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"I have to relearn how to hold a hoe," joked Haim Step, who is responsible for beautifying the gardens at Lavi, a religious kibbutz in the lower Galilee. Step had waited eagerly for the end of the shmita (sabbatical) year, during which the fields must lie fallow, according to Jewish law. Now that the new year is here, he said, he expects to find a lot of work waiting for him.

"I started working on my fitness in recent days," he added, in jesting reference to the heavy work load awaiting him in the coming weeks. "That's it. It's all over. Now it's time to start working again."

Step, who also advises people throughout the country on planning, setting up and maintaining gardens, is religious. He therefore observes the precepts of shmita strictly.

"Unlike in agriculture, where there is the practice of the heter mekhira [a legal fiction in which the land is 'sold' to a non-Jew to enable it to continue being worked during shmita], there is no such thing with regard to gardening for purposes of beautification," he noted. "We are obliged to carry out the rules of shmita in full and to ensure that the land lies completely fallow."

Not far from Kibbutz Lavi, at the Jewish National Fund's plant nursery at the Golani Junction, another chief gardener was also awaiting the end of the Jewish calendar year this week. Hiroi Amra is the director of the nursery, which provides all the JNF's saplings in the north of the country.

Amra stressed that he, too, made sure to follow the rabbinate's instructions for the shmita year. However, he and Kalil Adar, who is in charge of the JNF's visitors department in the western Galilee, noted that from time to time, they received special rabbinical permits for planting saplings - mainly in forests that were razed by fires ignited by the rocket barrages on the north during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Contrary to popular belief, which holds that shmita is a year of rest for farmers, Amra said that "from the point of view of work, the shmita year is a regular work year. We continued to produce saplings, but we had a strange feeling - we worked and worked, but the saplings remained here and were not distributed. But at the same time, shmita is a good and healthy thing for nature, because it is a year of rest for the soil."

Now that nature has finished resting, however, Amra and his colleagues at the nursery can expect plenty of work. Over the past few months, he began preparing for the planned plantings.

"First of all," he said, "I had to locate nurseries that keep the rules of shmita; these are nurseries that work according to our directions. They did not trim trees, nor did they fertilize them. All they did was water them."

At Lavi, Step and his colleagues were already making plans yesterday on how to begin their task of reviving the gardens and developing areas earmarked for development. "In fact, we will start everything from scratch," he said. "We have a lot of jobs, and a great deal of work is awaiting us."

Amra and his workers at the JNF nursery will also be under a lot of pressure. "In the near future, we will have a great deal of work here," Amra said. "We are expecting a rush on the nursery. There is a big thirst for saplings to plant now, and a great deal of demand from those who were prevented from planting over the shmita year just past."

Despite the hard work that awaits him, Adar described the first work day of the new year as "a happy day." He explained: "Our heart, and the heart of our business, is planting trees. To tell a forester that he can't plant is like impairing one of his vital organs. This is a major part of our work."

Of the past year, Adar said: "Nevertheless, we had a chance to pause for a moment, to look around and examine the things we did, to plan and develop for the future. Beyond that, being a forester does not merely mean planting. We were busy with all kinds of maintenance work - nurturing plants, preventing the illegal chopping down of trees, dealing with the trees' illnesses. Trees are like human beings; their health must be supervised and kept up."

Amra noted that "the major plantings will start when the rains come and the surface soil is ready. We will mainly plant natural forest trees, such as oaks, carobs, pistachios and Judas trees, along with conifers such as pines of various kinds, cedars and eucalyptus trees."

Adar expressed the hope that "when the plantings begin again, the rains will also start, and wash the soil well."