Charleston-area gardeners discuss intersection of plants and spir…

JOHNS ISLAND — Jennifer Wicker stands in the greenhouse at Sweetgrass Garden watching bees buzz around the sunflowers. In addition to the serenity she feels being at the farm surrounded by plants and animals, Wicker notices how the insects work together toward a common goal, unselfishly giving of themselves.

It’s a spiritual lesson about the importance of community, she said.

“The bees work their entire lives not for their individual happiness but for the growth of the colony,” she said. “That sense of community, that sense of community and service of each other is a very good example of how we can serve our communities.”

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For Wicker, who is the farm manager at Sweetgrass Garden, and many other gardeners throughout the Lowcountry, gardening and farming are more than jobs or recreational hobbies. They are spiritual practices during which people gain deep insights into humans’ relationship to the earth and lessons for how we can create healthier lives and relationships.

The topic concerning plants and spirituality has been widely researched.

Local gardeners spoke about Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm,” where the scholar of holistic science expounds on the idea that all life forms posses intelligence, language and the capacity to dream.

In the arts, among the most noteworthy pieces of music includes Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” The album served as the soundtrack to a documentary based on the 1973 bestselling book, “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, that speaks of plants’ abilities to communicate, react to human emotion and speak with distant galaxies.

Wonder himself discusses how plants, which help humans to breathe and live, are often destroyed for the sake of human needs, such as to construct shelter.

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Goats eat from a bag of hay in their pen at Sweetgrass Garden on Johns Island, June 7, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

There appears to be a growing interest in the Lowcountry around permaculture, or the approach to land management that promotes sustainability, Wicker said. Sweetgrass Garden itself has taken up that cause.

The nonprofit was founded in 2010 by members of Circular Congregational Church, a faith community based in downtown Charleston heavily focused on environmental justice. The garden was formed initially to provide food to those in need on Johns Island. The garden still offers produce to the hungry, but the nonprofit has since evolved into a center that also houses a farm. Today, the site promotes healthy eating, hunger awareness and education. 

There’s been a growing number of students who visit the site to learn about permaculture practices, Wicker said. Among the guests are members of a church from Tennessee who have visited the Johns Island garden regularly for the past six years to learn healthy gardening techniques, Wicker said.

Wicker herself has gained a deeper appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life forms. She recalled several years ago a guest at the farm who discouraged the staff from removing a wasp nest from the property. Wasps, the guest said, eat insects. Killing wasps could inadvertently help other, less desirable insects thrive on the garden, Wicker said.

“So, we leave our wasps alone,” Wicker said.

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Honeybees at Sweetgrass Garden “beard” on the edge of their hive on a hot morning on Johns Island on June 7, 2022. “We’ve got our own little hive here, at least we’re starting,” Jennifer Wicker said, motioning to the garden. Henry Taylor/Staff

James Island resident Merideth Garrigan is the director of growth and partnership with Enlighten Soil Corp, a Johns Island-based company that helps farmers and planters successfully grow their crops.

Garrigan was first exposed to the spirituality of nature in Mississippi. She grew up in a Christian household. But many Sundays, Garrigan and her father would skip morning church service to instead take a trip to the Mississippi River, where a young Garrigan watched in awe the movement of the second-longest river in North America. Garrigan and other youths in the area were often taught to fear the wide, muddy body of water, where currents would change rapidly.

“It can remind you of human limitation and being in the presence of great beings and how small you can feel next that,” she said. “I felt like I got to go to a different kind of church.”

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Signage, gardening tools and fencing equipment rest on a table next to one of the smaller greenhouses on Johns Island on June 7, 2022. Henry Taylor/Staff

At Enlighten Soil, Garrigan works on solutions for improving plant life. One of those techniques involves the application special kind of algae, En-Soil Algae,  that improves plants’ abilities to use photosynthesis. The algae also provides a cost-effective, agricultural growing method for horse and cattle pastures, ideal for farmers looking for healthy ways to grow animal food.

The algae, like all plants Garrigan works with at Enlighten Soil, possess spirit, Garrigan said.

“I believe everything we work with has a life and spirit,” she said.

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