How green is your garden?

Religious and secular gardeners are having a tough year.

gardening 88 (photo credit: )
gardening 88
(photo credit: )
While for shoppers shmita may add up to a few more shekels on the grocery tab, for local gardeners, their entire livelihood is at stake. "I can't plant, I can't put down fertilizer," says Uri, a local gardener. "It's going to be very tough, and this isn't a business that you get rich in, even in a regular year." Another gardener, Binyamin Nahum, agrees that the shmita restrictions are going to be a severe financial challenge for him in the year ahead. To brace himself for the challenge, Nahum says that he has become quite proficient in the laws of shmita, whether through texts or through tips from religious clients, among them heads of yeshivot. "We can still do upkeep, things like weeding, raking up leaves," he explains, because it is in the interest of maintaining the garden and preventing degeneration. But pruning that is not essential to the garden's upkeep is not permitted, he adds. And, in accordance with the requests of some of his religious customers, special bags are used for the removal of garden debris so as to maintain the holiness inherent in it, Nahum says. Still, some of his customers prefer that he abstain altogether from working in their garden during shmita. He has also lost secular customers, who will not employ him under the terms of shmita. Both gardeners point out that the full effect of the shmita crunch will not be felt until after the winter season, when, in any case, demand for garden work (other than basic upkeep) is low. But Avi, a gardener who says he "does not keep mitzvot," says that he is already beginning to feel the financial strain of shmita, and has lost long-standing customers. "The treatment I've been getting from my religious customers has been terrible," he says. "They care about the mitzva, but not about people." Religious employers have no consideration for the difficult financial reality gardeners face during the shmita year, he says. "It's terrible. You work for these people for six years, and then one day it's shmita and you're told that there's no work," he says. "I've been in this business for more than 20 years and I've been through three or four shmitot. Of all my religious customers, only one behaved appropriately toward me, giving me a full paycheck even though he asked that I not do any work. But 99.9% have been absolutely disgusting," he continues. Gardeners whose clientele is largely secular are generally not as hard hit financially by shmita. For Shaul, who mostly works in secular suburbs around Jerusalem, the difference between shmita and other years has hardly been noticeable. And, he says, even religious customers require his upkeep services. Still, he acknowledges that other gardeners have been more affected by the restrictions. Another gardener who works mostly for secular Jews says that he has learned to cope with the shmita requirements of his religious customers. "I always ask them exactly what they want. Activities that only maintain the garden, rather than improve it, are permissible. Also, there are plants that are grown in flower boxes and not in the ground," explains Tzahi Zangbi. "I know religious gardeners have a tough time, but for me, as far as I can tell, there won't be a significant change. There wasn't last shmita either," he says. The greatest financial burden tends to fall on the religious gardeners who attempt to fully uphold the shmita laws. "At first I decided I wasn't going to do any planting over the course of shmita," says one religious gardener. "But the financial crunch started hitting home and I found myself on the verge of losing most of my secular clientele. "So I made the decision that I myself would do the planting, rather than my workers," he continues. "I decided that if someone was going to have to sin, it should be me, not them." Although the Agriculture Ministry has allotted funding for assistance to farmers during shmita, gardeners say they receive no financial assistance whatsoever. Whether they are impacted by shmita by choice or by their religious clientele, neither the state nor the municipality has offered any help, they say. "If the religious [customers] don't care, why would the government care?" says Avi. "The Ministry of Agriculture supports farmers who keep the shmita [year], and assists in finding operational solutions for those who so desire. The government has budgeted NIS 103 million for this purpose. Gardening is not defined as an agricultural activity, and therefore is not eligible for financial support," ministry spokesman Daphna Yurista said in a statement. Nahum thinks that at least part of the problem is a lack of organization in the sector. "There is no association representing the needs of the gardeners to the authorities," says Nahum. "We have tried to organize in the past, but to no avail. "The sector abounds with gardeners who are working 'off the books,' bringing down prices for legitimate gardeners," he adds. "Perhaps the shmita year will be the catalyst for us to finally get our act together."