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Jewish Journal

Cultivating the Bible

by Leslie Berliant, Contributing Writer

March 24, 2010 | 2:17 pm

Suburbanites and city dwellers alike turn to gardening as a way to connect to nature. From backyard plots to community gardens, digging in the dirt ties people to the land.

Gardening can also be a way to connect to Judaism and to the parables and directives in the Bible. After all, it is through agricultural vocabulary that biblical values were originally expressed. From the lilies of the field to the fig leaf to the forbidden fruit, the Torah is ripe with agricultural references.

The Jewish holiday calendar is inextricably linked to the agricultural calendar. And some of the most salient social aspects of Jewish culture are explained through agricultural concepts, such as tzedakah and the Sabbath. A biblical garden can be a way to bring these ideas to modern life.

Neot Kedumim, a biblical landscape reserve halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, re-creates the physical setting of the Torah and emphasizes the links between the Bible and the land. Closer to home, the Biblical Garden at Sinai Temple in Westwood provides a similar kind of restoration ecology, showcasing plants of the Bible, such as lavender, rose, thyme, olive trees and palms, along with biblically themed sculptures. “There’s a biblical relationship to every one of the plants,” Sinai Temple Executive Director Howard Lesner said, “and there’s a reason they were put there.”

Elysian Landscapes, known for its work on architecturally significant homes, created the Sinai Temple garden in 2001. Judy Kameon, Elysian’s founder, said that they used plants from a Mediterranean palette, which work well in Southern California’s similar climate.

For those wanting to create a biblical garden at home, there are many resources. The most important resource is the Bible itself. Start by reading through the Bible and noting the verses mentioning plants.

The Warsaw Biblical Garden, in Indiana, has a list online (warsawbiblicalgardens.org) of 115 plants found in the Bible along with the specific verse in which each is mentioned. Many of the plants — such as aloe, fennel, chamomile, marigolds, figs and olives — may already be familiar, and they grow well in Southern California.

Mediterranean plants grow well in sites with light soil that are open and well drained, so choose accordingly. Roy Peleg, an Israeli agronomist, points out that Southern California has a growing cycle similar to that in Israel. He recommends planting at the end of the hot season, in the beginning of the fall or in early spring.

Take a plant list to a local nursery, but be aware that botanical names may differ from biblical names. For example, Kameon explained, the plant with the botanical name of flax is not the same plant that produces flax seeds. Be flexible, she said, in order to create a sustainable, workable garden. If the exact plant mentioned doesn’t grow well in your area, choose from the same family of plants. Kameon also recommends grouping together plants with similar water, soil and sunlight needs. When planting on a hill, as Sinai Temple did, put specimens that need to be dry at the top and plants that like wetter conditions at the bottom.

Some experts recommend creating a biblical garden with seven plots, to coincide with the creation story. There are also seven types of plants mentioned in the bible: grains, flowers, herbs and spices, vegetables, vines, water plants and trees. 

For those wanting professional guidance, two authors’ works stand out: Allan Swenson has a series of books on the plants of the Bible and how to grow them, and F. Nigel Hepper of the Kew Botanical Garden in London has written an illustrated guide to planting a biblical garden.

Purists can order seeds from seedcount.com, a distributor of organic herb, vegetable and flower seeds produced in Israel by Genesis Seeds. SeedCount owner Yossi Asyag said that in order to be authentic, choose Israeli varietals. “Thyme is called zatar,” he said. “And Israeli sage is different from what is traditionally sold in the U.S.”

Consider planning places in the garden where visitors can sit for prayer or meditation. Sinai Temple’s Lesner suggests that the garden’s accessibility to the public is important.
Asyag believes that a biblical garden should not just be visual, but also interactive. “It’s an adventure, it’s active,” he said. At places like Neot Kedumim, visitors don’t just learn about the plants, they also learn how to press olives and grapes, and thresh and mill grain.

For ambitious home gardeners who want to create their own interactive experience, there are local resources like the Home Wine, Beer and Cheesemaking Shop in Woodland Hills (homebeerwinecheese.com) with all of the supplies to press wine at home. Cellarmasters Home Wine Club of Los Angeles (cellarmastersla.org) can also provide ideas and advice. The Olive Oil Source (oliveoilsource.com) has a home olive press, and there are many online resources with instructions for home curing olives.

Labeling the plants and adding the appropriate biblical verses can also make the garden more interactive. For those without an outdoor garden space, DuneCraft (dunecraft.com) makes a biblical garden terrarium kit that can be grown indoors. Whatever the size or location, a biblical garden can help bring to life the stories of the Bible and the relationship between cultivating the land and cultivating Jewish life.

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