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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

My Struggles with Gardening

(Photo by photoMix – Pexels)

I had great hopes for my garden this year. I had great hopes last year too. But last year, I ended up harvesting 2 green peppers and 9 cherry tomatoes. That’s it. I gave my garden a C-. I was generous. This year’s garden is on a trajectory to merit the same grade. Probably lower. As I write this, my pepper plant (with one marble-sized pepper on it) is in ICU. My lone zinnia is in hospice. (I should explain that my garden consists of several large potted plants out on my second floor porch.) I ask myself, what’s wrong with my attempts to create a Garden of Eden with veggies ripening, pretty flowers in full bloom, and with me sitting on my lawn chair surrounded by lush green foliage and splashes of color everywhere?

I envision my porch to look something like this… It doesn’t… (photo by Jill Wellington – Pexels)

They say, the man who can’t dance, blames the floor. That’s me. I blame all kinds of things for why I’m virtually a failure at gardening. But there is one thing I CAN’T blame. I start with good plants. In early spring, my nephew, John, always calls me and asks, “Aunt Dolly, what kind of plants would you like this year?” I eagerly say, “What kind do you have?” And he lists all kinds of things he has started from seeds–with tender devotion: bell peppers, jalapenio peppers, rosemary, sweet basil, beefsteak tomatoes, orange jazz tomatoes, cabbage, geraniums, zinnias. I place my order and within a few days he delivers my plants–plus others for some of the Sisters living here.

So what do I blame for my mediocre gardens? I blame the sun. My porch faces northwest. I don’t get any sun until about 2:30 in the afternoon–and by then that old hot sun BAKES all my plants. (I just thought of something else I can blame: climate change!) Within minutes my plants begin to droop–so I have to lug them inside, pot by pot, just to keep them alive. My friends, Sisters Sandy and Eileen live on the other side of the building where they get the morning sun. Both have lush gardens. One of Sandy’s tomato plants (from my nephew) already has one tomato bigger than a tennis ball. Which only proves my point.

Is there anything better than the taste of a homegrown tomato? (Photo by Roman Odintsov – Pexels)

Next, I blame the wind. My porch gets the full brunt of any winds from the west or north. When those winds kicked up recently, I glanced out on my porch and sure, enough, there’s my tallest tomato plant lying on its side and whimpering, “Help me up! Somebody please help me up!” I’ve now learned to bring him inside at the first sign of strong winds. At this writing, my tomato plant has four yellow flowers on it. So “Hope springs eternal…”

I blame the soil. I buy decent potting soil–but not the most expensive kind. I tend to be frugal. (My friends say I’m cheap.) There’s something about buying dirt that really irks me. It’s like buying water and air. Shouldn’t all human beings have free access to a certain amount of dirt, water, and air? But I must confess, when I’ve run out of good, new soil–because I’m frugal–I use dirt from the previous year. Probably not a good idea.

I also blame my mediocre gardens on my lack of time. After all, I’m a very busy lady giving talks and retreats, writing articles and books, going out for ice-cream with friends, playing solitaire on my ipad, and praying every day. I thought I’d stick that last one in. After all, if I didn’t pray every day, I’d have much more time to spend on my garden. And yes, my struggles with my garden have reminded me to pray for farmers every day! But the fact remains, I’m sure I would grow a beautiful garden, if I had more time. But I don’t, so I can’t.

Some people make gardening look easy. I am not one of those people. (Photo by Min An – Pexels)

And finally, I blame my lack of patience. It’s funny. I have patience for lots of other things–like writing, for example. But for some reason, I am not patient with gardening. My Dad and Mom were both gardeners par excellence–so were my siblings. My brother Paul just dished out $200 for a couple of those big cages for his few tomato plants to prevent the neighborhood deer from eating his crop! (His wife says at this rate they’ll be paying $10 for each tomato they harvest!) I wonder: did I NOT receive the “gardening gene”? If so, then I have one more thing I can blame: genetcs!

But despite my struggles with gardening, I know that when John calls me next spring and asks, “Aunt Dolly, what kind of plants would you like this year?” I’ll say, “What kind do you have?” And I’ll place my order. Eagerly. And with lots of hope.

I mentioned Sr. Eileen’s flowers on her balcony. Here’s one portion of them!

For reflection:

What has been your experience with gardening?

If you like to garden, what do you like about it?

Are there any other qualities you think good gardeners must have?

Our video is a children’s song called “The Garden Song,” was written by David Mallett. Here it is sung by David Grover and the Big Bear Band. Feel free to sing along–especially with the chorus!

I encourage you to repond to this reflection below. We’d all enjoy hearing from you!

44 Responses

  1. Ive tried different aspects of gardening…in small scales but most efforts ended in bugs..alot of watering…tedious fertilizing knowledge. The result is now i have a pretty garden in pots and hanging baskets made out of plastic and silk flowers that never have bugs or watering issues…

    1. Hi Sr. Melannie,

      Myself, Sr. Manjushree, SND from India, Patna, your Birthday partner!:) As always, its a joy to read your blog. I love gardening too… try out… take risks to figure out solutions to ease the problems of sick plants, like dig them out to check the roots… trim the roots if sickly and re – plant them… it worked with Brazilian Wild Petunia that was drooping day – by – day.

      I love collecting variety of plants wherever I go… should I call it my weakness?:)

      1. What a joy to hear from you, Manjushree–all the way from Patna! I admire your attentiveness to your Brazilian Wild Petunia and your willingness to take risks! Attentiveness and risk taking are two other qualities gardeners need! Thanks so much for writing! Melannie

    2. Pat, At least I have no bugs. Yet. And no critters up on the second floor to eat my flowers and veggies. Yes, some “artificial” plants and flowers look so real, they can fool many of us. I’m glad you found peace with your gardening skills! Melannie

  2. Good morning, Sr. Melannie (Dolly!)…
    Good morning, all…

    I was once given a plant to put in my classroom that was supposedly the lowest maintenance plant since the Garden of Eden. I was told, “Don’t worry, this plant cannot die.” Well in about two weeks it did die! And I even watered it a couple of times! Right now my tiny yard is filled with beautiful blooms. Why? My wife, Kerry! She was definitely born with a green thumb. Do I have anything to do with all these blossoms? Yes! She gives me a list of what she wants and dispatches me to the local garden center. And indeed that list includes excellent potting soil. I go there and come back, and she does the rest. It’s been hot around here lately, and so from time to time I’m tasked with bringing water to our multi-colored visitors who will vacation with us until autumn. It’s literally the LEAST I can do!

    1. John, Thanks for humbly sharing your “failures” at keeping plants alive… (I know you’ve achieved success in the classroom and in the publication of your poetry books!) As for the flowers you enjoy, good thing you have Kerry… and you’re willing to invest in “excellent potting soil.” Continue to enjoy your “multi-colored” visitors all the way to aumtumn! Melannie

  3. Your sense of humor & light heartedness made me smile! I don’t have much of a green thumb in my own docile, but this year I toiled for days to prepare 4 large raised beds at my daughter’s new home. She was convinced nothing would grow but lo & behold there is a surplus of zucchini, cucumbers, herbs, & various peppers I could sell at a stand at the West Side Market! Instead, I’ve been sharing the harvest with some of her neighbors for which they marvel at the size & unblemished flesh that one might consider them straight from a professional farm!

    I enjoy gardening & tending to new plants in the hopes that I can help them do their job, so I water, weed, & talk to them. The results are amazing. Working the soil & waiting for items I can harvest teach me patience &affird me the time to appreciate nature’s clock,

    Maybe it’s my nature to nurture; as an educator the same principles apply. Whether it be vulnerable plants or children in a classroom, I strive to use the gifts & talents God gave me to care about & for something besides falling into a selfish trap that begs me to complain & lament. What a waste of time! So my escape in to the garden becomes a type of therapy which sustains & keeps me one with God through His earthly creations.

    Loved the song! I will be passing this on for sure.

  4. Carol, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. I applaud your success at producing veggies that look pretty enough for the West Side Market! And I appreciate your willingness to share the bounty of your garden with others! And I especially loved your words that gardening teaches you patience and affords you the time “to appreciare nature’s clock.” Thanks for writing! Melannie

  5. You writings are amazing. Thank you. I really enjoyed this one.

    I love vegetables homegrown and flowers galore, BUT I am not a gardener either but blessed by being married to one. He can make anything grow beautifully. He grows tulips in the winter in pots in our basement He can take a sick plant and nurse it back to health. He worked in a garden from age 6 on and believe me he learned a lot as he definitely has a green thumb. I cannot wait for those tomatoes to be ready! They are always delicious! Have a blessed day.

    1. Kathy, How nice it must be to be married to a great gardener! Obviously you appreciate your husband’s skills–and the work of his hands! As for those tomatoes, I remember as kids going out to the tomato patch with a salt shaker, picking the first ripe tomatoes, wiping off some of the dirt on our shirts, and eating the tomato outside in the garden! There’s nothing like biting into that first ripe tomato of the season a few seconds after it was picked! Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog and respond to it! Melannie

  6. Good morning, Sr. Melanie!
    Thank you for the smiles and chuckles this morning! I look forward to your blog every Monday and have shared with so many people! My husband is an amazing gardener here in N. Texas. The thing I have noticed, is that gardening is HARD WORK! He is dedicated to it and is always planning for the next year’s garden. He also says there is a lot of luck, as we get hail and all sorts of weather here.
    I also wanted to ask you if there was a place I could send you an idea for your blog…where I could enclose a photo or two? I think you would like it.
    I graduated from Bishop Watterson in Columbus many years ago….I love my Ohio roots and you add to my love for Ohio, even though I do adore Texas, and love my life here. Many blessings!

    1. Mary, Thank you for pointing out that gardening involves both hard work and luck… I’ll contact you personally about your question… Glad to know you still love your Ohio roots! Thanks for writing! Melannie

    1. Jim, I’ll tell my brother what you said! He’ll appreciate your understanding! Melannie

  7. Many years ago, I attended a talk with a local horticulturalist, while I do not remember his name, I do remember the message: What is the difference between a great gardener and a so-so gardener? A great gardener knows when it is time to give up and toss the project into the compost bin. With this insight, I have found much peace in my garden.

    Thank you for all you do Auntie Dolly!

    1. Patricia, I love that horticulturalist’s comment… and I’m glad you’ve found peace. Thank you for sharing! Aunt Dolly

  8. This brought back so many memories. Both my parents grew up on farms, so, of course, my family had a large garden. We spent our spring and summers planting, weeding, watering, and then picking, preparing, canning, freezing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And, I better add, eating too! There is nothing like a fresh-picked tomato! We also shared our harvest with relatives and neighbors. It was a lot of work, but looking back how blessed we were to be out in the fresh air, working the soil, and learning the delicious benefits of hard work.

    1. Regina, Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories with us! I could really relate to the planting, weeding, watering and picking–mostly with the picking, canning, and freezing. And Eating, of course! Yes, how “blessed we were…” Melannie

  9. Dear Sister,
    I have read and been inspired by your reflections for many years, mostly in “Living Faith.” One of my spiritual directees forwarded me your blog just now and it made me smile. And chuckle! I had just come in from tending my own garden complete with zinnias, cucumbers, ETC. I live in South Louisiana where the sun shines bright and hot and it sometimes rains. (Sister, those flowers need more sun!) I’m praying for more rain and less heat than last summer in my piece of the earth, but those zinnias are the “toughest blooms in the garden!” They will thrive regardless in the heat and sunshine!
    As a spiritual and retreat direcor myself, I gave a morning of relfection on Saturday called, “Cultivating the Garden of My Soul.” I know you do that well and help others to do the same! Nevertheless, I hope you have better luck with your gardening. Perhaps you need some plants that will thrive on your little balcony. You could ask the “Grumpy Gardener!” God bless you and your inspiring efforts! Mostly your beautiful writing.

    1. Robin, Thank you for your wise words… My zinnia never looked “tough.” But you’re right. I probably have to do more research… But we’ve had such hot, hot days already this June!…Today was a pleasant day, but it’s 7:00 pm and it’s still 87 degrees on my porch… (sigh!) It was good hearing from you! Melannie

  10. Yeah, gardening is not my schtick either. I just tell people I don’t garden (better than admitting I’m a failure) and that’s why they have Farmers Markets. I appreciate those wonderful people who CAN successfully grow things to eat and are willing to do that work and share with us. And am willing to spend my money for fresh veggies and fruits. So, thank you Lord, for gardeners who share and for their successful harvests.

    1. Patt, I chuckled at your second sentence! I sense you’re a kindred spirit with me!… And I agree that we must appreciate all those wonderful people who CAN garden and SHARE the fruits (or vegetables) of their hard labor with us! Thanks for writing! Melannie

  11. Good morning Melannie and all. Your post today made me laugh out loud, I can relate. I struggled with gardening in the yard at my house in Parma. Between clay like soil and feeding deer, it was a challenge and surely taught patience. I’m now in a ground floor with a patio that faces south providing shade in the morning and bright sun from the west in the afternoon. Everything I grow is in pots and a wood planter my brother built for me a few years ago. I look for plants that are shade and sun tolerant and use a good fertilizer (Miracle Grow). Have found geraniums and variety of begonias thrive well. I did have a huge cherry tomato plant potted and repotted 3 times to keep it from falling over. Gave up on that challenge last year. Like most challenges in life I’ve learned patience, love and appreciation for all God’s gifts in nature while watching my patio pot garden grow. You have the gift of words and the blessing of sharing those words in speech and writing with which you grace thousands of people. Maybe that’s your garden?
    Talk to your nephew, maybe he can give you some gardener’s tips to help your porch garden grow. Good luck and don’t give up.

    1. Loretta, Another Sister gardener shared some of her Miracle Grow with me, so I’m hoping that helps… And my geranium is doing well–as are my yellow petunias…Thanks so much for saying that maybe my writing is my garden… That’s sweet! Melannie

  12. What a wildly humorous post today, Melannie. We always had gardens–at my family home and at the Motherhouse. Like you, time seems to prevent me from gardening and I miss it.
    So I have ‘garden dreams,’meaning I dream of what I want to plant and where and if I get the chance, I do it. If not, well, there is always next year. Keep it as a dream!!! Mary Ann, SC

    1. Mary Ann, You gave me some good advice: Keep gardening as my dream. I always say we need to take some of our dreams into paradise. Maybe you and I will have our two gardens next to each other in heaven. That would be fun! Melannie

  13. Hi Melanie,

    I think your big problem is lack of sun. Most vegetables and annuals need full sun, (6-8 hours a day)especially tomatoes. I would look online for vegetables that can grow without full sun—I know lettuce can, like green leaf and red leaf, and I’m sure there are others. Some annuals prefer a lot of shade, like impatiens. It is discouraging not to have plants thrive, but I think the first step is picking ones that work on your balcony. Lots of info online re this. Good luck.

    1. Sue, Thank you for your wise advice… At the advice of the woman at the nursery, I did get impatiens that tolerate sun. Most prefer shade. Yes, there’s “lots of info online.” After the end of this year’s garden, I’ll take some notes for next year. Thanks for taking the time to write! Melannie

  14. Dear Sister,
    As I read your post, I could relate to every word. I love flowers, but I normally try to go for the very hardy perennials. Your story, however, reminded me of something so much deeper than the love of flowers themselves. My grandfather who was orphaned in England as a child, sent to Canada to work farms there, and eventually (and thankfully!) came to the United States.
    He was such a gifted gardener and he would always plant a wonderful garden of vegetable and flowers at our home. I can remember walking up to the bus stop with my sister when we knew he was on his way. How happy we were to see him climb off the bus to spend time in the garden with us. Though he worked hard in both our garden and his own, it was how we learned about a place of peace, the victory of hard work and the joy of nature’s beauty…. from just plants and a dear soul in our lives.

    1. Joyce, I was really touched by the memories of you dear grandfather. And what precious life-long lessons he bequeathed to you: having a place of peace… the victory of hard work, and the joy of nature’s beauty.” Thank you for sharing those with us! Melannie

  15. Hello Melanie. I so appreciate your weekly blog. Your creative style makes me laugh, ponder and thank God you share with all of us. When 5 of us lived in what we called the “little White House” across from our Motherhouse, 3 of us loved to plant some veggies & some flowering plants across the front of the house. One year Marty & Jean bought 72 marigolds for me to plant. A few days later, Marty was out giving all a good dose of water. She noted a whole section was empty & knew I had planted there. Before her very eyes, she watched a marigold disappear below ground. The local voles had a feast for themselves! Voles are similar to moles& VERY hard to control.
    We changed to planting our summertime flowers in large pots from then on.

    1. Judith, What a story! The disappearing marigold right before your eyes! Many neighborhoods have deer (like my brother’s). Someone said that the deer think of the flowers, vegetables, and shrubs we plant as “their salad bowl.” It’s all part of the struggle with gardening… Thanks for sharing your story. I admire you for planting 72 marigolds! Melannie

    1. Rita, When I read your words, I recalled this quote I’m using in my new book which is coming out later this year. “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” It was said by Audrey Hepburn… Thank you for your words! Melannie

  16. I have gardened all my life… up until this year. My legs & hips won’t let me. My age & Texas hot suns have done me in. I just bought some beautiful Vincas, & 1/2 of them have died. No clue why?!
    I’ll wait til they are all dead & put a rock garden in! So, I know how you feel.
    Loved reading your story. I can really relate.

    1. Sue, How hard it must be to have to let go of something that gave you such joy… But I applaud your decision to put in a rock garden instead. You’re still creating beauty, and that’s the important part… Thank you for your touching comment. I’m sure many (like me!) could relate to the difficult reality of “letting go”… Melannie

  17. Good morning Melannie,
    I always enjoy your blogs. Some give me Ideas for the virtual bible study I write each week. With your own garden keep trying and use plants that can grow in your enviroment.The box stores have inexpensive top soil and dried cow manure, Mix together for an inexpensive potting soil mix. Here is one of my favorite poems.The poem “God’s Garden” was written by Dorothy Frances Gurney and was published in 1913. A garden is often a metaphor for heaven and some of the first gardens were those created around monasteries.
    The Lord God planted a garden
    In the first days of the world,
    And he set there an angel warden
    In a garment of light unfurled.

    So near to the peace of Heaven
    That the hawk might nest with the wren,
    For there in the cool of even
    God walked with the first of men.

    And I dream that these garden-closes
    With their shade and their sun-flecked sod
    And their lilies and bowers of roses,
    Were laid by the hand of God.

    The kiss of the sun for pardon
    The song of the birds for mirth
    One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
    Than anywhere else on earth.

    Plant like you are going to live Forever, God’s Blessings,


  19. Sister Melanie, your post this week answered a prayer. I am a good gardener; I have my Master Gardener certification from Washington State University. But I have recently bit off more than I can chew. My passion is to create beauty outdoors, to care for Mother Nature and God’s gifts in the natural world. We are just starting year 4 in a new location with 10 acres and endless work. Gophers & deer, extremely harsh conditions with temperatures from 110º in the summer to -25º in the winter. My spine is starting to get in the way of all I want to accomplish in the garden. I was just in tears wondering if it is time to sell the place and move back to a more reasonable situation. I was asking God for guidance about what he has in mind for me at this stage of my life. After my prayers, I decided to check my email and found your post. It felt like an instant response. After reading all the comments here, I realized a few things: anyone who tries to garden on any level–on 10 acres, or in pots on the balcony–faces the same basic challenges. And in this life there will always be challenges that provide good learning. The garden is just a metaphor. A back-breaking, hard-labor metaphor if that’s what you choose. Blooming where one is planted is one of our biggest challenges of all in this life. Accepting the conditions we have, and working within our given limitations should be a simple proposition–except I have never met a gardener yet who has mastered it. You are going to have to accept that tomatoes and zinnias in a northwest location in pots on a windy balcony are not the right formula for success. I am going to have to accept that tackling the landscaping on 10 acres as a 61-year old female with a damaged spine is not the right formula for success. I feel so much better already. My challenge is clear to me at this moment: accept my current reality and work within the boundaries God has given me. Thank you as always for your beautiful reflections and for presenting such a wide range of topics. This post was just what I needed!

  20. Good morning Sr. Melannie. I am not good with any growing things except weeds. One year I decided to let one grow to see how big it would get. Big mistake that guy grew to 6 feet and rather quickly. My youngest brother made a surprise visit and was horrified. He is an excellent gardener. My mom was too with flowers and my dad tried his hand at vegetables so he could can them. He stopped because he had two jobs to keep the 7 of us kids fed and clothed. He continued the canning every fall after several trips to The West Side Market. I did not like the work involved with cleaning and preparing the vegetables and fruits for canning but I did love eating his finished products all year long.
    On a side note, my paternal grandparents had a farm in Pulaski, Tennessee. It failed in the summer of 1953 due to a drought. My dad, uncle, and grandfather came to Ohio because Chevrolet was hiring in its factory here. I am extremely grateful for that because Dad met Mom and they married in January 1954. After a couple of years my uncle and grandfather went back to the farm, but my dad knew his city girl would not like the primitive conditions of the farm- no running water or electricity. Dad and his sister helped put in electricity in the 1960’s but the old farm house never did have running water. We had fun there every August helping with the work in the fields and caring for their two cows. I am extremely grateful for the hard work farmers put in everyday. I see what a toll it puts on their bodies and minds especially with all the climate changes our world is experiencing.
    Thanks for your blog. I agree that your writings are your beautiful garden. God bless.

  21. Dear Melanie, You made me laugh about your garden. I read it out loud to my family and they all had a good laugh! We have experienced the same in our garden…the fun of planting is seeing the plants grow even if we get one cucumber or one tomato!

  22. Sr Melanie,

    Thank you, I have seen my ministry of late as ‘planting seeds’ the mystery there is, waiting for the growth. Your words give hope.

    Kerry Crowley

  23. I am new to your blog, but am enjoying it so far. I am a fairly good gardener and have been gardening for many years with differing degrees of success. Due to back issues, I have recently resorted to growing only what I can safely fit into my raised bed – a box on legs. I get more than enough cherry tomatoes and green beans than my husband and I can use, so we share them with my son and his family and with neighbors when possible. The thought occurred to me that it might work better for you if you and your other gardening enthusiasts where you live, might pool your talents and resources and form a kind of community garden where everyone does the work and everyone enjoys the produce. Plants prefer large deep beds where they can stretch their roots and be “grounded” and nurtured by nature and many loving hands – kind of like a family – and like God’s family. God has gifted us each with different talents and capabilities that are to be shared for the benefit of all. Isn’t that what being Church is all about?
    I have been reading and enjoying your reflections for years in “Give Us This Day”!

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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