Digging in the healing garden: Classes promote power of working with plants

Using gardens, plants as a portal to spirit

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Jen Kardos has personal experience with the benefits of gardening. When she had postpartum health problems after her third child was born, working outside helped her recover.

“The gardening environment is especially soothing,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in the garden, and it was very restorative. In a lot of countries, physicians prescribe gardening before anti-depressants.”

Now Kardos, 43, of Iowa City, is studying to be a horticultural therapist, and as co-director of Iowa City non-profit Backyard Abundance is leading classes on the power of gardens for healing.

During a recent class, attendees helped plant a demonstration healing garden at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha. The small circle garden features flowers and herbs spread around a wooden bench where visitors can sit for quiet contemplation. A nearby fountain trickles gently in the background.

In the middle of the circle, a small alter area holds a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic patron saint of ecology. Prairiewoods is run by Franciscan nuns, and the healing garden is part of the center’s reaction to Pope Francis’s 2015 eco-encyclical, “Laudato Si,” which calls on believers to address environmental concerns.

Emelia Sautter, 35, of Cedar Rapids, is eco-spirituality coordinator at Prairiewoods.

“The eco-encyclical is right in line with our mission,” she said. “We’re always looking at ways to deepen relationships with the earth. We want people to have a relationship with the land and the plants when they come out here.”

The space was previously an herb garden — it’s close to the kitchen. Herbs still grow there as part of the garden’s design. Accessible to the kitchen and to visitors, but in a quiet, tucked-away space. It will have a privacy screen of red currant bushes.

“We think of the whole of Prairiewoods, 70 acres, as a healing space, but we wanted to make a space where people can say, ‘Oh, I can do this at my house,’” Sautter said.

They used permaculture principals, which emphasize plantings that work together as part of a wider system. Strawberry plants will provide ground cover, while fragrant herbs like lavender attract bees and other beneficial insects while helping keep pests at bay. Beneficial herbs like camomile, rosemary, mint, thyme, yarrow, nasturtium and basil share space with butterfly-friendly plants like milkweed and echinacea.

There is no hard and fast set of rules to design a healing garden, Kardos said. She recommends choosing plants that you feel a connection to. That could mean things that bring back childhood memories or evoke certain recipes. They could be herbs for tea or cooking, or flowers for their aroma. For those new to gardening or who aren’t sure if digging in the dirt is for them, Kardos recommends starting small, with a few herbs in pots.

“The biggest thing is, you’re planting things that have a real appeal and attraction to you,” she said. “It’s a space where there are plants that bring you joy.”

Gardening has been shown to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure, and beneficial microbes in soil can be helpful as well, she said. The idea of a healing garden and of horticultural therapy as a whole is to blend the physical benefits of working in the garden with mental and spiritual benefits. Horticultural therapists can work in health care settings, be part of wellness programs and provide vocational training, among other things.

The classes have explored the concept and design of healing gardens, and the final class, coming up Wednesday, will dig deeper into how the relationship between the gardener and the plants benefits the person and the earth. Attendees do not need to have taken the first two classes to participate.

Kardos is also helping lead monthly “Gardening with Spirit” sessions through Backyard Abundance.

Kardos started gardening as a child — she has photos of her grandfather helping her plant her first garden.

“It’s always been a passion or a hobby. I love the smells and the textures of the plants,” she said. “I love bringing my kids in the garden and letting them eat food right off the plants.”


If you go


What: Digging Deeper in the Healing Garden: Gardens and plans as a portal to spirit

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, 120 E. Boyson Rd., Hiawatha

Cost: $20

Registration required: (319) 395-6700, prairiewoods.org


What: Gardening with Spirit

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Aug. 3, Oct. 5 and Nov. 11

Where: Locations to be announced

Cost: $5 to $35; one-time fee covers all 2016 events

Registration: (319) 325-6810, backyardabundance.org

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