Letters from the Garden

Dear Sangha,

I heard my first birdsong of the year this morning. A week of days above freezing have been rapidly turning two feet of snow into boot-sucking mud. Our neighbors at Watershed Center are busy tapping dozens of elder maple trees to collect the spring sap, and on a warm day you can watch the clear liquid flow from the trees into a huge metal trough to be boiled down. You need 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup! In this year of so much uncertainty, it feels good to know that the sun is still coming back, right on schedule.

As you may know, we here at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery are in the process of getting a large garden up and running this year in order to feed some hungry, hungry monks a lot of vegetables. My job is to make all this happen, together with the seasons and the weather, the deer and the rabbits, the seeds and the soil. Spring’s arrival means that the plans I’ve been busy making all winter are about to rapidly transition into intense activity. It’s a huge undertaking! All this work is guided by our vow to act in alignment with the ecosystems around us, large and small, human and non-human, in recognition that our lives and deaths are bound up together intimately. There is no control here—the earth is very clear that we plant and harvest on her terms only.

Winter view from Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery

Our current horticultural efforts consist of two raised beds by the main house, a mature orchard that produces more apples than we know what to do with, a 4×8’ cold frame, which is basically a ground-level greenhouse, and a sizable new plot that we plowed out of the meadow last August. This new plot will become the main garden, planted with both vegetables and flowers, while the raised beds will turn into an herb garden for the kitchen. I also have plans to plant a ring of flower beds around the orchard in order to feed our friendly pollinators and provide fresh-cut bouquets for the temple’s many altars. For now, though, most of this only exists as spreadsheets and hand-drawn blueprints, and it’s going to take a lot of collective effort over the next few months to bring it into being.

Cold frame and raised beds, still snowed in last week

Most excitingly, my bedroom is currently home to the first tiny seedlings of the year (onions), which I started from seeds a few weeks ago and will transplant outside in a little over a month. They are about to be joined by other early-season plants like spinach, parsley, cabbage, and kale. The first thing I do every morning after hearing the wake-up bell is turn on their grow lights, and the last thing I do before going to sleep is turn the lights off and say goodnight to all my tiny little roommates. I recently hosted an “onion viewing” for the other humans here to come see how adorable they are! You can admire them too!

Tiny onion seedlings just up (yellow onions, red onions, and scallions). So cute!!

This garden, like the monastery, belongs to the Sangha, as much as it can be said to belong to anyone beyond itself. Because we are all so far apart right now, I’d like to do my best to bring the garden to you through a new biweekly letter (you’re reading it!)—with photos, stories, updates, recipes, maybe some tips on window gardening, who knows?—in the hope that the mountains here can connect us, wherever we are. I feel we’re all cultivating something here together, one way or another.

Bags of soil and and a big box of seeds in the garage

That’s it until next time, much more to come. Until then, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to write back, you can reach me here, or by snail mail at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, 87 Kaye Rd., Millerton, NY 12546. Let me know what you’d like to see and hear about in future letters, and we can have a conversation. Happy spring!

Lots of love,

Ella Antell