Almanac for Catholic Gardeners

A Catholic Gardner's Spiritual AlmanacFor years I’ve enjoyed reading the Farmer’s Almanac. All the random fun pieces of information and facts about growing and harvesting, were eagerly read throughout the year. I bought a new edition every January.

It was that love of almanacs that lead to the writing of A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, released by Ave Maria Press in 2015.

The construction of the book is, of course, by month, and each month is themed. It coordinates a garden topic and a liturgical garden plan, with what is taking place within our Catholic Church during that month.

Like most almanacs there are stories, tidbits of fun facts, quotes, and gardening information. Its not meant to be read all at once, but picked up while enjoying coffee or in the evenings, a light read before bed.

I’ve offered a way to not only grow in a garden, but also the garden of your soul. I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy and maybe send one to a gardening friend.

Peace and all good in the new year!


Tree Hugging Saints who Preceded Tree Hugging Pope Francis; St. Oengus

Spideog, Erithacus rubecula“Now ask the beasts to teach you, and the birds of the air to tell you; Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, and the fish of the sea to inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this? In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all mankind.” Job 12: 7-10

Yesterday was a big day for us gardeners and, well, all naturalists, when Pope Francis instituted within the Church September 1 as the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.

Vatican Radio reported the event, in which Pope Francis noted that,

…the initiative follows in the footsteps of the Orthodox Church which, for the past 25 years, has dedicated September 1st, the beginning of a new year in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, to care for the environment. Since that time, the World Council of Churches has also marked a month-long ‘Time for Creation’ stretching from September 1st to the feast of St Francis of Assisi on October 4th.

In the spirit of this time for creation I will weekly until October 4 share with you a few gardening saints who knew the value of nature.

St. Óengus the Culdee (Angus, Ængus, Dengus, of Tallaght, of Clonenagh, Servant of God)

ca. 824, Ireland, Memorial March 11

Patron of Kitchen (Cellarer’s) Gardens

The term Culdee, Servant of God, refers to St. Óengus’ love of solitude. Célé Dé or Céili Dé (Culdee) was a name given to the hermits of that time; Céili Dé means the intimates or companions of God. There is considerable conflicting information (each source indicating of course that it is the most accurate) whether he became a lay brother of the Culdees, if the order developed because of him or if this was a general term for monks in solitude.[1] In any case, this order of monks took a more austere form of fasting, penance, and prayer. He eventually became a bishop in Ireland.

As a young man St. Óengus is said to have conversed with angels who enhanced his love of prayer and solitude. During that time he researched and wrote extensively about the saints and later wrote his own Féilire or Festilogium, a calendar of saints that became one of the sources of information for the early Irish saints. He found nature supplied him with a good deal of insight about those holy men and women:

The birds…sang to him songs of the saints; the green grass of the Emerald Isle told him of their hopefulness; the white daisy blossoms of their purity; the red roses of their martyrdom. The mighty oak trees spoke of their strength; all nature seemed to him to be singing the praises of the saints. He, thinking upon the saints so much encouraged others to take the sweetness of these holy lives and make it their own, even as the bee gathers honey from the flower.[2]

This beloved saint in all humility hid the fact for years that he was highly educated, choosing manual labor. He pursued the practice of deep durational prayer, more easily admired than imitated.

When St. Óengus entered the monastery he labored in the cellarer’s gardens. The cellarer was one of the leading monastic officials in charge of maintaining provisions, responsible for feeding the entire monastic community. This including lay-workers and peasants in need, as well as a steady stream of guests who visited the monastery on a journey or pilgrimage. And royalty guests could include a large retinue! The cellarer’s provisioning included a supply of vegetables and fruit, dairy, fowl and fish, medicinal plants and utilitarian herbs including hay and flax, as well as bees for candle wax and honey. There were many types of cellarer’s gardens with the main one being the kitchen garden or, in French, the le jardin potager.

While working the many provisional gardens St. Óengus usually had birds perching on his shoulders and singing to him as he worked. These birds and especially the robins were his constant companions. One day he severely cut his hand while chopping wood and the robins were so distressed they flew near to his hand frantically beating their wings and “…uttered loud cries because their friend was hurt.”

The Robin of Ireland, Erithacus rubecula, often called a Ploughman’s Bird or Spideog, is a small little bird of only about three inches. It is mostly gray with a portion of its face and breast being red, and the remaining underside mottled white. It is a friendly bird rarely disturbed by the hubbub of people and often trails behind gardeners looking for freshly unearthed worms…and now you know why its so named, the Ploughman’s Bird.

For more gardening saints, my book, A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, has them listed by month!

(Image of Erithacus rubecula by Juan Emilio from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, España [CC BY-SA 2.0 ( )], via Wikimedia Commons) 


[1] My bias is that of St. Óengus being a hermit in service to God and that the term culdee simply indicated that solitary activity; see the 1868 writings about the life of this saint by Rev. John O’Hanlon.

[2] Hilton, Agnes Aubrey, Legends of Saints and Birds, p. 37

Mother has the Patience of a Saint

Soloman's seal and cross

Solomon’s seal and cross

Silently she stands, peering at me from around a tree as I slog my way through the project. She’s been waiting for me to complete her rose garden.

I started it the beginning of May, the month dedicated to our Holy Mother. The idea for a Marian rose garden didn’t originate with me, it was by request. The thought of attempting to garden again was a challenge to how I’ve come to see myself with physical limitations. It felt like a dare, and I usually don’t respond to those. Taking on this project would mean learning about patience and moderation so there would be minimal aches from my Mary behind treearthritic spine.

Moving forward a lot of prayers were offered as I struggled to let go of expectations. Tasks I had done in less than thirty minutes now took the better part of a day, and a day in between to recover. Prayer also supplied endurance to persevere—and needed materials.

One expectation that had to be let go was that the garden would be completed by Mother’s Day. I now hope for the end of the month, on The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, May 31.

The next phase was to deal with the sod, and then plant the roses. I fussed for a few days on the placement of the bushes, finally deciding the order of the roses should be white/Joyful Mysteries, red/Sorrowful Mysteries, yellow/Glorious Mysteries, and last purple for the recently added Luminous Mysterious—the sorrowful being embraced on each side with joy and glory.

There is still more to do.

Next was trenching out the sod for the edging of bricks—those lovely, now clean treasures! The bricks will provide an edge for the lawn mower wheel to ride over, eliminating the need to trim the grass. edger flippedHaving learned earlier the benefit and ease of using an electric edger, I repeated the process, cutting two lines around the bed in the width of the bricks. I found the cultivating hoe was perfect for rolling up strips of sod. Over the course of a couple of days I was ready for ground cloth and mulch.

cutting edging brickscutting edging pulling strip







To lay the ground cloth, secure the material with U-shaped landscaping pins at the farthest edge and unroll to the other end, leaving about two inches extra at each end. The material will usually blow around, so I used a brick to hold a portion in place while I worked my way across the bed. Slide the cloth up onto the sod/soil and cut a line partially across the material so it will go around a bush. When you figure the cloth is far enough up, cut an X and fold the flaps under so the cloth encircles the bush. Pin the split in place and move on to the next plant. Repeat the process for the next course of ground cloth, allowing a three inch overlap on top of the previous row. Pin in place. It took three courses of material to cover my garden area.

Trim back the extra cloth allowing an extra two inches or more to lie under a flat edging; in my case, the bricks. If you are using a vertical edging you’ll leave only one inch and slide the ground cloth between the edging and the soil on the garden side.

Next week, the finishing touches.

I made poetry stones, too!

(All images by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.)

Eat Your Yard! Practical Gardening and Edible Landscape Solutions

shutterstock_214081222 chive flowersFresh produce from the garden is one of the simplest delights of summer. What’s not to like about plucking off and biting into a tomato, cucumber, or sugar snap peas still warm from the sun.

Many of us do not have a yard large enough for a vegetable patch or time to volunteer at a community garden, but we still want home grown foods — and maybe more than enough to share. There is a solution to growing your own veggies in a way that works with your small yard and requires only a little additional time from a busy schedule — edible landscaping.

This concept has been around for decades and is a common gardening practice in Europe where personal yard space is very limited. Here is how you can do the same thing in a manner sensitive to the landscape you already have. Substitute vegetable plants for annual flowers.

Let’s start with some basic rules:

  • Using any products for pest and disease control must be compatible with food consumption, with organic methods being preferred.
  • Locate vegetable plants so that pets cannot taint or damage them.
  • Do not plant edibles near treated lumber such as decks or retaining walls. Leaching of preservative chemicals from the lumber contaminates food.
  • Locate plants where they will receive good air movement and at least six hours of direct sunlight on their leaves.

Tomatoes are the number one home grown vegetable. Use disease resistant varieties rather than heirlooms in a mixed bed. Sweet 100’s are indeterminate (bearing fruit all season) and are excellent for trailing. Varieties bearing smaller fruit of 10 oz. or less, that are determinate (producing all at once) can be added singly throughout the landscape and usually do not need additional support. To prevent having a big empty spot in your landscape, avoid planting tomatoes in groups; they die out in late summer when blights are prominent.

A sturdy trellis that grew annual flowering vines can be used for growing edibles. Cucumbers can grow on a trellis, or allowed to cascade over a wall. Green beans that vine can also be grown on a vertical support. With green beans, plant them in succession, reseeding every two weeks, to enjoy them throughout the summer.

For dramatic leaves grow Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, beets, rhubarb, summer squashes, or cardoon. Lettuces and kale are also good for adding texture to the landscape. Flowering kale is pretty  but not very tasty — really, its just ornamental. Choose instead Winterbor or Redbor kale, Russian varieties such as blue-curled Vates, or heirloom Italian variety Lacinato. I personally love the flavor and diversity of eggplant in recipes. It is also very handsome in the landscape when planted with smaller textured flowers or herbs.

Herbs are wonderful for adding interest. Herbs do best in a hotter location with well drained soil, and require very little fertilization. Dill with its long stalks of delicate narrow leaves attracts pollinators when in flower. Big leaf basil is a favorite of many gardeners, so plant several of them to have enough for pesto or just a few for seasoning or adding to soups. I love cilantro but it dies out quickly so I usually replant seeds every other week. My favorite herb in the edible landscape is parsley because of its lovely curly leaves and mounded form, and because I eat a lot of tabouli! Don’t forget the chives but be sure to remove spent flowers before they go to seed.

If you do not have a yard, growing vegetables in larger containers works well. Don’t limit yourself to plopping one tomato plant in the center. Add herbs around the edges, or grow uprights in the middle and Sweet 100 tomatoes cascading over the side. An excellent book The Bountiful Container offers a lot of really good information on this type of gardening.

With a little planning and a minimal amount of additional time, your landscape can become a source for fresh healthy and possibly organic food.

(Image “Chives and Dew” by  Jitka Volfova, shutterstock .com)


How to Grow a Garden with Fortitude, 3 of the Best Plants!

Christians can express their faith in nearly limitless ways in a garden setting. Continuing with the theme of A Virtuous Garden, here are some of the aspects of the third cardinal virtue—fortitude. You can find the other columns for prudence here, and justice here.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1808:

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.

The word is defined as mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously. To have mettle as one’s disposition or temperament, as a Christian, is to do one’s utmost, always, in the name of Jesus.

shutterstock_113189206 Pine treeWe can see how this sentiment applies to the pine tree. In the language of flowers it indicates a request, to remain strong for me. The Pinus genus has nearly 200 varieties and found throughout the world. Pines are long lived, anywhere from 100-1000 years, being a sturdy tree adapted to the environment in which it grows. A fun fact, the longest-lived is the Pinus longaeva, known as the Great Basin bristlecone pine. An individual of this species is one of the world’s oldest living organisms at around 4,600 years and can be found in the White Mountains of California.

There is a lovely story in our Catholic tradition of when the Holy Family was fleeing into Egypt took refuge under the boughs of a pine tree to avoid detection by pursing soldiers. You can read the rest of that story in my new book A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac.

The Magnolia tree is another hardwood that is symbolic of fortitude, signifying be not discouraged, better days are coming. Fossilshutterstock_68022604 Magnolia specimens date back nearly 20 million years. It is such a lovely tree, that, maybe God planted one in the Garden of Eden! The flowers were often given after the birth of a child symbolizing future good health and well being of the child and the mother.

One of the more beloved pink and white magnolias is the Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana, seen in this picture. My favorite is the yellow flowering Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Yellow Bird’. Its buds form later in the spring and for this reason the flowers are rarely lost to hard frosts.  To choose one for your own garden, check out the Magnolia Society International site.

shutterstock_149412281 ChamomileI love the low-growing herb German chamomile in the garden, especially when used to edge a sunny garden path. On a warm day its delicate fragrance smells of apples.

The two most commonly grown is the German chamomile Matricaria recutita, and the Roman Chamaemelum nobile. This herb has been used medicinally for centuries, so it is not surprising that it symbolizes energy in adversity, and to not despair.

Chamomile plants are very distinct in their growing conditions. The Roman species is a perennial plant, grows close to the ground and has very small flowers—tending to be bitter when used for teas. On the other hand the German chamomile is an annual growing up to three feet high, has larger blossoms, and is sweeter for teas—being the preferred for farm production. DISCLAIMER: because it does have medicinal affects, don’t consume this herb until you’ve done your homework. I’m not responsible…

For more Catholic garden ideas, my latest book, A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, will offer inspiration. To learn how to build a prayer garden, my first books, A Garden of Visible Prayer, will lead you through the process one step at a time.

(All images courtesy, by artists, in order of images: pine, Taftin; magnolia, Aceshot1; chamomile, Maria Komar.)

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