The Zen of Gardening

  • By:  Melissa Page Deutsch

Six years ago, I took a psychology class at ODU and did a visioning exercise where I described my ideal future self. My best possible world, I decided, would include robust health, fulfilling work, and loving relationships. Of course.

But I yearned for one more element, long missing in my adult life. “And I am surrounded by house plants that I can keep alive,” I typed, my world now complete.

I love flourishing plants and all kinds of gardens, but I’m not very talented at keeping green things alive. Even though I have the best intentions when I buy a six-pack of tiny green sprouts (“These are bullet-proof,” the garden store employee says. “You can’t kill them.”), over the course of a month or so, you can guess what happens to these unsuspecting flowers, tomato plants, and ground covers. I’d prefer not to go into the grisly details.

Still, each April that hardiest of perennials—hope—springs in my heart, and I find myself once again at the garden center. “Maybe this time I’ll keep my seedlings alive!” I think.

A month later, with my new plants struggling, I find myself gazing upon the finished product of a devoted gardener’s work with a mixture of admiration and resignation. The idea of creating such beauty in my own yard seems beyond reach, hopelessly above my pay grade. But after talking with three local women who share a passion for gardening, I’ve decided to re-think my approach.

Gardens are not all about perfection and looking pretty (and it’s never a finished product, by the way). In fact, if you find yourself in a conversation with a gardener that lasts more than two minutes, be prepared to spend some time talking about the true drivers of their passion: attracting pollinators, cultivating dirt, and basking in a deep, spiritual connection to nature.

When the city announced it was going to fog for mosquitos, Merrie Jo Milner, along with other butterfly lovers in her Larchmont neighborhood in Norfolk, mobilized. They began a phone chain warning each other of the imminent pesticide cloud so they could whisk indoors delicate caterpillar eggs, nestled one per leaf on host plants. Bats could take care of these mosquitos naturally, Merrie Jo noted, but people don’t like to look at bats.

Merrie Jo has a long history of protecting and nurturing not just caterpillars but other vulnerable residents of this earth, like children and the homeless. Over her 45 years in Norfolk, she has enthusiastically planted butterfly gardens, led Girl Scout troops, taught preschool, and more. These days, though, she counts her real work as the 12 weekly classroom readings she does in Larchmont Elementary School and her co-coordination of her church’s NEST program (Norfolk Emergency Shelter Team) to house the homeless.

Thinking back on how she got started in gardening (her roots, so to speak), Merrie Jo recalls childhood memories of her mother’s garden, filled with morning glories and hollyhocks. She started her own garden 40 years ago with her first apartment and a modest plot. Today, the yard surrounding her house resembles a wildflower sanctuary.

“I love how it evolves,” she said. “Gardening is such a journey. At first I hated bushes. Now I’ve made friends with bushes. The birds need them.”

Gardening has been the gift that keeps giving in surprising and varied ways over the years, bringing into Merrie Jo’s life rich friendships, a deeper connection to nature, and a strong commitment to caring for the interlinking pieces that contribute to the web of life. This includes her intense interest in that most basic building block of a plant’s life: dirt.

She recounts how she and her friend, Mary Ann Walzer, travel around each fall collecting bags of leaves from people. What most of us regard as discard, they see as a precious resource. The contents of these bags will transform into natural, chemical-free, nutrient-rich soil—dream material for a garden.

Like the collaborative search for bagged leaves and team rescue missions for caterpillars, much of Merrie Jo’s gardening journey is a shared experience with others. Over the years, she has learned a great deal of what she knows from fellow gardeners. Sojourners who travel this garden path often find themselves connected to each other and, ultimately, recipients of a grace even more precious than black soil: spiritual and physical well-being.

“It’s therapy for me, too,” said Merrie Jo. “I can get a peace. It’s a feeling I just don’t get in another place. And it’s very physical. It can be as hard as you want—digging up a bush, hauling water—or you can do a little weeding. I call it liberating the plants from the weeds.”

Gardening offer a multitude of subtle gifts that touch the heart. Just being outside, away from day-to-day life, is a tremendous benefit, according to Merrie Jo. In this space, away from deadlines, laundry, and to-dos, her garden provides links to loved ones and precious memories.

“You get certain plants from people, and that’s them,” said Merrie Jo. “Every flower is a story.”

Ultimately, gardening is not about the yard. It’s about a person’s communion with nature to create beauty and life.

“When you’re gardening, you don’t talk,” said Merrie Jo. “I like the silence of gardening. The earthiness, the sweatiness, the dirtiness, the bugginess, the unpredictableness of who shows up in your garden. It’s all alive.”

“Plus,” she added, “I love the dirt.”

“I love the dirt too,” said Mary Ann Walzer, a gardener of 27 years and Merrie Jo’s partner in search of leaf bags each fall.

Mary Ann composts, re-using everything, she says. She loves the process of turning her compost barrels, converting waste into dirt, and using that dirt to transform her yard of clay and sand into dark soil. Mary Ann feels satisfied to know that she’s feeding the earth without using chemicals or draining natural resources, such as the water supply. She collects water in her rain barrel for irrigation and daily carries her own water to water her garden.

Mary Ann began gardening 27 years ago with the encouragement of her friend. “Merrie Jo got me started gardening,” she said, smiling. “Must be something in me. I didn’t grow up gardening.” A pre-op and recovery room nurse who works in Virginia Beach and lives in Norfolk, she now treasures her time in her garden.

“For me it’s pure experience, patience, and trial and error. ” she said, likening the experience to a runner’s high. “It can be miserable in the moment, but if you’re not doing it, you get grumpy. Winter is a down time. I don’t do that much gardening, and I think, I’m cured. I’m not going back to it. And then spring starts, and you can spend a whole day out there.”

Her time in the garden has a natural rhythm of action and contemplation, wrestling with roots and pausing to rest and wonder what to put in a blank spot to the yard. “Some of those moments feel wasteful,” she said, “but then three weeks later you see what comes up. I look at other people’s gardens, and they look so peaceful. I call mine chaotic.”

But it’s not complete mayhem. She plans and then adapts to the way her garden evolves. She prefers native plants, which she notes are good for the insects and good for the environment. And she has learned that healthiest of lessons, how to set firm boundaries. “I create areas now,” she said. “I tell a plant, if you go outside your area, you have to go home.”

Recently Mary Ann began experimenting with a beehive in her garden. “I just harvested honey from my bees for the first time, and it’s the best honey I’ve ever tasted,” she said.

The gifts of gardening abound, according to Mary Ann. “You’re painting a picture,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you’re creating beauty.”

Gardening teaches you to be patient and also to pay attention to detail,” Mary Ann says, two lessons she needs to be reminded of.

Carol Chubb began her gardening life in her mother’s garden at their home near Hershey, Pennsylvania. “I actually hated it,” laughed Carol as she recalled doing the gardening chores her mother required of her as a young girl. “I said I would never have a garden.”

Carol, owner of WorldWide Travel, moved with her husband to Hampton in 1987 and then to their current house in Newport News in 2000, where her love for gardening was awakened. “I saw a course for Master Gardening in the fall of 2008 and told my husband, ‘I’m going to take that course,’” she said. “He was shocked.”

The class opened up a new world of botanical knowledge and appreciation. She gained skills to increase her stewardship towards the earth and met a friendly community of other gardeners. There are around 65 members of Newport News Master Gardeners, Carol notes. They have monthly meetings and sponsor numerous projects in the community, appealing to all age groups.

Carol is particularly excited about this fall’s Go Green Expo in Newport News, which she is chairing. Go Green, which will be held Sept. 9, 2017, is a fun, free event for anyone interested in eco-friendly products and gardening practices. “It’s very fulfilling being with people who have passions like you do, who care for the environment, who take care of nature and love beautiful gardens,” Carol said.

Carol finds inspiration for her garden from other gardeners’ creative works, especially the beautiful gardens she sees on trips and visits with the Master Gardener Association. Or she might find inspiration right around the corner at the store.

“I visit a nursery and buy a plant and don’t know where I’ll put it but I have to have it,” she said. “Lots of gardeners are kind of addicted to plants.”

And what draws her back to her garden, season after season? “It’s very therapeutic for me, just to get my hands in the soil. It calms your mind too,” she said. “I enjoy God’s beauty when I’m in the garden. I feel like I’m stewarding what God created and that gives me a lot of pleasure.”

Carol said she also treasures the opportunity to educate others in proper horticulture practices that are good for the environment. In late summer, she kicks into high gear preparing for the Go Green Expo. Then, she is ready for the built-in break that winter brings, when plants go dormant and gardeners can enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, CPCC, ACC, a certified personal development coach and speech-language pathologist, partners with women to identify their unique gifts and make empowered choices to live a life they love. Visit

For more information about 2017 Go Green Expo, please visit

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