As you get ready to harvest your garden for the summer and reap its fruits, learn more about an unknown saint who is the patron saint of gardeners. He is especially popular with those who develop private or community gardens to serve neighborhoods and the poor.
St. Fiacre was a seventh-century Benedictine monk who learned a great deal about horticulture at the monastery in Kilkenny, Ireland. He grew so adept at the use of healing herbs that people came from miles around until he could no longer practice the sacred solitude he so desired. Leaving his homeland, with the hope of once again living a quiet life, he traveled to France.
Eventually he went to the Bishop of Meaux, St. Faro, and asked for land to establish a hermitage—which eventually served as a hospice for travelers—and grow food for himself and those in need. From his own inheritance the bishop gave Fiacre a dwelling place in the forest between Meaux and Jouarre.
A garden miracle
St. Faro also told Fiacre that he could have as much land as he could fallow in one day. Legend has it that the next morning, after Fiacre prayed, he walked around the perimeter of the land dragging his spade—some say his staff—behind him. Wherever the spade touched, trees were toppled, bushes uprooted, and the soil was entrenched.
The story is told that one of the witnesses was an ever-watchful church lady. She was deeply committed to St. Faro and felt it was her duty to protect the bishop’s holdings. She immediately hurried off to tell him that this hermit he was so fond of was betraying him with witchcraft. Fortunately, St. Faro knew St. Fiacre well, and he recognized the miracle for what it was: an act done in unison with God. He helped his faithful informant understand that as well, and she too came to love the joyous Irish saint.
It was said that the forest animals never ate from this garden, as if St. Fiacre’s unwalled garden was spiritually enclosed.
At his hermitage, along with the vegetable and herb gardens, he planted a garden around the Our Lady oratory and dedicated it to the Blessed Mother—the first record of a Marian garden. It is believed that Fiacre enclosed this spiritual garden because of Songs of Solomon 4:12: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride.”
St. Fiacre’s mission and ministry focused on the care and feeding of the poor. He also taught many of the pilgrims visiting his monastery (often farmers themselves) the skills of gardening and land management.
St. Fiacre’s garden produced food in such abundance that this, too, was thought to be miraculous. Benedictine monks, who were also scribes and illustrators, helped to create and preserve medicinal herbal and horticulture texts and advanced gardening techniques. Later another group of monks, the Cistercians, expanded on this knowledge in the area of agriculture. This religious order became the main force throughout Europe for the advancement of farming.
Gardens from the 7th century
Gardens in St. Fiacre’s time were organized, but not in the groomed rows we create today. Flowers, food, and herbs were grown together in what organic gardeners now term “companion plantings.” These plantings encourage pollinators, reduce diseases and pests, and enhance food production.
In later centuries in England and France, it was common to arrange gardens in such a way that the medicinal and household herbs were grouped together, so that the potagère (pronounced “poo-tah-jay”)—kitchen garden—was separate. The potagères were as beautiful as they were practical, with the plantings carefully selected and landscaped in a celebration of form, color, and fragrance. We accomplish the same with the relatively modern trend of edible landscaping.
You need not go to this extent to design your vegetable garden. Consider dedicating your gardening skill to St. Fiacre by growing food to give away. In his dedication to the poor, St. Fiacre kept only about 10 percent of the harvest for himself and gave away the other 90 percent—tithing in reverse! You can do this by growing extra food in your own garden to donate, linking up with other gardeners or farmers in your area, or starting a community or neighborhood garden.
What is a community or neighborhood garden? It is a plot of land where people come together to garden, sharing their combined resources and knowledge. The plots, which can be on private or public land, are usually rented at a minimal yearly fee that covers the cost of taxes and utilities. In the U.S. community gardens are often used to assist the homeless and poor to learn skills and grow their own food. Churches and schools can build these types of gardens on their lots and share the space with the disadvantaged in the community.
If you can’t start a community garden, you can still serve the poor with your own garden. Do you remember the campaign “Plant a Row for the Hungry”? Back in 1995 the Garden Writers Association of America developed a communications campaign to encourage individuals to donate garden produce to local food banks, soup kitchens, and service organizations to help feed America’s hungry. The campaign is still ongoing, and the idea is still a good one! To learn more about starting this in your area, check their website.
Here are a few tips to enhance yield from your vegetable garden:
- It all begins with a deep layer of fertile soil, and the quickest way to accomplish this is adding compost and topsoil within raised beds. Research has found that raised beds use space more efficiently and yield nearly four times that of row gardening. Never use treated lumber, which leaches toxins into the soil, for framing vegetable beds. Check with your local library or look online to learn more.
- If you must use a rototiller, do so only once in early spring. There are two reasons for this: First, when using a rototiller the organisms (I call them “earthworks”) that live at different depths in the soil are stirred up and exposed to elements that kill them, plus the blades of the machine hurt or kill them. Leaving the soil undisturbed after the initial tilling allows the earthworks to recover, and their functioning well helps plants grow. Second, using a rototiller between rows of growing plants destroys the fine hair roots (capillaries) that take up water and nutrient, affecting growth and yield.
- Select cultivars with higher yields and smaller space requirements. There are several bush varieties of summer squashes and beans on the market. Smaller and prolific watermelons are also fun to grow. Do a little research before you purchase seeds or plants.
- Select tomatoes that are indeterminate, ripening throughout the season and fruit sized around eight ounces; these cultivars are more prolific. The difference between determinate and indeterminate plants is that determinate plants stop growing once they reach their height and bear fruit all at once, ripening within a few weeks—great if you do canning. Indeterminate plants continue to grow all season and yield successive crops.
- Use vertical gardening techniques to increase space. An old pergola frame or metal arbor with cucumbers planted at the corners looks lovely and helps shade leafy cool-weather greens from harsh summer sun. Set trellises at the north end of your garden to prevent it from shading other plants.
- Succession planting is simply following one crop with another. It is the single best practice for increasing the yield from your garden. Certain vegetables have a short production cycle, such as beans, radishes, and leafy greens. Plant these and other vegetables with quick maturation times about 10 to 14 days apart for continued harvesting through the growing season.
Save your cardboard boxes, lining them with grocery bags, and tote your harvest to those in need. St. Fiacre will be delighted.
St. Vincent de Paul, known as the Apostle of France, was also dedicated to the poor, made regular pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Fiacre, and believed he had been cured of an illness through the intercession of the saint.
Invite St. Fiacre and his blessings into your garden. Place a statue of him in a quiet corner, where you, too, may enjoy the prayerful silence this saint pursued throughout his life. St. Fiacre was often sought out for his healing abilities. Grow healing herbs such as chamomile, lavender, thyme, sage, calendula, or basil around the statue. Include lemon balm or peppermint, but grow them in containers since plants of the menthe family can be invasive.
St. Fiacre’s feast day
Christian scholars debate the actual date of St. Fiacre’s feast day. In Ireland and on the Roman calendar, it is celebrated on September 1; elsewhere it varies from August 18 (the date of his death) or August 30 (celebrated by most European Catholics and also thought to be the date of his death). August 1 and August 11 are also being debated. Whatever the date, it is during the harvest season for most countries in the northern hemisphere.