Tomatoes on a vine
Categories: The Parish Column

Nelson Mandela’s Onions and Tomatoes

by Jane Houlihan, St. John’s Eco-Action Team

Gardening is a favorite diversion of St. Johns’ parishioners, especially during this pandemic. Flowers, vegetables and herbs all feature prominently in our good-news Facebook posts that drive away the bleakness of stay-at-home orders. If you’re a beginner, St. Johns’ experts can help you launch a new garden or plant a few modest containers – skip to the bottom to find a mentor.

We Episcopalian gardeners are in good company. Last week, as I finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, I learned that he also turned to gardening for solace during a 27-year stretch of captivity far bleaker than this year’s social distancing months. I saw that his stories and the example of his life can be a guide star in this time of turmoil and racial awakening in our own country.

While imprisoned for his fight to end Apartheid, Mandela won permission from Robben Island prison officials to scratch out a small garden on a narrow patch of earth against the far courtyard wall. Prison officials supplied the seeds. Tomatoes, onions and chilies were all that survived in the dry, rocky soil. Still, the garden tasted of freedom: “To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb reminded us during St. John’s May 24th’s adult forum that God declared the totality of his creation, including that first, abundant garden, very good (Gen. 1:31). But not everyone can experience this goodness. Studies show that in nearly every major U.S. city, low-income neighborhoods are rich in asphalt and poor in trees, parks and green spaces. They have half as many trees as wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods, on average. As a result, they are hotter, by 5 degrees on average and up to 13 degrees, than more prosperous urban areas which makes them more prone to heat waves. The shady trees and green spaces so plentiful in higher-income areas help reduce stress and violence, speed recovery from illness, mitigate air pollution, raise property values, and even decrease autism prevalence in children, studies show. Should we be surprised that inequity’s reach extends to gardens, grass, and trees?

Mandela eventually transformed his prison garden into “a small farm” with 900 plants. He supplied Sunday dinner vegetables for the common-law prisoners, who faced harsher conditions than political prisoners. He gave vegetables to wardens, who brought satchels from home to fill with their favorites. He saw decency in many of these men despite the corrupt system. The garden was freedom, health, and good will. It softened Mandela’s years of manual labor in the island’s quarry, and long, punishing days of solitary confinement.

Mandela’s experience teaches us that a garden spade holds unexpected power. After powerful protests and prayer vigils, hours in the garden can also restore inner peace and quietly extend our reach in easing inequity. Volunteering with urban garden and conservation groups makes a difference. DC Urban Gardeners Network lists opportunities here, including helping at urban school gardens where a child’s academic performance can rise through the simple act of growing plants. From your home garden, a bag of fresh-picked produce can help a neighbor in need. Ample Harvest tracks food pantries that accept homegrown produce here. Tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers are especially easy to grow and share. It’s not too late to plant.

Whether you’re interested in sharing your home garden’s harvest or helping to protect and preserve urban parks and green spaces so vital to health and well-being, St. John’s parishioners can guide you. Among our experts are Master Gardener Jay Everhart, Master Naturalist Carolyn Peirce, and Certified Weed Warrior Frances Li (protecting urban green spaces from destructive invasive species). Many on St. John’s Eco-Action Team are inveterate park, trail, and garden enthusiasts happy to share their secrets. Email Jane Houlihan ( or Tom Kerr ( to learn more.

Nelson Mandela grew up in a roadless village, tending sheep and cows in a green land crisscrossed with clean streams. He found there a “love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.” That’s a vision we can aspire to match in our own work to bring about eco-justice and a restoration of God’s beautiful creation. A garden can be another step on the long walk to freedom.