Now the L‑rd G‑d took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.1

Mankind has been tending gardens, be it spiritually or physically, from the very dawn of creation. Cultivating a garden, no matter what size, takes time and effort. Just as there are practical do’s and don’ts when growing something, there are also halachic do’s and don’ts. Through following these guidelines, we make our gardens not only physically beautiful but spiritually delightful as well.

The following guidelines are for those gardening outside of Israel, as the laws governing agriculture in the Land of Israel are stricter and more extensive.

Kilayim: Mixing, Grafting

There are a number of prohibitions in the Torah relating to mixing seeds or grafting. This includes the prohibition of grafting different species of trees together, planting mixed species of seeds, and not sowing a vineyard with a mixed species of seeds.2

There are many laws included in these prohibitions; however, many of them only apply to planting done in the land of Israel. Thus, we will focus on those laws that apply outside of Israel.

Mixing seeds: Outside of Israel, one is permitted to plant a mixture of different species of seeds next to each other (aside from grapes, as you will read below).3 There is no issue of planting different vegetable species right next to each other.

Grafting: Grafting a branch from one tree or bush of one species onto that of another is prohibited even outside of Israel.4 One is, however, permitted to graft different varieties of the same species. However, it isn’t always clear what is considered to be simply a different variety or if it is altogether a different species.5 When in doubt, consult with your rabbi.

Grapes and vineyards: The prohibition of kilayim is more strict regarding grapes. Thus, even outside of Israel, one may not plant two species of seeds together with grape seeds.6 Additionally, a single grape cluster should be grown 6 tefachim (about 19 inches) away from other species of plants and grapevines (defined as 5 clusters) and should be grown at least four cubits (about 6.5 feet) away from other species of plants. Alternatively, there should be a proper divider between the vines and other plants so that they are not considered to be grown together.7

Sustaining or benefiting: It is forbidden to sustain a plant or tree that is kilayim (i.e., watering or any other sort of upkeep), and it must be uprooted. At the same time, one is permitted to eat any fruit that grew as a result of crossbreeding. Additionally, one is permitted to take a branch that grew as a result of grafting and plant it somewhere else.8

However, it is forbidden to even derive benefit from kilayim of grapes and other species that grew in proximity to each other without a divider or a distance of four cubits.9

Orlah: The First Three Years

It is forbidden to eat the fruit of a tree for the first three years after it is planted. This is known as the prohibition of orlah (see below about the fourth year).10 These laws apply even if the tree is grown in a pot.11

Planting: The definition of planting isn’t limited to planting the seeds of the tree, and in many instances the three-year count would restart when the tree is replanted.12 If the tree was taken from the earth without enough of its original soil to sustain its growth, when it is replanted, the count starts anew. If, however, it did have that much of the original soil with it, it may continue with its original orlah count.13 Additionally, there are times that grafting would cause the count to restart for that branch.14

How to count: The three years are not calculated from the calendar date when the tree was planted (or replanted). In fact, the actual count may be a bit more or less than three years.

We start counting the three years from Rosh Hashanah. If a tree was planted 45 days before Rosh Hashanah, i.e., before the 16th day of Av, the tree would enter its second year that Rosh Hashanah. This is because it takes 14 days for it to take root, and thereafter, the 30 remaining days of the year are counted as a full year. We then count two more years from Rosh Hashanah. If however, the tree was planted from the 16th of Av and onward, that part of the year is not counted at all, and we count three years from Rosh Hashanah.15

Although we count the three years from Rosh Hashanah, fruit that ripens before the 15th of Shevat in year number four is still considered to have grown within the three years and is considered orlah.16

Definition of a tree: Orlah only applies to trees. As a general rule, fruit over which the blessing of ha’etz is recited is considered to have grown on a tree. Thus, a banana plant would not be considered a tree, while kiwi plants and grapevines are. (For more on this, see What Is the Blessing on Bananas, Strawberries, Grapes, Berries Etc.? )

Using and eating orlah: Although one is forbidden to eat or even benefit from the fruit (including peels, etc) of orlah, other parts of the tree, even if they are edible, are permitted. Thus, one may eat hearts of palm, even if they are harvested during the first three years of the tree’s life.17

Unlike in Israel, where if there is even a possibility that something is orlah, it is forbidden to be eaten, outside of Israel, it is only forbidden when it is certain that the fruit is orlah.18 Thus, we may buy diaspora-grown fruit in the grocery without worrying that it may have grown during the orlah period.

Fourth year (neta revai): The fruit of the fourth year has a special sanctity and is called neta revai. This fruit must be redeemed before eating (see footnote for instructions on how this is done19 ). Since there is a dispute whether the laws of neta revai outside of Israel apply to fruits other than grapes, this redemption is done without a blessing.20

Fruit of the fifth year is permitted.

Cutting Down a Fruit Tree

The Torah compares people to a tree,21 and it is generally forbidden to cut down a fruit tree.22 This prohibition applies even if the tree is young and isn’t bearing any fruit yet,23 or the fruit is wormy and is therefore forbidden to be eaten due to the worms.24 Additionally, according to many, even a branch of a fruit tree should not be cut unless there is a good reason to do so.25

If the tree no longer bears fruit (or it has reached the point where its wood is more valuable than its fruit), if it may cause damage or injury, or if the space of the tree is needed to build a home, it is permitted to cut the fruit tree.26

Bear in mind that our sages say that it is particularly spiritually harmful for a person to destroy a fruit tree, even when it is permitted. So if you feel you may need to cut down a fruit tree, contact your rabbi.27

(For more on the laws of cutting down a fruit tree, see Cutting Down Fruit Trees.)

Working on Shabbat

While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into all the laws of Shabbat, it is worth pointing out that many of the Shabbat prohibitions (e.g., planting, plowing, watering, weeding, raking) specifically relate to gardening. Thus, although you are permitted to enjoy and walk through your garden on Shabbat, you may not do so if your intention is to see what work needs to be done after Shabbat.28 Additionally, it is forbidden to smell an edible fruit on Shabbat if it is still attached to the tree, due to the concern that one may cut off a fruit to eat it.29

Tithing and the Sabbatical Year

The laws of terumah and maaser (agricultural tithes), as well as those governing Shemitah (the Sabbatical year), apply only in the Land of Israel. Additionally, some of the laws of kilayim and orlah are stricter in Israel, as mentioned above.

It needs to be stressed, however, that these laws do apply to produce that was grown in Israel and exported to the diaspora. Thus, there are specific rules as to how or when one can consume Israeli produce.30

G‑d’s Garden

G‑d calls the entire world “His garden.”31 Just as we tend our own gardens, making them a beautiful place both physically and spiritually, so too it is our job to go out into the world and “tend” G‑d's garden. Through our divine service of Torah and mitzvahs, we transform a world that may at times seem like a wild jungle into G‑d’s beautiful garden.