Last week, we got almost forty inches of snow and lost power for three days. This morning, the pipes froze. So naturally, I’m thinking about gardens. And I’m warming my hands over the bright, glowing pages of Margaret Rose Realy’s beautiful new book, A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow them.
I’m lucky enough to call Margaret a friend, so she is the one I always ask if there is something mysterious popping up in my garden, and I don’t know if I should be happy or not. She always knows what it is. I also ask her if there’s an invasive bittersweet vine on my fence and I don’t know how to get rid of it, or if my irises aren’t blooming anymore and I feel like I should do something but I’m not sure when or how. I ask her whether my apple seedlings can be saved, and whether it’s too late to put lilacs in, and whether it’s worthwhile saving seeds from the marigolds I impulse bought at Walmart. Margaret always knows!
Now she has taken her immense wealth of knowledge and organized it into an eminently searchable book for the gardener who wants to cultivate a space that’s not only beautiful, but rich with Christian meaning. Each of 100 entries — organized into color-coded sections of flowers, herbs and edibles, grasses and more, and trees and shrubs — includes a large, lovely illustration by Mary Sprague, an explanation of the history and/or symbolic significance of the plant in Christianity, what theme of garden it might fit into (Stations of the Cross, Marian, Rosary, Sacred Heart, and so on), what it symbolizes, and several paragraphs of detailed practical information and advice about what it looks like, where and how it grows well, and how to care for it, and in some cases, how to harvest, display, and dry it.
Each entry also has a column of symbols for cross reference. There are a total of six possible symbols for different kinds of prayer gardens, and thirteen possible symbols for different kinds of suitable landscapes.
That’s about two-thirds of the book. The rest of it is a sort of condensed master class in horticulture, including information on everything from how to evaluate a site and design a garden, how to test soil and fertilize, how to read plant tags, how to collect seeds and even how to water.
Next comes an introduction rife with practical advice for how to arrange an outdoor space for a shrine, stations of the cross, prayer labyrinth, and more;
and there is a section on ‘development of intent,’ to help focus your thoughts and ideas about what you hope to accomplish by making a prayer garden. There are several pages on color theory, a section on making stepping stones, ideas for how to keep a journal, and a reference chart collating all the information about plants in the previous pages.
The overall tone is gentle, encouraging, and wise, and every single page is absolutely bristling with practical, reliable information, and it’s thoughtfully arranged to be as easy to use as possible. The goal is to help you come up with a plan that is meaningful and appealing to you (and maintainable in the landscape you’ve chosen), rather than providing ready-made plans for you to copy by rote. It’s also fascinating and informative for someone who’s just interested in gardens.
The book would make an excellent present for someone just starting out with gardening, who could use some encouragement with a plant or two, but would not be out of place for a master gardener who will appreciate the comprehensive breadth of knowledge gathered in these pages, and is looking for inspiration for a new kind of project. The unique combination of horticultural knowledge and spiritual insight and cultural and historical research pretty much guarantees that that almost anyone who picks it up will learn something new.
Margaret Realy is an advanced Master Gardener and a Benedictine oblate. She has written several other books, and her writing appears regularly at Our Sunday Visitor and at CatholicMom.com. This book would be a great place to get to start to get to know this warm, kind, and incredibly knowledgeable woman. Happy spring!