How Carolinian gardening changed my relationship with Mother Nature and allowed me to enter the charmed circle of her stewards

I learned that as we garden we cultivate an attitude of caring and “repairing” rather than consuming.
Rita Mobarak

We have historically idealized gardens as emotional sanctuaries of refuge; places to which we can escape when hardships or seemingly insurmountable obstacles unexpectedly appear in our lives. These pastoral symbols of comfort were firmly planted into the fertile soils of our imagination when, as children, we listened spellbound to transformative fairy tales with happy endings. Like in “The Secret Garden”, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale of self-healing, the robin conveniently leads grieving and unhappy orphan Mary to the key that unlocks the hidden garden. As Mary weeds, hoes and “takes care of” the garden her relationship to nature changes and she becomes spiritually transformed through the power of love. Mary no longer feels isolated and alienated but becomes connected to nature and the friends she makes in the garden. Unbeknownst to us we shelved these pastoral pacifiers into the toy closet of our psyche, to dust off and use in times of necessity. Like the Zen proverb, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

My teacher appeared in the form of breast cancer and I became the student. After the completion of my cancer treatment last year I conveniently sought hope in the pastoral archetype of my childhood musings- gardens. After much reflection on how much I hated gardening I reminded myself that since ancient times gardening has been recognized as restorative for mental and physical health. I decided to help out in my church (First Unitarian Church of Hamilton) garden once a week last spring. Each week I would arrive at the garden ready to work and the head gardener, Joanne Tunnicliffe, would show me what needed to be done.

Joanne showed  me how to weed a yucca area, remove bushes that didn’t thrive, dig holes for “in memoriam” trees, remove the Lilies of the Valley, water the lavender, “dead head” rosebushes and spread mulch. Another week Joanne taught me a “special” technique to pull down the creeping and tangling grape vines from the large trees and bushes to “make a canopy to better showcase the garden”.  Joanne showed me how to weed around the irises “so that in the spring their lilac colours will be splashing”. All of this was foreign to me; it was like I was learning a new language.

As we gardened Joanne educated me on the rationale for why we were doing what we did. She told me that we were “Carolinian gardening”- creating an ecosystem to provide a habitat for native birds, butterflies, bees, caterpillars and other Carolinian species. We were removing invasive plant species and introducing hundreds of native Carolinian zone perennials and trees. Joanne told me excitedly how we were “making a difference” for native wildlife; in fact, even flying squirrels and owls had been witnessed in the church garden since it had been gradually transformed into a “Carolinian” garden over the past ten years. Apparently, this type of sighting would have been “unheard of” before the garden’s restoration. I knew that Joanne had won the “2018 Monarch Award”, an award of excellence that recognizes  gardens and gardeners in Hamilton for their contribution to a bio-diverse, sustainable environment so I knew that Joanne knew what she was talking about.

Late last spring I proudly told Joanne that gardening at church was inspiring me to garden at home so I had purchased “some pretty purple Periwinkle” ground cover; she looked at me aghast and explained that Periwinkle is an invasive plant species and is not native to the area but had been “introduced” from Europe. Joanne proceeded to show me some Periwinkle at the perimeter of the church property and pointed out its pristine condition. Ironically, the Periwinkle was unblemished  because native insects stayed away from its leaves because they could not eat it; the Periwinkle’s nutrients were not biochemically available to these native insects as they had not evolved together. 

Joanne was Mother Nature personified. When I initially told her that I wasn’t really interested in knowing why we were doing what we did she looked at me quizzically, her vibrant blue eyes twinkling with a smile, and she laughed with delight. As Joanne’s laugh echoed through the trees I was reminded of L.M. Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables”. I thought of how Joanne’s colourful and optimistic personality resonated with one of Anne’s observations “The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.” With the brim of her straw hat fluttering in the breeze Joanne’s enthusiasm sounded like the chirping of a bird; she was a senior version of Anne of Green Gables. I must give credit to this lady of nature; she is so astute, witty, knowledgeable and passionate about taking care of nature . As Joanne “blabbered on” about Carolinian gardens my mind wandered to thinking “How can someone be so excited about gardening?” When we created a map for an upcoming garden tour Joanne cited various names for the gardens: “Enchanted Forest”, “Souls’ Rest” and “Teddy’s Herb Garden”; again, I suddenly felt transported to Anne of Green Gables “Lake of Shining Waters”.

A map of the UU church gardens

Joanne’s enthusiasm inspired me to show up every week regardless of how I was feeling. The days on which she wasn’t present my gardening wasn’t as enjoyable as the process seemed to lack depth. I gradually realized that part of what was making gardening so fulfilling were Joanne’s anecdotal explanations about the trees, flowers, bees, caterpillars and the interconnectedness of things-she was providing meaning and context to what we were doing.  Joanne was adeptly identifying my role in this “interconnected web of existence”-the 7th Unitarian Universalist principle reiterated in one of the garden’s many signs.

At one point Joanne nostalgically recounted how when she taught the children in Sunday school she referred to herself as “Mother Nature” because “taking care of nature” was her passion. Given that breast cancer was my teacher, and I had become a student of life “ready to listen”, I felt myself becoming small, like a kid in Sunday school, being “spoon-fed” about the importance of caring for our mother, the earth. As Joanne showed me how to dig, weed, mulch and plant I was being educated and unwittingly indoctrinated.

After a few months of showing up to “garden”, Joanne turned to me and said “See, Rita, now you are a friend of Mother Nature”. At that moment it dawned on me that something special had transpired; I had joined into a relationship that not all could enter. Because I had put in the work of caring, of weeding, of fertilizing and planting I was now part of a charmed circle of stewards of the earth. I learned that as we garden we cultivate an attitude of caring and “repairing” rather than consuming. Like Mary in “The Secret Garden” my changed relationship with nature caused a transformation within me. This weekly gardening experience that I shared with a group of congregants, whose common interest was stewarding the earth, cultivated in me a genuine concern for the gradual degradation of native plants and wildlife. I was starting to understand why Joanne exhorts people to plant native gardens in their yards to restore biodiversity and halt the degradation of our planet.

On Remembrance Day last year, a few minutes after seeing a Lancaster bomber circling in the bright blue sky, the gardening group members and I nodded our heads solemnly for one minute of silence at 11:00 am. Shortly after that I found Joanne in the “Meditation Garden” helping one of the congregants prepare space for the planting of bulbs for a memorial service for her late husband. I told Joanne that she was like a “midwife of plants”; she chortled at my comment as if I was joking. I clarified in a more serious tone of voice “No, I’m serious you’re like a lay chaplain to the plants”. In the congregant’s presence Joanne explained how they were sharing memories of her late husband. Joanne recounted that years ago he had donated numerous English Ivies and Periwinkles “just to fill up the garden”. To show off my new knowledge I said with a smile “and now we know better...we don’t know what we don’t know...those are old school passe”. I was learning; those introduced and invasive species were “old school” in the context of Carolinian gardening.

Last fall I started my own Carolinian garden by planting Nannyberry, Bluestem Grasses, Wild Ginger, Great Blue Lobelia and Boneset from a native plants and seeds greenhouse registered on Carolinian Canada’s website: “Kayanase Restoring Mother Earth” which is located in Oshweken. I am looking forward to seeing pollinators in my garden this summer.

Given that our volunteers are aging, as well as dwindling in numbers, we are reaching out for volunteers to join us in our gardening. If you are interested please contact our head gardener, Joanne Tunnicliffe at

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