview of some plants and soils that included the use of some Utah State Extension supplied instructional materials, the lesson outlined a brief sermon on the spiritual ramifications of gardening:

Those who eat without labor are the sick ones of this earth. Some people work at that which hath no profit; but the man or woman who works — with head and hand — in the earth, bringing forth seed and fruit, flower and vegetation, develops forces which bring health, happiness, upward growth of character and joy unspeakable.

When the pioneers settled these western vales, Brigham Young told the people to choose one acre and a quarter, which was enough ground to grow sufficient fruit and vegetables for the family to become independent. Not taking land which would not be cultivated and profitable, but enough for the raising of summer and winter vegetables for the family’s use, while the beautifying of the home with flowers was as faithfully taught. Few men and fewer women are so closely occupied that one hour in the early dawn could not be given to the planting of a flower and vegetable garden about the home. If parents and children united in this love-labor, no home lot would be too small, none too large, in city or country, for the cultivation of few or many such valuable adjuncts to the family life. How is it today? Let each answer this question city or in country. How much land have you about your home place? How much of a flower garden have you? How many vegetables do you raise? (RS Bulletin vol. 1, no. 1, pg. 9)

While in grad school, I remember hearing that the Bishop received a letter from the powers that be that anyone who received assistance from the ward was required to have a garden, even if it was a small box in the window. My mind raced back to my childhood, where I lived President Kimball’s dream of grow boxes and a chimera of inorganic gardening and granola. Again from the Society:

Gardening for women pays. It brings you in close contact with mother earth, keeps you young and spry, drives out blues and melancholy, brings the dawn and the stars to your doorstep, and opens an easy channel between you and your Heavenly Father and Mother. They were the first gardeners. It may not pay you to raise vegetables to sell in country towns, but it will give you the wealth of the land in your own homes, it will build up your shattered nerves, and above all, it will teach your children habits of thrift and industry, if you will gather them about you in your gardening, there will be a companionship grow up between you and your dear ones that pays large dividends of affection. Children should be taught to raise flowers and vegetables as they are taught to raise standards and flags. (ibid. pg. 10)

This is the first year that we fielded our own plants. Nothing like my parents grand travail. They only purchase meat, eggs and dairy in the summer. Just three tomato plants, some strawberries, carrots and a cucumber. The cucumber failed during our vacation.

I haven’t received a revelation as I weeded, but I believe that I yet will.


  1. If gardening is a requirement for entry in the Celestial Kingdom, I’m in big twubble. Does it count if I have a goal to figure it out someday? :)

  2. a random John says:

    This might be slightly off topic, but of all the fruit and vegetables that you can grow yourself, the ones that are worth the effort are tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes are soooooo much better than store bought. We have a mere six plants this year. I have gone as far as to buy a 50 gallon container at Home Depot and hook up quarter inch tubing to it in order to create a poor man’s drip watering system to take care of the plants when I’m out of town. Now if only I could feed the kids the same way…

    Actaully my wife does a great job with the kids when I’m gone, much better than she does with the tomatoes.

  3. J: What’s the reference on that Kimball quote — it’s a mother earth/mother-in-heaven reference I hadn’t heard before (nothing remotely like it, actually). What a lovely reflection on land, healing, beauty, and diety.

    Children should be taught to raise flowers and vegetables as they are taught to raise standards and flags. Sounds like a folk song in the making!

  4. Thanks for the passages and musings, J. There’s also D&C 42:40 ready for anyone who wants to take it off the shelf.

    Connecting to random John’s praise of tomatoes, I read a few years ago a statement by a Michigan State extension agent that tomatoes are the one vegetable whose market sales are dented by home production.

  5. Wow, I feel much better about myself now. I love gardening and am about to inherit a community garden plot. And I’ll stay spry! We currently have more mustard greens than we can eat. Anyone interested?

    My mom learned from RS (in the old days) that every state has a state gardener who would answer any questions about your local garden. Those gardeners have made a genius of my mother.

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m gonna have to be the nattering nabob of negativity on this one. I can’t see gardening as inherently any more worthy than any other hobby, given the current economic realities of food production. If you enjoy it, more power to ya, but I’m not convinced it is going to earn your kids that ticket to heaven any faster than any other family-oriented use of free time.

  7. My wife and I have a Bamboo Plant and that’s about it. We live in an apartment complex so it’s a bit harder to become one with Mother Earth, but we have talked about buying a window pot and planting something … too bad summer’s almost over and the plant’s will be dying soon. You’ve inspired me to get some gardening in … next Spring.

  8. Julie, party pooper.

    Deborah, I’ll go back and add the citations, but it wasn’t the Kimball quote, but an additional note from the 1914 RS manual. My bad.

    arJ, a drip watering system? Whoa.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I grew up in Illinois (where I still live), but my Idaho-born Mormon parents always had a garden. My Utah-based older sister carries on the tradition, with magnificent grow boxes, extensive canning and a food storage that could feed a third world country. We on the other hand gave up on our garden years ago, and focus more on flowers these days. But I still feel, Eddie Albert-like, the pragmatic spiritual allure of gardens.

    When I think of gardens, I can’t help but think of the time our family went to visit Cove Fort in Utah. We had with us our purple haired, teen aged, vegetarian daughter, who I’m sure could think of a lot of places she would rather be. When the senior missionaries found out she was a vegetarian, they got all excited and took us out back to the extensive garden they maintained on the grounds there. They insisted on filling a grocery bag of vegetables for us in general and my daughter in particular, with extensive commentary on the different plants and growing techniques. They were so warm, open and accepting that it still brings a tear to my eye when I think of it. That visit turned out to be one of my daughter’s favorite experiences on that trip. They were very good missionaries, who have earned a perpetual place in my heart.

  10. So let’s couple this with the discussion from T&S about being rich.

    Wouldn’t it be better if I spent those hours making more money so that I could *pay* someone to garden for me, thereby providing employment to someone?

  11. Eric Russell says:

    Yes queuno, I’m afraid it would.

  12. Hmm, I have no qualms about watering my garden on Sunday. The automatic drip system does it just fine. But even in rural Utah (where I spent three weeks this month) people take their water turns on Sunday. That’s how it’s been done forever.

    I can think of at least two reasons why gardening is different than other “hobbies”. First, it fits in with the preparedness focus of the church. One recommendation for food storage is that you store some seeds, so that you can provide fresh vegetables to go with your stored foods. If you’ve never gardened before, how are you going to be able to successfully raise those crops when you need them?

    The other, more important, reason is that we need to be learn to stewards of the earth. I think through gardening, or farming, you learn a lot about the cycle of life, and you understand more clearly how the choices we make impact the earth. The farmers up where I am from, in northern Utah, talked 20 years ago about how the frogs were disappearing. They comment now about the rainfall patterns have changed, and not for the better. I doubt city dwellers who don’t raise anything notice such things.

    A garden, rather than just a sterile suburban lot with a bunch of grass provides habitat for animals, and takes some of the carbon out of the air. Maybe that’s being a good steward of the earth.

  13. Wait Julie, are you going against the prophet? Get thee to a garden!

    You city folk should look into community garden plots. They’re usually cheap (mine was $15 for the year and I can have all the seeds I want, mulch, tools at the site etc) You meet people, you have this little bit of earth in the city and if it looks bad it doesn’t affect the way your house looks.

    The only time I’ve ever been really tempted to buy something out of SkyMall magazine (of course this is a huge lie, I’m tempted often) was this cool contraption that grew your tomatoes upside down and inside your house. arJ is right–garden tomatoes amazing. and grown from a skymall contraption? even better. I haven’t bought but if I ever do, y’all will be the first to know.

  14. queno, I think that is the point the the RS Board is making here, that you can’t pay for the spiritual communion that comes from working the land. Julie brings up the point in our modern era, this is a bit of an anachronism. She is probably correct. Deep down inside, I think that there is something fundemental to be learned from plant cultivation.

    There is an odd phenomena, though, in that we want to project the pioneer experiances onto our own plots. Fore exampe, the Sabath day. There is the story of the guy whose water right ralls on Sunday, but he doesn’t use it for fear of breaking the sabath, but his garden flurishes. I imagine most Mormon’s wouldn’t water even their flower gardens on the sabath for fear of “working.”

  15. rick jepson says:

    gardening has been among the most spiritual experiences of my life.

    I see it as a reinactment of the creation: perhaps even done in about the same way…..the wording of the creation story in the temple sure sounds more like gardening than like wand waving.

  16. Thank you for this post Jonathan. In my experience, the economic realities of food production have absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual benefits of gardening and tending the soil and IMO is not the same as recreational nature experiences, although these are also valuable.

    At a time where fewer adults and hardly any children “cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm” , it would seem that the lessons of gratitude, and responsibility involved in whatever level of food production we can manage are important and rewarding, even if it isn’t always fun.

    I can’t really say that my spirituality has increased with the size of my garden which has grown from a few windox boxes to a 40′ x 80′ plot. I derived many of the same benefits when I only had 4 tomato plants. I have a big garden simply because I generally enjoy the work. But I think that this RS lesson is still bang on, even almost 100 years later.

  17. D. Fletcher says:

    I live in a high-rise NY apartment. Any plant I bring in here quickly dies a cruel, thirsty death.

    I hope there’s no gardening required in the Telestial Kingdom.


  18. I don’t know if they mentioned this D., but when the plants are inside, you have to water them. :)

  19. At a time where fewer adults and hardly any children “cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm” , it would seem that the lessons of gratitude, and responsibility involved in whatever level of food production we can manage are important and rewarding, even if it isn’t always fun.

    When my boyfriend and I say our meal prayers, we pray to be mindful of each and every sacrifice of time, energy, or life that goes into what we are about to eat. We got the idea from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” and it is so rewarding.

  20. greenfrog says:

    thanks for the link, Siobhan.

  21. Jothegrill says:

    re: Paula #13
    I live in Northern Utah and I’m happy to tell you that there are still frogs, I hear them through my window in the springtime.

    I like gardening, but I have to admit that sometimes I have to put a lot more into it than what I get out of it. Gardening is more fun when you use really good soil, a pre-emergent herbicide and an automatic watering system (drip or sprinklers.) We only have one of the three and it is a challenge. But challenges are what makes life exciting right?

  22. Hi Jothegrill- I’m glad to hear that you can still hear some. In Cache Valley, where I grew up, my parents say they don’t hear many. I couldn’t even find tadpoles to show my kids, when my kids were little, ten years ago, and that used to be very easy at the right time of the year. I remember very clearly listening to my dad and our neighbor talking about how they didn’t see frogs anymore when they were out irrigating at night, and they wondered what that meant.

  23. Steve Park says:

    I look at this as yet another relic from a bygone era. Lot sizes for new homes in the Salt Lake valley are continuing to shrink at an astonishing rate. In my neighborhood (about three years old), the standard lot size is about 0.08 acre, and the city requires that half of your yard have grass on it (the non-edible, non-smokable Kentucky Bluegrass variety).

    Sometimes old revelations seem like those silly blue laws we read about and get a good laugh out of. It might save us some trouble if the brethren repudiated them publicly so we don’t have to feel guilty about a standard many of us have no hope of meeting.

  24. Steve, according to the New York Times today, Rocky ANderson is getting those rules changed, at least in SL city itself. I live on a lot that’s probably a tenth of an acre, at most, in southern California, and manage to have a pretty decent garden– it’s very small, but very productive– lots of compost, dense planting etc. I really think one’s soul loses something if you’re never involved in growing anything.

  25. Amri,
    Can you share a bit more about community garden plots? You have me intrigued.

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    My stepfather (now deceased) used to give over the entire front yard of his Ogden home to strawberries. Very Mormon of him, but the neighbors didn’t appreciate it.

  27. I worked as a landscape designer and horticultural therapist for many years. One project I especially enjoyed was designing a sensory garden for the Alzheimer and dementia unit.
    Steve, you must live in the fancy part of Salt Lake where people like to carry on the silly English tradition of lawn. In my Salt Lake neighborhood many people don’t have any lawn. In fact the water conservation district even advises people to replace their thirsty lawns with more water efficient plants.
    Anyone interested in having a beautiful water-conservative landscape should visit West Jordan’s conservation display garden.

  28. My Las Vegas brother mixes tomato plants with the lush flowers in his front yard. Of course, he’s also the kinda guy who can get a patch of sego lilies to bloom in a town where more and more people are paving their front yards with green-painted concrete.

    I remember Pres. Kimball’s emphasis on gardening. I don’t recall that it was presented as a lesson in economics, but as cultivating a direct awareness of life and death and creation — things most of us don’t pay much regular attention to. When you’re on your knees weeding a garden, your mind is on something more REAL than a software question or sales figures or getting the tires rotated. I didn’t get that until I was 30 and was able to grow peas and tomatoes for a few years. I miss it. This apartment dweller’s tomato plant stuck in the ground behind the evergreen to conceal it from Salt Lake’s legions of dog walkers just isn’t the same.

  29. Hm, I made a comment earlier but it seems to have flown out the window. Or is stuck somewhere in a queue? Maybe BCC banned me before I even had a chance to do or say anything on their blog.

    Bummer. Anyway, I liked the post a lot, J. Thanks for writing it. Sorry to hear about your cucumber.

  30. mullingandmusing, I’m not Amri, but can share a bit about community gardens. I’ve seen several different setups– usually the basic setup is that the city or a landowner allows use of a plot of land. People sign up for a small fee and get to use a portion of that land, maybe 20 feet by 20 feet or so. You can grow whatever you want, well, as long as it’s legal, and keep your produce. I’ve seen a few where they ask you to donate some back for a food bank, or where you help tend another part of the plot where they grow food for a charity. It’s a way for apartment dwellers to have enough room for a garden. I did had a community garden when I lived in family housing at the University of Michigan. It’s a nice way to get to know other people who are also kooky enough to want to do this. Our plot was land that the university let the local community garden organization use. Except for the woodchucks and the corn smut, it was fairly successful. If you google for community gardens Salt Lake City, you can see what’s going on there.

  31. Our first home as humans was a garden, the Savior sought refuge for his final moments of freedom in a garden. Voltaire’s Candide finally found contentment/ peace gardening. Even Lenard Bernstein wrote music and lyrics for a song “A Quiet Place” that speaks of …a shining garden. I love my garden. I’m glad I have been taught how to make it grow. It is not always beautiful as we battle, drought, pests, vermin, hail ad nauseum in the Midwest. We do have our successes in spite of all that and perhaps that is why it is so worth it. There is nothing like the joy of the harvest, a tomato warm from he sun, or a dish of new potatoes and peas/beans or asparagus. There is the peace I felt after bad news as I knelt my hands in the dirt rescuing beets from overcrowding, their juice staining my hands as if I had been wounded. Finally, being obedient gives one a sense of the good.

  32. Thank you for that, jns. Beautiful and moving.


  1. […] Perhaps this is the root of our affinity for the garden. At the turn of the century, the Relief Society proclaimed “those who eat without labor are the sick ones of this earth,” but the biblical account shows the Lord cursing the land: [C]ursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; […]

%d bloggers like this: