While winter holds fast over the Midwest, area gardeners are already preparing for the growing season.
The Linn County Master Gardeners program will hold its annual Winter Gardening Fair on Feb. 16, with classes on everything from starting seeds for spring planting to which flowers best attract bees and butterflies to designing landscapes with garden art.
Presented with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, which coordinates the Master Gardeners program in Iowa, the daylong fair is a way to help gardeners start to think spring.
Master Gardener Judy Stevens of Cedar Rapids will teach five classes at the fair this year, including “Meditation, Healing and Stress Relieving Garden” and “Gardening Folklore.”
“I have been a Master Gardener for 27 years. I am the Master Gardener that likes to experiment with different plants and method of planting, loves to watch things grow, give away my flowers and produce and always question why and how of plants. Because of this my gardens are not immaculate, but I enjoy them, which is important,” she said.
For Stevens, gardening is about more than growing flowers and food. It can be a spiritual act, both connecting the gardener to the past and helping them stay grounded in the present.
“For a lot of people, for gardeners, gardening is a stress reliever in itself,” she said. “There are several reasons to garden, one is to relieve stress.
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Just being outside and digging in the dirt can provide stress relief by itself, but so can intentional landscaping additions like labyrinths or memory gardens, she said.
The winding paths of a labyrinth can be mowed into grass or created with rocks or out of flower beds or hedges. Walking along them is meant to focus the mind in contemplation.
Stevens points to elaborate garden labyrinths at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center and Wickiup Hill as examples, but said those with less space or less inclination to create a fully labyrinth can even complete a desktop one out of sand or clay, to be traced with a finger instead of walked.
“When you walk into them, you are to concentrate and meditate, when you get to the center you release, and when you walk out you’re refreshed,” she said.
She also advocates using a garden to honor those who have died.
“Planting a plant in memory of someone is a great memorial. The actual procedure can be healing, and watching the plant grow and flourish has been a great experience for me,” she said. “The old fashioned iris remind me of my grandmother, who had a good selection of them. A red maple planted on Father’s Day for Dad always brings back good memories.”
It was her grandmother and her mother whose influences got her started in gardening as a child.
“It was just a way of life. We lived on a farm, and you had to have a garden to feed a family, that was just the way it was,” she said. “My mother had her last garden when she was 96.”
She remembers learning garden folklore — another topic she will teach at the fair — from her grandmother, Minnie Wille, as a child.
“I just found it always so interesting. My grandmother never had gardening magazines or anything, but she had all these things, like ‘Never let the August sun shine on your onions,’” Stevens said with a laugh. “Another woman in the neighborhood always swore by the moon.”
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That woman — and others Stevens knew — would plan their planting based on whether the moon was waxing or waning. Waxing moons were for above ground plants, while waning was for below ground planting.
While Stevens doesn’t follow those rules herself, she said they are part of a different kind of garden memorial.
“I was born and raised with it. When I give this presentation you can’t believe how many people say, ‘Oh yeah, I was raised on this,’” she said.
Many such stories were brought with immigrants when they moved to Iowa. Those from places like Germany and the Czech and Slovak lands came from a similar climate, and many of their planting folklore holds true here, Stevens said.
“The early gardeners watched the world around them to know what to plant and when to plant them,” she said.
She cites a Czech story of the three frost kings, who were frozen at sea until May 15, when Queen Sofia thawed them with a watering can. After that it is safe to plant tender seedlings outside.
Other indicators tell their own stories.
“When people call the Hortline (the gardening advice and help line manned by Master Gardeners) and ask when to put down crab grass killer, we tell them to wait until the forsythia blooms,” she said. “They bloom when the soil reaches a certain temperature. So spring is better predicted by plants than by man.”
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