It's the month of April, and the 'Sweet Lillian' Amaryllis that I planted back in December finally is blooming. The bulb, buried up to her shoulders in potting mix, sat for what seemed forever. Daily I watched and waited, wondering if she was going to bloom this year or not.
Nature has its own timing. Flowers bloom and the seasons change on their own schedule, not ours, and yet each season comes when the time is right. Nature doesn't hurry. There's comfort in knowing this as I grow impatient at times during this season of waiting and overwhelm that I find myself in.
Maybe it's in this feeling of overwhelm that solace is found in the simple; that time spent watching the sky slowly change is calming and peaceful. Lately I've been fascinated with it. Every morning a new painting as the sun rises, every evening shades of pinks, blues, and oranges as the sun sets, and in between, the painting on the celestial canvas is ever changing - never the same. Yet the sky isn't always a blue ocean of cotton candy clouds. It can be filled with darkness heavy with storms that are not calming or peaceful.
These stormy skies of life have been dominating as of late, and the culminating overwhelm finally needs a release. So I succumb to tears that have been just below the surface the last few days. Like rain, they come in heavy. Then slow deep breaths as the storm within subsides, and it's then that I hear it . . . 'Be still. Be still and know. . . that I am God'. Suddenly peace pours in, filling me up with each breath. He knows. God knows. He sees, and he is in control. And he is working. Right now, as I sit in this pot, buried up to my shoulders, he is working - and I am slowly growing.
As author Kaitlyn Bouchillon wrote in a recent Instagram post:
"If you’re feeling buried right now . . . Can I just quietly whisper that perhaps you’ve actually been planted? There’s more to come. This is not even close to the end."
Yes! Planted is so much better than being buried, right? And when we are planted, the best thing to do is soak in the light of the sun (Son), and grow. Maybe this is the purpose of waiting - to grow slowly. I think of the Amaryllis bulb. It looked like nothing was happening, but underneath, in the darkness of the soil, roots were forming, growing slow. As we wait on God and trust his timing, we are growing, too. And when the time is right . . . blooms!
There's something else that I'm reminded of as I watch the sky: God is an amazing artist, creating these living paintings for us every single day. What a beautiful reminder that He is present! Every moment of every day, He is here with us, calming our storms, working while we wait, and nurturing us as we grow. The blessings are there, we only need to open our eyes to see. Hope, peace, contentment, and joy can exist in the waiting. So let the calm fill us, continue to look up, and let those roots slowly grow.
In her book ‘Garden Maker’, Christie Purifoy writes, “Flower gardens don’t begin with flowers. They don’t even begin with seed. They begin with desire and vision, and they begin with dirt.”
It’s this latter element, “dirt” that we are learning more and more about its importance in the health of our plants. First, let’s give it a better name: soil. Soil health is the secret sauce in growing healthy plants in the landscape, in containers, and in the vegetable garden.
What is healthy soil?
First some basics about soil:
How do we achieve healthy soil?
If you are starting a new garden, try the no-dig approach and build your growing bed on top of the ground. Begin with layers of cardboard and newspaper, then add layers of greens and browns which are the ingredients for compost! You can even do this in raised beds. As with all things in nature, it takes time for the layers to break down. Adding topsoil or good compost into the layer mix will speed things up because they contain those hungry microbes.
In existing gardens, adding compost to the beds in the fall is the best time, but a spring application is effective, too. Some vegetable gardeners will add compost between summer and fall crops.
What kind of compost? The best kind of compost is free and in your backyard! Leaf compost is the best amendment for vegetable gardens as well as ornamental beds. This spring you may need to find a supplier, but commit to mulching and composting the leaves from your trees and your neighbor’s trees this fall.
Adding microbes to the soil at planting time is another way to work towards healthy soil. Often they are available in liquid form. A tip that I have learned is that the most effective liquid forms of microbes need to be kept chilled. Dry soil additives that contain mycorrhizae such as Espoma’s Bio-tone Starter are also beneficial. Use when planting and transplanting vegetables, perennials, trees, and shrubs.
And one more free, easy practice to improve soil health is in the perennial garden. Spring is often when we cut back any remaining dead stems. Cut the stems into 4-6” pieces and leave them there - right by the plants. The dead material will break down and provide food for the soil microbes right where it’s needed - by the plant roots. This can be a difficult practice to embrace because we love the look of a neat, tidy, freshly-mulched bed. But by letting go of what WE like, it is actually benefiting the plants, the pollinators, and in the end, us. Be part of the circle and try this new gardening ethic.
So there you have it. The secret to having a healthy garden has been there right under our noses - or rather under our feet - the whole time.
If you'd like to learn more about building healthy soil, join me for our next 'Let's Talk Plants" - a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 pm. Register by emailing me at email@example.com.
Planting with Purpose - Using Keystone Native Plants
Isn’t it fascinating to sit and watch butterflies flit from flower to flower? One of the most memorable moments of mine was at the Rotary Gardens in Janesville in the Children’s Garden. Movement filled the entire stretch of the zinnia border - it was a butterfly haven! It was magical and spellbinding. I could have stood there for hours mesmerized. And I’m not the only one. The ‘planting for pollinator’ movement is growing with 1 out of 4 Americans purchasing plants specifically to attract pollinators in 2021.
This leads to the next question: do certain plants attract more pollinators than others? To answer that, we need to take a step back and begin with the caterpillars. They support our food web and native plants, in turn, support them. In fact 14% of our native plants support 90% of the various butterfly and moth species! This tells us that not all native plants are created equal. The ‘key’ is to use keystone plants - those that attract the most species of caterpillars. And from there, we can dig even deeper into the keystone native plants that are native to our specific area.
Here in Southeastern Wisconsin, we are part of the Eastern Temperate Forest ecoregion. Keystone native plants for our ecoregion fall into two categories: those that are host plants supporting caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and those that also provide pollen for the native bee population both specialists and generalists. The top caterpillar-supporting keystone trees for us to add to our landscapes are:
Compare that with a tree like Stewartia, which is a beautiful tree, but only supports one type of caterpillar species.
The top two keystone native shrubs that support both caterpillars and provide pollen for native bees:
We know the importance of incorporating natives into our personal habitats, but can you see how this added information can influence our native plant purchases so we are planting even more intentionally and more effectively? It’s extremely exciting!
You can learn more at nwf.org/keystoneplants where this data was taken from. Also consider joining our virtual discussion on this topic coming up in March (see below). Keep the movement going by planting natives which benefits all of us. Happy growing!
Tracy Hankwitz is a horticulture adjunct for Gateway Technical College and owner of Bella Botanica LLC located in Springfield, WI. Explore this topic further by joining her for a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:30 pm. Register here.
It's 6:30 am and the sky is still dark.
Only a few days before Christmas arrives. Wanting to start the day with a little quiet time, I find myself in the living room on the couch with only the lights of the Christmas tree to keep me company. I think back to when my four kids were still under this roof. There was a lot more activity in those days leading up to Christmas - more concerts, parties, shopping trips, and admittedly - more chaos. But watching the anticipation and excitement of the wait build in my kids is something I still treasure. We'd open doors on the little Advent calendar hung on the frig, and light the Advent candles as many evenings as we could, counting down the days until Christmas Eve.
Now that the nest is empty, there's more moments of quiet and calm. I'm learning to appreciate each season of life and the changes that tag along, but I'm savoring the constants as well - like the sky is still dark at 6:30 am on a mid-December morning. And there is still excitement that builds during the wait for Christmas' arrival.
But waiting isn't always fun and excitement. Sometimes the wait is hard. Sometimes it feels like I'm holding my breath, and worry can sneak into my days - depending on the situation. Waiting for a diagnosis, a job offer, for reconciliation with a loved one . . . we all are waiting for something.
I think of Mary as she waited for the birth of her baby. I imagine she was filled with anxiety of the unknowns that lay ahead. She must have waited in wonder, that of all the women through all of time, she was carrying God's son. She waited with with joy when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her with great praise. She waited with bravery, willing to take on what God was asking of her - to carry the Messiah as a virgin. She waited filled with peace, placing her trust in God and his promise.
And while she waited, God was working in her - growing in her.
This forces me to look in the mirror and examine my own waiting posture. Like Mary, I wait with a mix of emotions - anxiety of the unknown, impatient for an answer and resolution right now. At times I wait in wonder, perplexed at why the answers are so evasive. But there is also peace and contentment in the waiting because I know God is working things out for my good. Even joy finds a place when I focus on the blessings, no matter how small. It's in those moments that I see the wonder of His grace and love.
Yet the wait can seem long. We wait for Christmas - it always comes. We wait for spring - it always comes. We wait for answers - and the answers always come - not always with the speed and surety that we crave. Sometimes its 'yes', sometimes its a 'no', because there's something different, and maybe even better, that's coming; and other times its 'not yet'. Through it all, I have learned this: in the waiting, God has not forgotten us. He is working behind the scenes, growing in us. He asks that we be still and trust him because He is God and He is good. His love for us is a constant that we can hold on to.
So my prayer for each of you is that you unwrap the gifts of joy and peace as you wait, no matter what you are waiting for. If you are holding your breath and are filled with worry, may you find moments to breathe deeply, to pray, and to be calmed by His presence. May you find contentment, and know that you are growing while you wait.
And for this week, in these next few days, may your wait be filled with wonder - the wonder of Christmas. May we all see it through the eyes of a child again.
‘How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!’
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson
It comes quietly. The soft snow slowly spirals down covering branch, leaf, and earth. The first snowfall is always a bit magical, gently signaling that winter is at the doorstep. How do you greet winter - with a sigh, a grumble, or quiet cheer? Though outside the landscape will lie dormant in shades of white, gray, and brown for the next few months, color and growth can be found inside our homes in our indoor gardens.
Tending to those houseplants teaches us lessons of patience and nurtures our spirit, but there is something especially wonder-filled about watching an Amaryllis emerge from, let’s be honest, an ugly bulb. Nestling it into a warm bed of rich brown potting mix exposing its shoulders in a pretty pot is a lesson in faith and hope. That unassuming bulb is full of potential beauty! So we plant. Then we wait.
A green tip begins to emerge! We watch as it pushes up from its cocoon, stretching and reaching. Then, with bated breath, we witness not one, not two, not even three, but four buds swell. A glimpse of color is revealed right before the miracle comes into its full glory. Like wings of a butterfly, the flowers fully open, and nothing else can compare with their beauty. The subtle colors of the slumbering landscape outside the window make the perfect backdrop for the bright, bold colors of this horticulture diva. Can there be any question why Amaryllis means ‘to sparkle’?
Amaryllis flowers come in many colors: deep burgundies, pure whites, rich reds, and elegant stripes. There’s even a terra cotta hue with a burgundy throat and white edging each petal. It’s amazing these lovely plants come with such little demands. All they ask is that you enjoy their beauty. Perhaps this is what is meant by the art and soul of winter: to plant hope, see the beauty in this season, and share it with others.
What a gift of wonder! Who can you share it with?
Learn more about growing Amaryllis here.
What do you find calming? For me it's always been lavender. I remember taking Lamaze classes when pregnant for the first time. They told me to picture in my mind a scene that calms me, so when the contractions get to be too much, visualizing that place would help. My scene of choice? A field of blooming lavender.
That was 30 years ago, and to this day, that is still my mind's calm place to go - walking through those rows and rows of lavender. A couple years ago, I finally visited one and that was such a treat. We tasted and smelled all the lavender things from hand soaps to ice cream.
I'm not the only one who has this affection for lavender. In 2017, July 9th was declared National Lavender Day as a way to draw attention to all the lavender growers and the lavender industry here in the US. Mid-summer thousands flock to Washington Island to see the fields of lavender. Closer to home, New Life Lavender Farm, in Baraboo, WI is a wonderful place to visit.
How to Grow Lavender
It's not an easy plant to grow here in SE Wisconsin. Of the two hardy varieties, 'Munstead' and 'Hidcote', 'Hidcote' has given me the best luck. Both have that wonderful fragrance, but 'Hidcote's' blooms are a deep purple. 'Hidcote' is also one of the top five varieties with the best flavor. Lavender needs full sun and well-drained soil, so if you have clay soil, it may not be happy there.
If you haven't had luck with hardy lavenders, then treat yourself to Spanish lavender. Enjoy it in it's pot for the summer and fall, then try to winter it over indoors.
Other varieties of note:
'Grosso' has the most concentrated oils so is the most fragrance. It's long stems lend well to lavender wands. Not hardy here, but worth growing in a container all summer.
'Goodwin Creek' is the best variety as a houseplant.
If you are growing lavender for culinary use, look for organically-grown lavender.
When to Harvest Lavender
How you intend to use lavender determines when to harvest it. If used in the kitchen for baking, pick before the flower buds have opened - when the buds are tight. If using it medicinally or aromatically, then pick the flowers as they begin to open. Dry the stems upside down bundled with rubber bands.
How to Use Lavender
Even if you don't grow lavender, you can experience it's calming effects in the form of essential oil. Diffuse it, spritz it on your pillow case before drifting off to sleep, use the oil on bug bites to stop the itching. If you have the flowers, fill sachets with them and tuck them into your drawers.
Below is a fun, easy way to venture into it's culinary uses. Try something new and explore how to make this aromatic herb part of your lifestyle.
4 cups of filtered water
1 cup sugar or honey
2 Tbsp dried lavender buds or 4 Tbsp of fresh buds
1 cup lemon juice, fresh squeezed
lavender sprigs for garnish
1. Combine water, sugar or honey, and lavender in a saucepan and heat for approximately 10 minutes or until the mixture begins to boil. Remove from the heat and allow to steep until cool, about 20 minutes.
2. Pour the mixture through a fine-screened colander or cheesecloth into a pitcher. Add the lemon juice and stir. Serve in glasses filled with ice and garnished with a lavender sprig or lemon wheel.
Recipe from The Lavender Lover's Handbook by Sarah Berringer Bader
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!