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Shemitah, Chapter 22: Caring for Home Gardens During the Shemitah Year

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Shemitah, Chapter 22: Caring for Home Gardens During the Shemitah Year

Home gardens during shemitah

Rabbi Moshe Bloom

See here for a: "Professional Guide, Preparing Ornamental Gardens for the Shemitah Year", including a PDF file. 

A. General principles

  1. This section is intended for private individuals and gardeners. For farmers, even though the principles are the same, the practical application of some of these guidelines are different. Torah VeHa'aretz Institute put out a separate guide especially for famers (in Hebrew: Madrich shemitah lechakla'im, the farmer's shemitah guide).
  2. One should not sell the land of a home garden to a non-Jew through heter mechirah. In special cases, one can contact the Chief Rabbinate Shemitah Committee.
  3. In buildings or houses with joint yards: one should try to convince the neighbors that it is possible to care for the garden even during the shemitah year in permissible ways without performing forbidden acts.[1]
  4. It is permissible to rent or sell a house or apartment with a garden to a non-shemitah It is recommended to mention when the rental or sales contract is drawn up that it is a shemitah year and they should avoid performing forbidden acts in the garden.[2]
  5. For houses that are in the middle of construction, when part of the construction agreement is landscaping and garden development: it is recommended to include in the construction contract that landscaping will be performed either before or after the shemitah year.
  6. If construction was completed during shemitah, and there is still construction waste littering the premises that was not removed and disposed of in an authorized site: if there is a concern that family members or others will be harmed, it is permissible to straighten out the ground and spread a thin layer of gravel on it. Following the shemitah year, one can then develop the garden.
  7. Contractors who will only receive their full payment once they complete landscaping, as stipulated in the building contract, should contact the Shemitah Committee for appropriate solutions.
  8. It is permissible to perform landscaping work for the purpose of construction but not for the purpose of planting and sowing plants and trees.[3]   
  9. Transplanting trees: if one is planning to build in a certain area and this entails uprooting trees in the way, it is permissible to uproot the trees, place them in bags, and replant them following the shemitah It is permissible to water the trees as usual throughout shemitah.
  10. It is permissible for a landscaper to plan gardens even during the shemitah year, even though it is possible that it will be implemented and forbidden acts will be performed during [4]

B. Parameters of planters

  1. The vast majority of planters sold today are considered perforated planters vis-à-vis shemitah. Planters with holes of a diameter that no larger than 1/3 cm, where the total area of all holes does not exceed 2 cm, are considered unperforated planters.
  2. If the walls of the planter can be penetrated by roots, it is considered perforated.
  3. Planters that are indoors should not be taken outside or to an open-roofed porch.
  4. Planters that are fixed to the ground or wall are considered connected to them. Such planters are considered planted in the ground.

C. Guidelines to prepare for the shemitah year

  1. To avoid many unnecessary problems in garden maintenance during the shemitah year, proper advanced preparation is necessary.
  2. As much as possible, prune all trees as much as possible and treat weeds (by both uprooting and spraying to prevent sprouting) so these actions can be avoided during the shemitah
  3. In most cases, regular and appropriate fertilization prior to shemitah is sufficient, and obviates the need for further fertilization during shemitah This is especially true with slow-release fertilizers (SRF), controlled-release fertilizer (CRF), and other organic fertilizers that decompose slowly and provide plants with all of their nourishment needs for the entire year.[5]
  4. The prohibition of tosefet shevi'it, where some of the actions are forbidden before the onset of the shemitah year, apply only when the Beit Hamikdash in standing. For this reason, today all melachot (excepting planting and sowing—see below) may be performed until Rosh Hashanah, including plowing, fertilizing, weeding, etc.[6]

 5. Planting trees and plants:

  1. It is recommended to plant various plants in the garden during the spring of the sixth year so that they will properly take root. This ensures that if they take root, one will not need to take care of them during shemitah; if they do not, there will be time to replace them prior to
  2. Grass: turf should be laid several weeks before the onset of shemitah so that the grass will properly take root and it will be possible to mow at least once before the onset of Grass seeds should be sown in the spring and watered well so it will be possible to mow the lawn before shemitah.
  3. Fruit trees in a clod of soil (as bought in nurseries) should be planted by 29 Av. Yet it is recommended to plant them by 15 Av, should the clod of soil crumble. Non-fruit trees in a clod of soil may be planted up to 29 Elul before the shemitah year; it is recommended to plant them by 15 Elul, however, should the clod of soil crumble.[7]
  4. If one purchases a fruit tree from a nursery supervised for orlah, and is vigilant about observing the guidelines for transferring the sapling—especially that its clod of earth does not crumble—can plant the tree until 29 Elul. [8]
  5. Sowing vegetables (annuals that are sown and eaten): one should ensure to sow them until 15 Elul (so they will sprout before shemitah).
    Bare-rooted transplants/seedlings should be planted by 26 Elul (since it takes three days for such vegetables to take root; and we need to make sure that they take root before shemitah).
  6. Annuals planted with their clod of soil can be planted until 29 Elul.[9]
  7. It is permissible to plant bulbs by 29 Elul that will sprout during shemitah following rain.
  8. Non-fragrant ornamental flowers are not subject to the sefichin prohibition, only to the prohibition against taking root during For this reason, lechatchilah, they should be sown or planted by 26 Elul; bedi'avad, by 29 Elul. If they come as seedlings/starters in a clod of soil, they can be planted by 29 Elul.
  9. Fragrant ornamental annuals have the status of vegetables.[10] The sowing/planting deadline for such flowers are as follows:[11]
  • Sown as seeds – lechatchilah 15 Elul, to ensure that take root before
  • Planted as bare-rooted seedlings/starters – 26
  • Panted as seedlings/starters with their clod of earth – 29

Perennial plants have the halachic status of non-fruit trees.

D. During shemitah

Private individuals may not sow plants or turn over soil to air it out, etc., even on upper floors of a building.

E. Actions to protect trees and fruit

  1. In private gardens, it is forbidden to perform actions that are meant to sprout new fruit on the tree (such as irrigation and fertilization during blooming). However, after the fruit begins to develop, it is permissible to perform such actions to preserve the existing fruit.[12] These actions include: spraying against pests that harm fruit, spraying to prevent fruit from falling, clipping thorns that harm fruit (such as etrogim), tying and training branches, and bending branches prior to harvest to make fruit harvest easier.[13]
  2. It is permissible to spread nets on trees to protect them from various pests.
  3. It is permissible to perform any action meant to protect the tree (from ants, etc.).

F. Irrigation

  1. It is permitted to irrigate to keep plants alive. One should avoid irrigation meant to encourage extra growth.
  2. One should reduce the amount of irrigation in comparison to regular years and slightly increase the intervals between irrigating times.
  3. One should irrigate immediately when bushes and trees show signs of initial dehydration; there is no need to wait for signs of actual shriveling (when real damage occurs to the plants).
  4. Signs of initial dehydration include leaves curling in the later afternoon, which indicate a lack of water. However temporary wilting during hot hours of the day is not necessarily a sign of true dehydration, rather it is temporary. In such cases, there is no need to irrigate.[14]

G. Weeds

  1. Annual weeds: if they do not take over the garden but are only an eyesore, it is best not to uproot them.
  2. Weeds that considerably undermine the garden's appearance or genuinely compete with the plants in the garden; or if one is concerned that weeds will provide cover for various pests (snakes, scorpions), the order of preference is as follows:
  3. Spray with various growth-preventative chemicals (available at gardening stores and with gardeners). It is recommended to concentrate on areas that weeds generally sprout and also spray in early winter.
  4. Cover the area in a black sheet (that blocks light).
  5. Spray existing weeds (available as mentioned above).
  6. Mow down weeds above soil (with a lawnmower or scythe mower, etc.).
  7. Weeds should not be uprooted.

H. Pruning trees and bushes

  1. Pruning meant only to preserve the existing shape of the tree or bush is permitted, providing that the plant is mature and the pruning does not initiate new growth. For this reason, it is permissible to prune a full living fence or gate. However, it is forbidden to prune a young living fence, since pruning initiates growth of new branches that fill in the gaps.
  2. It is permissible to prune in the following cases: protruding branches next to (or above) sidewalks that bother pedestrians or growing near electrical wires, and such; dead or sick branches; clipping off the arba minim (hadasim,[15]aravot, and lulavim) and sechach for All the above are permissible providing that it is apparent that the purpose is not to facilitate the tree's growth. One should take care that the pruning does not harm the trees in any way.[16]
  3. Pruning branches and mechanical supports for trees and branches to ensure that the trees do not collapse due to excess weight is permissible.

I. Fertilization

  1. It is sufficient to fertilize home gardens with appropriate fertilizer before shemitah (SRF, CRF, compost, etc.) to provide the garden with all of its nourishment needs.
  2. In special cases, when additional fertilizer is needed, it is permissible to fertilize only when the garden's appearance would be significantly compromised.

J. Lawn care

  1. It is permissible to water the lawn. It is best to somewhat reduce the amount of water used and somewhat increase the intervals between watering times[17].
  2. In cases when the lawn's aesthetic appearance is significantly undermined due to a lack of fertilizer, one should consult with a gardener who is versed in the laws of shemitah, or call (or email) hotline and ask to speak with an agronomist. (First, it is important to ascertain that the state of the lawn is due to a lack of fertilization and not to lack of irrigation, maladies, or pests).
  3. Mowing the lawn:
    1. Full lawns without bald spots can be mowed as usual. One should not be late in mowing, otherwise this causes lawn yellowing ("sunburn"), which initiates new growth.
    2. It is forbidden to mow young grass, as this causes it to spread. If failure to mow the grass would cause significant damage, it is possible to be lenient.
    3. It is permissible to cut the corners of the lawn since the purpose is the maintain the lawn's existing appearance and not to initiate new growth. It is best to do this through spraying.

K. Rose care

  1. It is permissible to water roses to keep them alive but not in order to encourage new growth. It is important to water roses sufficiently to avoid dehydration, since roses are sensitive to a lack of water.
  2. Pruning should not be performed during the shemitah
  3. It is forbidden to remove dry flowers, since this causes new growth, unless this is not the intended purpose.
  4. Fragrant roses should be rendered ownerless and handled as sacred.
  5. It is permissible to pick flowers from the garden to place them in a vase in the house, but they should be picked with a different manner than usual (not cut at the usual length).[18]

 

[1] If the neighbors are not willing to observe shemitah laws and insist that forbidden actions be performed during shemitah, the shemitah observers should declare their portion of the garden ownerless before three people. This is the ruling of Rabbi Ariel, Be'ohalah Shel Torah III §9. Rabbi Auerbach rules that it is permissible to pay the HOA (homeowners' association) fee, even though it includes gardening expenses (for such activities prohibited during shemitah). The reason for this is that paying this fee is a legal obligation, so it is not necessarily considered being party to forbidden actions. Rabbi Eliahu rules that one should make sure that the HOA gardening fees be included in payments for other HOA expenses, as is the usual case (similar to a salary paid for services given on Shabbat that includes work done during the week, which is permitted; both instances are considered havla'ah).

[2] In principle, one should not rent out a field to someone who is most probably not going to observe shemitah laws, see Shabbat Ha'aretz 8:6. However, since it is not completely certain that the buyer or renter will perform forbidden acts, it is permissible to rent or sell to such individuals.

[3] Just like other acts that are performed for non-agricultural reasons during shemitah; see Chapter 1 §F.

[4] Since it is not certain that forbidden acts will be performed.

[5] Note that most fertilizers on the market release nutrients over a six-month period, but there are some that release over a twelve-month period. While most deciduous trees are fertilized again in spring, if no additional fertilizer is applied in most areas in Israel, it will not damage the trees. Trees (especially deciduous) growing in light and sandy soils and young trees in general can be damaged considerably if they do not receive additional fertilizer. For such cases, we recommend consulting one of our agronomists prior to the shemitah year for guidelines on optimal fertilization methods, available on our website: https://en.toraland.org.il/beit-midrash/qa/ask-the-rabbi/; or call our hotline: 08-684-7325. 

[6] Mishnah 1:1; Mo'ed Katan 3b; Rambam 3:1,9.

[7] The Mishnah (2:6) states that it is forbidden to plant 30 days before Rosh Hashanah according to the tanah kama (first opinion), while Rabbi Shimon holds that this prohibition is for two weeks (14 days) preceding Rosh Hashanah. According to the Rash (2:6), this prohibition is due to tosefet shevi'it; since this issue does not apply today (Rambam 3:9), this would not be prohibited today.
However, according to Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot, Rosh Hashanah 10b s.v sheloshim), it would be prohibited even today to plant right before Rosh Hashanah, since the tree would take root during the shemitah year. This transgresses the injunction of veshavta ha'aretz ("and the land shall rest"): it is forbidden for plants to take root during the shemitah. The halachah follows Rabbi Shimon, that it takes 14 days for trees to take root (below we will see that for vegetables this period of three days); this means that it is permitted to plant trees only until 15 Elul.
Rambam (3:11) writes that it is permissible to plant fruit trees only up until 15 Av, due to mar'it ayin (appearance): if planting after 15 Av, the orlah count would begin only during the shemitah year, and this appears as if the tree was planted during the shemitah year.
In conclusion: we follow the opinions of Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam.    

Therefore: the period of time it takes for trees to take root is 14 days, and we must ensure that the tree takes root before shemitah. Non-fruit trees should be planted by 15 Elul for this reason. However, when the tree arrives with its clod of earth it is considered to have taken root already, so we need not wait 14 days. Thus, non-fruit trees may be transplanted with their clod of earth until 29 Elul.
For fruit trees: as stated above, we need to add a month for the orlah year. Fruit trees transplanted with their clod of earth may be planted until 29 Av, while bare-rooted trees may be planted until 15 Av.
Note that this year (5761), 15 Av falls out on Shabbat (July 23–24, 2021), so the trees should be planted by 14 Av. Likewise, 29 Av (August 6–7, 2021) also falls out on Shabbat, so trees with their clod of earth (etc.) should be planted by 28 Av.
As for non-fruit trees: this year 15 Elul is August 23, 2021, while 29 Elul is September 6, 2021. 

[8] This is the ruling in Mishpatei Eretz I 6:8. For detailed guidelines on transplanting trees vis-à-vis the orlah count, see The Laws of Orlah for the Backyard, chapter 6 (Torah VeHa'aretz Institute), available also on our website.
As of 5781, only Marmelstein Nursery in Ganei Tal and BaPeregola Nursery in Kochav HaShachar, which cater to the private sector, are supervised by Torah VeHa'aretz Institute. Further details can be found on our website (Hebrew).

[9] If they sprouted after Rosh Hashanah, they are prohibited as sefichin and are forbidden to eat. See Chapter 7.
For planting vegetables: optimally, one should plant them 14 days before shemitah, since they need to sprout before Rosh Hashanah: lechatchilah, this includes sprouting above the ground before shemitah, which takes 3–12 days. The Chazon Ish is known to be lenient with underground sprouting in extenuating circumstances (that is, they started sprouting roots). This process takes only three days (most often from 1–3 days; this is the scientific data provided by the Yehuda Heller, a Torah VeHa'aretz Institute agronomist).
For bare-rooted vegetables: plant up to three days before Rosh Hashanah, so they will take root before the onset of the shemitah year. Taking root is a similar process to underground sprouting: roots sprout; for sowing, though, the root emerges from the seed, while when planting, the root emerges from the vegetables and takes root in the ground.
This year, 15 Elul is August 23, 2021, while 29 Elul is September 6, 2021.

[10] See Chapter 4 §D.1: since there is a doubt fragrant flowers have shemitah sanctity, we are stringent lechatchilah.

[11] If they sprouted after Rosh Hashanah, they are prohibited as sefichin and are forbidden to eat. See Chapter 7.

[12] There are three halachic opinions on the issue of tending to fruit. The dispute hinges on the definition of ukmei ilana: if the actions permitted are those performed on behalf of the tree only (and the fruit of the sixth year, this is the opinion of Rabbi Kook) or if it includes fruit as well. For further discussions of these opinions, see Chapter 1 §A.4,6; Katif Shevi'it 2:3 and 11:1. We follow Rabbi Yisraeli's opinion that ukmei ilana also includes fruit—but only those already on the tree.   

[13] See Katif Shevi'it, ch. 12.

[14] Irrigation during shemitah is a rabbinic prohibition, but is permitted for ukmei ilana, sustaining trees. For more sources on irrigation, see Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:8. For practical guidelines on when and how much it is permitted to water plants, the definitions provided by the posekim are somewhat unclear. In Katif Shevi'it, ch. 49, n. 1, three practical opinions are brought:
1. It is permitted to water plants with the minimal necessary amount, so there won't be discernible damage to the quality and quantity of the produce (Shenat Hasheva 8:3; Shemitah Kehilchatah 1:8; see also Kerem Tziyon 9).
2. Increase intervals between watering, so that plants are watered only when it is vital for their immediate survival. The significance of this is that one can use an unlimited amount of water when watering (Hilchot Shevi'it 1:72).
3. There is no limit in the amount of water used when watering a home garden, since it is considered a beit shelichin, irrigation farming (see Rambam 1:8; Betzet Hashanah p. 46; Rabbi Karelitz, Chut Shani 1:10, p. 101).
We are stringent, and follow the first and second opinions. However, many are lenient and allow watering garden plants with the same amount of water as usual during non-shemitah years.

[15] It is forbidden to prune or burn the hadasim when the goal is to encourage growth of triple-headed hadasim.

[16] Avoiding harming trees is unrelated to shemitah laws, rather not to unnecessarily destroy the tree.

[17] See §F above and n. 15.

[18] For roses, often the place for pruning a branch with a flower is chosen in an ideal place where a new branch will grow in the best place possible. In this case, this is considered forbidden pruning, since it is for the purpose of encouraging growth. This is why we noted above that pruning should be done in a different location than usual. In this case, it will be discernable that the purpose is only to enjoy the branch and the flower, and not to encourage growth.