Planting Prayers: Building a Mary Garden
Two years ago, my husband and I ripped out an incredible number of weeds around our magnificent backyard maple tree. With a completely blank slate, I decided to start a Mary Garden at the foot of the great tree. Today, this garden is home to a variety of flowers and plants that bloom and flourish at various times from spring to fall. Our statue of Our Lady of Grace stands poised in the middle of it all, with stepping stones and solar-powered lamp posts leading the way to her. She rests in the shade and stands always ready to welcome my family and friends to pray at her feet. Having a Mary Garden right in our backyard has been a beautiful and natural way to introduce my children to their Heavenly Mother in the presence of Mother Earth, and they often run up to give her statue a hug and kiss or adorn her with a handmade dandelion crown. How might Our Lady be inviting you to get to know her better in a place of beauty and peace?
Mary and Flowers
Mother Mary is known by many titles. A beautiful and prayerful exploration of them can be found in Christine Valters Paintner’s new book, Birthing the Holy: Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal (Sorin Books: Notre Dame, 2022). Many of Mary’s titles hearken to nature: Mary the Air We Breathe, based on medieval writings about Mary; the Burning Bush, an Eastern Orthodox title for Mary based on Moses’s experience with God in the inconsumable bush on Mount Horeb; Greenest Branch, a title from twelfth-century mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen, acknowledging Mary as being filled with the life of God; and Tree of Life who bears the life-giving fruit, Jesus. A traditional and well-known title for Mary is Mystical Rose, and Mary’s presence is said to be miraculously conveyed through the fragrance of roses where none are present. When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, the sign she gave the bishop through the image of herself in his tilma was accompanied by roses, inexplicably blooming off-season. The original rosaries of the Middle Ages were actually made of roses.
Before deciding what to plant in your garden, consider the amount of sunlight in the desired place and the hardiness zone in which you live. You can find a gardening zone map here.
If you wish to start with roses to honor Mary’s title, Mystical Rose, there are many varieties from which to choose. You can learn more about roses and where to plant them here. The Damascus Rose holds special significance as the type of rose that was given to St. Juan Diego. The peony is also known as the Pentecost Rose because its blooming usually corresponds with Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, and it will grow in just about any hardiness zone. A word to the wise: ants are what make the peony bloom, so plant them away from your house and patio so as to avoid ants joining your outdoor meals.
Other flowers traditionally symbolize various aspects of Mary’s virtue. Signifying Mary’s purity, the Easter Lily thrives in zones 4 through 8, and the Madonna Lily in zones 6 through 9 in direct sunlight. The Bleeding Heart plant recalls Mary’s title of Sorrowing Mother and her seven swords to the heart foretold by Simon in the temple; these are shade-loving plants which bloom mostly in spring and actually look like their name, a bleeding heart. Marigolds, which are deer-resistant and thrive in sunny locations, are so named because they were originally referred to as “Mary’s Gold” due to their golden color. They make a bright and cheerful addition to any garden. Finally, columbine is a native plant in many areas of the country and is easy to grow; its blue color reminds one of Mary’s traditional attire. My own Mary Garden also includes Lily of the Valley, which bloom in May (the month of Mary) and were once called “Our Lady’s Tears.” The possibilities are truly endless.
A Place for Prayer
To enhance your prayer in your Mary Garden, you might consider installing a small statue of Our Lady. Some people choose to place her statue in an alcove or frame her with an archway adorned with climbing, flowering vines, such as Morning Glory. At my alma mater, Loras College, we installed a rosary walk on campus. Placing stepping stones in the appropriate numbers to outline a rosary becomes a beautiful way to pray the rosary with your body, moving from “bead” to “bead” as you walk around it. Another great option is a bench, so the garden can become a place of rest for people of all abilities.
The mystic Cora Evans and her husband built a shrine to Our Lady in their own yard in the late 1940s. They named it “Mary’s Rose Garden,” and it became the site of many of Cora’s mystical visions. Roses were a significant component of Cora’s ecstasies and visions. She perceived that praying the rosary was like offering Mary a bouquet of roses; when done earnestly, Our Lady received gorgeous open blooms, but when prayed half-heartedly, the prayers were like rosebuds unopened.
Friends and family who visited Mary’s Rose Garden at the Evans’ home were particularly blessed and received healing and peace there. Jesus told Cora that His Mother would bless the garden with her presence, and that many people would come to new faith at her feet there. Mother Mary also told Cora that she would “bless all shrines where I am remembered and honored in a place set apart for my Son and me, as in this rose garden.”1 What a beautiful assurance Cora received from Our Lady that her work in that living offering of the garden would be honored and blessed—and so will ours.
Beauty, truth, and goodness invite us into adoration of the Lord, our Creator. The beauty of a Mary Garden, no matter how small, beckons us to consider the beauty of God’s creation, of which we are a part and of which Mary is perhaps most beautiful of all. Try planting your own Mary Garden and I promise you will not be disappointed at the spiritual fruit it will bear in your life.
1 Quote from the yet-unpublished manuscript of Cora Evans’s sister, Ruth Spaulding, titled “The Remarkable Life of Cora Evans.”