May at last! It is Mary’s month. The sun is shining and the last of our snow has finally melted away. Up in the woods of New England, we’re still getting an occasional frosty night, but our eyes are looking toward summertime.
This year, I’m spending most of the warm months tilling the soil and moving around my perennials. My gardening goals are more long term this year: by the end of the season, I’ll have a medicinal herb garden and a lovely, little Mary garden.
What is a Mary Garden?
Mary gardens have been a Catholic tradition for centuries but they’re not as popular now as they were 100 years ago. Maybe it’s because many of us have become too busy to curate a garden. This spring is the perfect season to change all that!
Any garden space structured around the Blessed Virgin can be a Mary garden. Often, Mary gardens are enclosed and contain at least one image or statue of the Theotokos. Filled with plants dedicated to Our Lady and other saints, these outdoor sanctuaries are an ideal place for quiet devotion, meditation, family rosaries, and after-Mass brunches.
Mary gardens first became popular after St. Fiacre the hermit-turned-healer planted a garden in honor of Our Lady and filled it with healing herbs. Like St. Fiacre’s garden, modern-day Mary gardens are more than merely attractive groupings of flowers. Sometimes, a garden will tell the lives of Christ and His Mother. From pear trees symbolizing the Annunciation to Assumption lilies – there is a plant for almost every mystery of the Rosary.
Other gardens celebrate Mary Queen of Saints by surrounding a statue or Marian plant with representations of her Most Chaste Spouse, St. Joseph (lilies or nasturtiums), her Son (sunflowers, poppies, passion flowers, bleeding hearts), and other saints. Plant St. John’s Wort, lilies, roses, palms, Peterwort, and other flowers to symbolize the Communion of Saints.
The theme and scope of a Mary garden can be broad, or specific. From a little plot of roses around a statue of the Virgin to a lush, memento mori themed tribute to the Sorrowful Mother, this space is a gorgeous way to incorporate faith into your home life. In a time when many Catholics are still deprived of Mass and the Sacraments, Mary gardens can provide a sacred space at home in which to pray.
Mary gardens aren’t limited to just the typical Marian flowers. White roses and lilies are an ideal addition to any Mary garden, there are a plethora of plants under Mary’s mantle. A few of my favorites are:
Also known as pot marigold (or Mary’s gold), calendula is a deeply healing herb whose beautiful, bright gold flowers brighten up the garden. I like to infuse the flowers in oil and make nourishing skin balms with them, but they also make a delicious jelly. In the garden, try clustering your calendula around the base of a statue or hanging a pot of Mary’s gold alongside a sturdy Icon House.
Peonies are sometimes called Pentecost roses because they often bloom around Pentecost. In New England though, we’re lucky if they bloom by St. John’s Eve. In a Mary garden, peonies represent both the happy home life of the Holy Family and the Compassionate Mother of God. Peony blossoms also make a fantastic, floral jelly – perfect for decorated feast day cakes for the Blessed Mother all year long!
If you have space for a tree in your Mary garden, hawthorn is an ideal addition. “Mary’s berries”, or hawthorn berries are healing, anti-anxiety addition to winter teas. The hawthorn tree, symbolizes Christ’s crown of thorns, the Resurrection, and Mary’s own quiet reflection as she “kept all these things in her heart.”
It’s said that Our Lady hung her mantle on the rosemary bush one evening as the Holy Family rested on the road to Egypt. Ever since that evening, the rosemary flowers have bloomed blue in her honor. Another legend claims that rosemary bushes will grow for 33 years until they are as tall as Christ was on the day of His Crucifixion. After that, they refuse to grow taller. Rosemary is one of the quintessential Marian plants, always pointing beyond her to her Son just as she does.
More than Just the Plants
Today I spent the morning pulling up brambles and raking away leaves. My garden doesn’t look like much right now. There’s a winter’s worth of sand and mud on the stones and springtime weeds popping up everywhere.
Even after I rake, tidy, and plant – the garden isn’t complete. Gardens never are. Like our souls, they need consistent attention. A Mary garden isn’t a passive space. Tending a garden, especially one designed around devotion, gives us the opportunity to focus on the weeds in our own hearts. To prune back our more excessive tendencies, nurture our virtues, and pull up the vices that intrude into the garden of our souls.
Time spent with Mary in the garden offers an opportunity to weave together the devotional life and the quotidian life. Simple acts made sacred. This month, Mary’s month, I’m spending the sunny days building a garden for the Mother of God. Would you like to join me?