Imagine that you’ve moved to your retirement home, a dreamy piece of property on a hilly cove of the South Shore, and you’ve hired a restorative landscaping company to add greenery, texture, places for the dogs to play, a wildflower meadow, a vegetable garden… The result is a verdant work-in-progress. It’s cut down on a large part of lawn maintenance, but it’s also going to require someone to get out there on a regular basis and get their hands dirty. It’s perfect because your husband says he knows all about gardening, he enjoys it, he’ll take care of the yard– that’s his domain. In exchange, you’ll take care of a multitude of houseplants, as well as do other indoor chores. After all, you’ve always been a ‘condo person.’ But now that your gardens are all planted, your husband promptly un-retires himself. To the Arctic.
It is a gorgeous fall day when I sit down with Donna Stephania in her home on the Lahave River. She apologizes for the mess, but her house is immaculate, everything arranged just so, including a display of soapstone and bone carvings. Donna spent 18 years teaching in the Arctic, which is one reason why, when her husband returned North, she says he left behind a ‘gardening virgin.’ As a youngster, she knew her Baba’s homestead gardens (“one rule, you could pick anything you wanted to, but you had to eat it”) but her parents never kept gardens at their family home. Since she then proceeded to spend half of her adult life living in apartments and condos, and the other half in a tundra landscape, she never had the opportunity to care for plants outside the house. So, when the job was left to her, she felt at a loss, and more than a little overwhelmed. According to Donna, the gardens became “out of control” and her efforts to rein them in were frequently misfiring. For example, she’s realized now that she was pruning some shrubs in the wrong season (“oh, my poor forsythia!”) and she could only bring herself to pick away at the phlox, which took its opportunity to run rampant.
Luckily, she reports, Rosmarie stopped in to check on things. Rosmarie, who had designed and planted a large part of the landscape, would stop by once in a while to see how Donna was doing. It didn’t take her long to realize that Donna was not managing very well on her own. Donna remembers that Rosmarie would pull up in her pickup, look around, and say very diplomatically, “There are a few things you could be doing…” Eventually, Rosmarie suggested that they form a garden mentorship. Instead of contracting the Helping Nature Heal to sweep in and do all the work, Rosmarie would come for an hour or two each week to teach Donna the basics of plant care and sustainable design.
For Donna, the garden mentoring program, which she has helped to pilot, has been “one of the most amazing learning experiences of my life.” As a teacher, Donna easily identifies her own learning style: “I read a bit but I learn more by doing.” When she and Rosmarie started out, it was a matter of trusting Rosmarie completely, “just cutting where she says to cut, hacking where she says to hack, and trying to keep my sense of panic hidden.” But she noticed as the season marched on, Rosmarie began to pull back, give her more options, ask her what she thought needed to be done, and encourage her to take charge. Over the seasons they took on tasks and subjects like : season-appropriate pruning, edging and mulching, mature plant renovation (dividing and transplanting), vegetable planting, perennial fruit and berry plant care, wildflower meadow management, tree care, transplanting larger trees and shrubs, redesigning perennial beds, bulb planting, stabilizing vines, winter plant and soil protection, advanced design considerations (sight lines, forecasting), root cutting and root transplants. Donna envisions that after one more season of mentoring, she’ll be ready to do it on her own. She’s already feeling much less tentative when faced with a task. On their last session of the fall, they renovated a side yard and Donna was “in there like a dirty shirt.” She was jumping on the shovel to divide hostas, marveling at handfuls of worms, splitting irises, stepping back to get the visual like a pro. “It was fun,” says Donna, “and I finally felt like I was in charge of what happened out there.”
Unexpectedly, Donna says that she’s discovered that gardening recharges her physically and spiritually. As a teacher, she coped with stress by baking; she spent hours on the weekends making loaves and muffins for her students (“hungry students can’t learn”). In retrospect, she feels that being forced into gardening is the best thing that could have happened; if her husband hadn’t un-retired, she might still be “looking for that thing to feed my system.” Gardening, with its repetitive tasks, the need for awareness, and its concrete outcomes, has become her meditative practice, one that has helped her to cultivate a deeper sense of home. She enthuses that “Rosmarie has opened up my soul to how good it is to be out there” and “the property feels like it’s mine now. I used to look through the window and feel like a visitor. Now I have a relationship with it.”
On a less spiritual front, Donna reports that the cost of mentoring will pay dividends later. Her husband, who has recently confessed that he might have “overstated his gardening prowess as a selling point in a new relationship,” has agreed that if Donna continues to take care of the gardens when he gets home, she’ll “never have to vacuum or clean another bathroom in her life.”
“My investment in garden mentoring,” smiles Donna, “is going to pay off big time.”