The germination of an idea

The gardening journey began for the Dallas Sai Center in September 2011, when we were invited to participate in the Community Garden adjacent to the church where we met for our devotional meetings. The garden was started in 2007 for the purpose of producing organic vegetables for church members' needs as well as to serve the local food pantry.  The Sai Center adopted two raised bed plots of four feet by sixteen feet.   A couple of volunteers who had no idea about gardening, and a few older Sai Spiritual Education (SSE) students and parents, prepared the plots and sowed the seeds.  With encouragement from Church members, we persevered and the plots eventually started to yield vegetables. All the produce were harvested weekly and donated to the local food pantries for use by clients who could now enjoy healthy food choices, which they otherwise could not afford.  A Church member inspired by the children's efforts sponsored a third plot just for the SSE children in 2013.
We felt the divine Lord Himself was taking care of the garden, when we witnessed the abundant produce including  cucumbers, bell peppers, peppers, Swiss chard, spinach, strawberries, eggplant, okra, broccoli, beets and radishes.  With weekly updates during Center announcements, more Center members became aware of the Community Garden and were inspired to participate.

As a result of the growing interest in the community garden, the “Sai Garden in Every Heart and Every Home” project was born in Fall 2013. A few core volunteers kicked off the project by building raised bed gardens and a keyhole garden in their homes.  These experienced volunteers then scheduled time with other interested Center members to install a raised bed garden at their home.  They provided the home owners with a list of all materials they needed.  On the day of the installation, they showed up at the assigned home at the assigned time, built a raised bed frame and filled it with soil.  The family members helped. Each of the Sai Gardens was named with a “human value” or “sub value” chosen by the family. 

The Sai Garden installations continued through Fall 2013 and a total of twenty one Sai Gardens were installed, which included twenty raised beds and one keyhole garden.  Initially, it took an hour and a half to complete one raised bed.  Towards the end, with the experience gained, it took less than half an hour to complete each installation.  
 

Nurturing the Sai Garden project

Many “behind the scenes” tasks need to be attended to for the Sai Garden project to take root and continue to flourish. Soil had to be ordered in bulk, and volunteers needed to help bag the soil in sand bags for distribution to the garden homes.  A volunteer family built a greenhouse at their home to prepare seedlings for the Sai Gardens. An orientation session was also held at the Community Garden in early 2014 to teach the newly initiated as to what and how to plant, and to distribute seeds and seedlings from the greenhouse.  After a slow start, the plants began flourishing in the Sai Gardens in every home. The Sai Gardeners comunicated with each other through Facebook, emails, and phone conversations.  Many not only used the produce for their own needs, but also donated the surplus to local food pantries and shared it with other friends.  

Gardening: an analogy to our spiritual growth. 

The growth of the seed into a plant, resulting in the harvest of vegetables can be analogous to our spiritual growth.  Just like a full-grown plant starts off being a tiny seed, so does our inner transformation begin with taking one small step to connect within.  As the seed breaks out of its skin and germinates, so does our spirituality break through the external layers and starts to grow. As the seedling and plant need constant watering to grow, so does our spirituality need constant practice to develop.  The nurturing and caring of the plants result in an abundance of fresh organically grown vegetables.  Similarly, spiritual practice results in our experiencing the inner bliss. 
There were many lessons learned from some of the challenges or obstacles we faced while gardening.  In life, we face challenges which test our spiritual growth.  In the Sai Gardens, germination and plant growth was influenced a lot by external factors, such as soil that was acidic and too dense and didn’t have enough organic matter, hence slowing the plant growth. Once we corrected the soil conditions by adding organic fertilizer and compost, the plants begun to flourish. So too, our minds needs spiritual practices like chanting the Lord’s name and meditation for the mind to become a fertile ground for our spiritual growth.  Not only that, we learnt that plant growth was also limited by external factors such as voracious rabbits that feed on the plant leaves and hence, we had to erect fences to keep the rabbits out.  Similarly, our spiritual growth may be slowed down by desires, which we keep in check with some kind of barrier like a “ceiling on desires” spiritual program and fences of self-control and determination.  

Sai Gardeners reflect on their experiences

"As a family we experienced growing vegetables in our little SAI garden in our backyard and saw His blessing and miracle in every little flower and vegetable that our garden produced. My daughter and I also watered the community SAI garden in the hot summer months. We felt close to Nature and surrounded by Swami's love. There is an ecosystem in that garden - from the veggies to the  flowers, from small insects to larger animals - that we felt blessed to be a small part of, every time we were there. The produce donated to the food pantry to benefit the needy just made the experience all the more special to us."~ Deepta & Amita 

 "First of all, my family was really impressed by the meticulous way the team installed the garden in our house in a very brief time. This project gave us another opportunity to work as family to do something outdoor in this gadget-driven era. And it also made the kids understand  the effort it takes to grow vegetables and take care of another living thing. It also reinforced the importance of Sattvic (pure) food." ~ Nimmi 
"It was amazing to see the team, week after week installing Sai Gardens in various devotees’ homes and inspiring many families to take up vegetable gardening. When people updated Facebook with the beautiful pictures of cherry tomatoes, radish, bell pepper, Kale, etc., we truly could admire and appreciate God’s colorful creation. And when the vegetables were lovingly handed over to the food pantry to serve our fellow beings, another of God’s creations, it completed the cycle - from God to God."~ Sai

"You have given us so much through this garden project. We not only learnt how to grow and nurture vegetables, but we learnt to deeply appreciate our dear Mother Earth so much more.  We developed new found gratitude for the sun, the rain, the wind and the bees, as we watch the plants grow and turn into valuable edibles. Being able to offer the vegetables from our garden to a food pantry was icing on the cake for us! Thank you all very much for igniting the passion for gardening in us! “~ Aruna & Viji 

"When our loving Sai family built the garden bed in our backyard, we named it Sai Service as we wanted to do our part for the food pantry.  The fresh organic vegetables, herbs, and roots produced had a positive impact on the environment and on us. It encouraged and motivated us to eat more greens and raw veggies. They were so fresh, chemical-free, pesticide-free and exceptionally delicious. We were so delighted to see the produce week after week and felt euphoric when we could donate our veggies to local food pantry. As the saying goes, 'You are what you eat'. Sai Garden has helped us to follow Swami’s teachings on eating 'Sattvic food' and by donating the produce, we are placing a gift of God into the hand of another gift of God." ~ Vasu & family. 

The staff at the Food Pantries were delighted every time we dropped off produce at their pantries. They were extremely grateful for the fresh produce they received from the community garden.

The lessons we learn continued with each Sai Garden we built. Gardening was a life-changing experience for us.  It gave us a sense of higher purpose in life, when we donated the produce to the food pantry. Eating fresh, healthy and organic produce engendered a sense of well-being and healing. At the Center, we worked towards not only installing a Sai Garden in every home, but in every heart as well. Our Baba says it best: “What God loves more are the flowers blossoming on the tree of man’s own life, fed and fostered by his own skill and sincerity. They are the flowers of his virtues grown in the garden of his heart.”1
 

Footnote:

1. Sathya Sai Baba, 6 October 1981, “The Garden of the Heart”, Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol 15 (25).