Courtesy photo

Gardening has always been therapeutic for me. A year ago, when we moved from the home we built, we left behind very mature gardens that we had cultivated for close to 20 years. One of the things we wanted to simplify was the outside maintenance. When we planned our move, I imagined acquiring someone else’s garden to build on with little effort of my own.

We found a great value in our current home, within earshot and winter views of the Long Island Sound – without sacrificing the beautiful views of the North Fork sky. Our DIY renovation project included taking back an acre of land that was inhabited by deer, rodents, snakes and large amounts of locust trees.

The locust trees are essentially overgrown weeds with an intricate root system. For every tree we cut down, five shoots sprung up in another area. Halfway through the summer, I was reading my husband a selection from “The Little Prince” by Saint Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, when the prince describes the arduous daily task of ridding his little planet of these weeds otherwise they should take over and split the planet apart. My husband scrunched his face and agreed that this was his experience battling these weeds. Ridding this property of locusts is like that.

We purchased our new home in faith, believing that the house held great potential as evidenced in the engineer reports and opinions of trusted friends. But no one was quite sure about the outside. The overgrowth of weeds, trees, and vines made it hard to even see the one-acre property, much less walk in it. Unlike our neighbors on the North Fork, we were very happy for the long and snowy winter which kept the outside project for warmer days.

When spring slowly began in March, my daughter Johanna needed an involved surgery to replace the entire shunt system in her brain. While I stayed with her in the hospital in Manhattan, my husband began clearing the overgrowth of fallen and dead trees that made it difficult to even step outside.

I secretly hoped we would come home from the hospital to a crew of HGTV professionals finishing the outside work. Although I was grateful we arrived home to a newly organized garage, my husband read my disappointment when the yard was far from finished and there was no sign of a garden.

While caring for my daughter in her recovery, I started clearing garden areas. The property was vacant for about 10 years and there was even a tree growing up through a chair. My husband joked about leaving it for a lawn ornament until I cried and he sawed the tree down.

The garden area was so overgrown that we couldn’t see what lie beneath. But as we worked we uncovered a garden area with a sloping waterfall surrounded by rocks and some plants, including a Japanese maple. Slowly, the natural potential of the land began to emerge.

Six weeks into our spring clean-up and Johanna’s recovery, my daughter suffered another serious decline requiring a month-long hospital stay, with arduous treatments and more surgeries to stabilize her health.

As I wrote in previous columns, the summer, was a frightening time as she almost died. I was not sitting at her bedside in Manhattan thinking of my garden. I was simply hoping we could keep her alive so we could come home to rest in our new home and enjoy walks to the beach.

The recovery time from these neurological setbacks was a scary time. Because of an increase in seizure activity, I felt like I couldn’t leave my daughter for early morning walks and even felt uneasy about working in the garden. When we finally got a regular schedule of aides to assist with her care, I slowly started working outside.

At that time, my son and his fiance were trying to plan an engagement party for family and close family friends. We were excited for them but still overwhelmed by the renovations and recent health issues. Before the hospitalizations, we had planned a party for my younger daughter and her fiance, who were moving to Georgia in two weeks. That evening ended abruptly when Johanna suffered a grand mal seizure and almost died.

But one month later, I decided we all needed something to look forward to besides recovering from the pain and trauma. I needed something to look forward to and I knew gardening would help. We needed a goal to work towards to appreciate the natural beauty around us.

At that moment, I knew we needed to offer our home for my son and his fiance’s engagement party. My husband just stared out at the bulldozer and the dozens of tree stumps in our yard as I told him about my idea. We were both tired and worn from a year of moving, renovating and rebuilding our lives in the midst of caring for our medically fragile daughter.

I shared with him that we needed inspiration and beauty to look forward to and a goal to reach that would bring some kind of closure to this very difficult time. He agreed, even as he shook his head and looked out at the yard in disbelief. We’d come so far, but there was still so much to be done. So, at the beginning of June, we committed to co-hosting an engagement party with my son and his fiance and her family, for 100 guests, in the third week of September.

The three-month goal gave Johanna something to look forward to as well. I promised Jo that she would get better as I showed her the rocks and ponds we were uncovering when the weeds and trees were cleared. We marveled at the frogs and chipmunks, even as screamed at the snakes we unearthed while moving rocks. As we worked, the shore and wildlife birds glided above our heads and the deer frequented the yard to munch on weeds outback.

At the top of the rock garden, we erected a cross which had been in our family garden for over 20 years. My husband constructed it with our children for one Good Friday when they were very young. The cross defined the area and designated it as a prayer garden. At the foot of the cross, I placed statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and an older statue of Mary that was given to us from a former neighbor and friend. The statues, the ponds and the flowers we were planting added to the prayerful stillness of the garden. The garden became my early morning refuge where I poured out my heart to the Lord in prayer.

I planted sunflower and zinnia seeds late in the season as my husband pushed Johanna in the stroller so she could water the seeds. It was the family effort of love, helping us to look ahead for signs of recovery in hope.

One advantage to planting a garden late is shopping the clearance prices on annuals and perennials. Johanna accompanied me to the local nurseries as we planned our perennial garden based on beauty, birds, and butterflies. We hung feeders and planted flowers to attract hummingbirds and woodland and shorebirds alike.

Simplicity dictated our outside planning with an eye for constructing places to pray and rest. There are places to watch the sun rising over the trees, and the moon rising at night — to watch the birds and the butterflies and listen to the waves crashing on the Long Island Sound. As the flowers bloomed, died and bloomed again, I grieved losses and experienced a renewed hope. Slowly, we all began to recover.

Re-claiming the outside, was a labor of love which culminated in a mid-September celebration of family and friends for my son and his fiance. The flowers, the birds and the butterflies whirled around us as promises of new life.

Now that the fall is here, I am grateful to put the gardening and the projects to rest. I am hoping to spend a quiet winter going through old photos to plan a gallery wall inside our new home.

But most of all, I am thankful for the healing that happened in the midst of the strife. This past year has been a year of restoration – of working hard to find beauty beneath the chaos of struggles, weeds, and worry. By focusing on goals to celebrate love and beauty, the weeds were easier to uproot and the worry gave way to hope.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen