It was dusk and had just rained - a sweet, summer kind of rain. She walked through the beautiful, lush gardens. There was music playing in the background, and the breeze carried waves of distant conversation. Yet she walked, her long gown trailing over sopping ground, her fingers running through tall grasses, stopping only to smell the flowers. Such is my memory of a scene from the 1992 version of 'Howards End'. It was the lovely garden and the peaceful smile on Mrs. Wilcox's face that has and will stay with me for a long time. In her garden . . . she found peace and contentment.
From those pages of fictional England where 'even the air smells delicious', I find myself in my favorite spot in my house, and a few moments of quiet. It's a cold, rainy day in May which happens to be my 'off' day. I settle in with the long-awaited magazine, In Her Garden, and enter into another world of beautiful photos and essays. It's just what I need at this moment. A phrase catches my eye as it's woven through the pages: 'In my garden . . . ' and each author, in turn, shares what she finds in her garden. . . immense peace, inspiration, connection with nature, freedom, growth, memories . . .
I find it pretty amazing that such a place can provide a universal balm to the soul. It's incredible, really. If you've been following along, you may have noticed that my blogs have been pretty heavy lately. I find writing as a type of therapy, to sort things out, work through them as thoughts flow from heart through pen to paper, in this case, keyboard. The garden provides this for me as well. A walk down the Hellebore path, pulling a handful of chickweed, planting a few sweet pea seeds . . . it all does wonders for the spirit. In my garden . . . I find refreshment and restoration.
How can the garden, or even bigger than that - nature, offer such healing and solace? Nature is amazing - from the very smallest creature, to the mightiest oak, to the miracle of life contained within a seed, and the intricacy of a spider web - It's all amazing. There are scientific studies that show the mood-lifting benefits of digging in the soil, and I'm sure there are other studies that indicate the healing power of nature. But I have a theory of my own. Maybe it's being surrounded by beauty that refreshes, maybe it's the calming color of green that restores. Maybe, but I believe that through nature, we have an intimate connection with the Creator himself. God, maker of all things, is our true source of peace, inspiration, freedom, and joy. Through his creation, he offers us a place to just be for awhile. He shares with us the joy of watching things grow. He uses nature to nurture us. Even the psalmist says "He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul." (Psalm 23:2-3).
One my favorite things about the garden is that it's a place to be creative. This, too, is a gift from our heavenly Maker, who created the very first garden. Made in his image, we have been given the gift of creativity. We create tidy rows in the vegetable garden, combine colors in the flower garden, and arrange trees, shrubs, and perennials in our landscapes. We create spaces for gathering, spaces for kids to play, and spaces to start and end our day in. In the garden, we can creatively express ourselves, and this too, can be healing. "At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source." - Rachel Naomi Remen, MD.
The rain has stopped for now, and the garden calls, so into the garden I go for some plant therapy. In my garden. . . what do you find there?
Tomatoes love carrots. Sounds like a grade-school romance. Tomatoes and carrots, Marigolds and salad greens. Plant pairing has been around for a long time. Its history is filled with folklore passed from one generation to the next. Only recently has it been backed with scientific research. So keep reading for companion planting that really works and how!
Why practice companion planting?
As we become more aware of the importance of attracting pollinators to our yards, it makes sense to take the next step of creating a yard full of biodiversity - including in the vegetable garden. More diversity of plant species leads to a greater diversity of insects. Those insects feed on other insects that are wreaking havoc in our gardens. When this ecosystem is in balance, we gardeners can step back and let nature do its thing. We’ll have healthier plants, and use fewer pesticides.
Debunking a myth
Let’s begin with the marigold myth. A common practice is to plant marigolds around the vegetable garden to repel pests and rabbits. Research has shown that marigold’s strong odor does mask the smell of certain host plants and does keep insects at bay, but to a very specific pest. Planting marigolds with members of the onion family will deter onion root maggot flies. Marigolds are also effective when planted with broccoli and other brassicas to deter cabbage root maggot flies. And, by the way, marigolds do not repel rabbits. I’ve seen rabbits munching away on them.
Tomatoes actually love radishes. Young tomato seedlings can be susceptible to flea beetles, but the beetles prefer radish leaves, so interplanting radishes with tomatoes is an effective trap-crop technique. Tomatoes also love basil. When tall varieties of basil are planted around tomatoes, research has shown that it reduces the number of eggs laid by the five-spotted hawk moth that mature into tomato hornworms. Here are more examples:
Create a haven for beneficial insects
Most good bugs need more than protein sourced from their prey to survive. They also need pollen and sugary nectar to reproduce. Let’s go back to the tomato hornworm. It has a natural predator - the larvae form of a parasitic wasp. The adult parasitic wasp lays its eggs under the skin of the hornworm. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm, eating their way out. The adult form - the parasitic wasp - requires sugars found in flower nectar. This is also true of ladybugs and lacewings and many more beneficial insects. We can create an environment for these beneficials in two ways: by planting specific nectar plants for specific beneficials, and by including a large diversity of flowers to attract and sustain a broad spectrum of beneficials.
As you plant your vegetable garden this spring, consider using a few of these simple techniques to grow healthier plants in a natural way. Get yourself a good book to learn more about it. I recommend Plant Partners by Jessica Walliser. You can also explore this topic further by joining me for a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 pm. Register here.
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.
Some things are so beautiful, I can’t help but stop and admire.
Usually it’s nature that catches my eye and steals the breath with it's stunning beauty. Driving past this wrought iron gate had the same affect – caught the eye, pulled off the road, had to get closer to take it all in. Graceful curves, white aged to yellow, chipped and rusted, but to me it was beautiful. What struck me most was the contrast – strong iron shaped into gentle curves. How many years had it stood here? How many storms had it endured? Strong yet so graceful. How hot was the fire that softened hard iron to form beautiful swooshes and swirls?
I see the same beauty in someone close who battled the ugliness of cancer with such grace. Keeping her eyes focused on the ultimate Grace-giver was reflected in her response to what life had handed her. Through the firestorm, her strong faith unwavering was beautiful. Grace under pressure.
Long seasons of testing and trials are made up of small moments that define us. Like fire, they can refine making us stronger or they can consume and weaken us. I think of this as I stand on what seems a mountain of whys and unanswered questions. Trying to be strong as I move forward through the day, my breath a constant prayer, at times I feel I could crumble under the sheer weight of it all.
'. . . we are weak, but He is strong'. Those songs learned at a young age can be such a comfort! Yes, Jesus does love me. He is strong. And it's in that strength, HIS strength, that I can draw strength and find peace; it's in His grace that I see blessings that are still here, amidst all the uncertainty. And I know that all of this is grace.
Maybe you're not in a season like that. The truth is that we all face small everyday fires that can define and refine us. The question is, how do we respond when in the midst of those everyday fires . . .
to the heated moments of a stressful day?
to gossip that surrounds, or pain that hounds?
to words that sting and tempers that flare?
It’s in our nature to react to these pressures of fire with more fire: to be unkind when treated unkindly, to give anger when shown anger, to lash out when lashed at, to break under pressure. But what if we respond with what’s unexpected - kindness. What if we respond with what is undeserved - grace. What if we see our situation as an opportunity?
Each small moment fire can be an opportunity to reflect the undeserved love - unmerited favor - the grace God has shown us. When we react to moments of pressure or a season of trials with a posture of grace, our unexpected response and our attitude could stop fire’s fury, catch the eye, and be something beautiful. Just like that wrought iron gate. Grace under pressure.
May God use whatever fire is in our moments to make us stronger and be a reflection of his grace. ‘Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus’. 2 Timothy 2:1
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.
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!