When touting the benefits of gardening, the first things to come to mind are often beautifying spaces and providing fresh produce to eat, but gardeners also enjoy physical, emotional and mental health benefits. To talk about self-sustaining regenerative gardens and the power of gardens to heal, my guest this week is Stephanie Rose, a Master Gardener and prolific writer on gardening and DIY.
Stephanie lives in East Vancouver, Canada, a city with tiny lots and not all that much space to garden, but she makes it work. She created a lush, regenerative garden as a means of healing herself. She lives with an invisible disability that at times has made it nearly impossible just to get out of bed, but she persevered. She creates plans for gardening projects that are easy to start and quick to finish while making a big impact, and she shares her ideas and tutorials on her popular blog, Garden Therapy.
Stephanie has built a full-time career as a writer. She has penned 12 books in all, among them “Garden Made: A Year of Seasonal Projects to Beautify Your Garden and Your Life,” a 2016 IPPY Award Gold Medal for Home & Garden, and “Garden Alchemy: 80 Recipes and Concoctions for Organic Fertilizers, Plant Elixirs, Potting Mixes, Pest Deterrents, and More.” Her latest is “The Regenerative Garden: 80 Practical Projects for Creating a Self-Sustaining Garden Ecosystem,” which we discussed after she shared her inspiring story of self-directed recovery.
Stephanie’s journey of healing offers many powerful lessons on optimism, resilience, tenacity and determination — all traits of a well-rooted gardener. Wherever you are today in terms of your gardening life, personal life or physical or mental health, I believe this episode will do you some good — or even a lot of good.
Before continuing my conversation with Stephanie, let me pause to remind you that I have a book of my own coming out in September. The title is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” and it’s available for pre-order now. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
‘Gardening Saved My Life’
“Gardening saved my life,” Stephanie often says. She notes that it’s not an exaggeration or something that she says lightly.
“When I found the garden, I was in a place that was really, really difficult,” she recalls. “So back in 2006, I got a headache, and I couldn’t get out of bed after that headache.”
She’s still not sure exactly what happened to her. Something shut down her whole system, and she was in constant pain and fatigued, she says. “I lost a lot of the use of my arms and my legs. I had a peripheral neuropathy that caused temporary paralysis at times in my arms and my legs. It was terrifying.”
This lasted for about two years, but at about the one-year mark, she started to wake up a little bit, she says. Her body and mind were weak from having been in bed so long, and she needed some sort of rehabilitation program. She looked outside the front door of her tiny house with a typical square of lawn in the front and back. She said to herself: “This is where I’m going to heal. This is where I’m going to grow.”
She decided she could do better than her existing shrubs and lawn, and she set out to learn about gardening. She borrowed a bunch of books from the library and began reading and researching how to start seeds, grow perennials, trees, herbs and shrubs, and can vegetables.
“I fell in love with books that taught me how to transform my life, and those authors don’t know how much impact they had on my life,” she says. It’s what inspired her to become an author.
When Stephanie started out, sometimes all she could manage was to put in five minutes a week. Still, it was good to have the sunshine bask on her face. She added a hammock chair facing her garden. “Some days the gardening activity was to sit in the chair and watch the bees and listen to the sounds and enjoy the aroma of the flowers,” she says.
She worked her way up to five minutes a day, then 10 minutes, then an hour, until she could be out in her garden for five or six hours in a day.
“The work that I was doing out in the garden isn’t the same as the toil and labor that a lot of other folks do in the garden, or what we imagine is gardening work,” she says. “I had to do projects that were really attainable and easy and had high reward because as somebody who was living with a disability, I couldn’t push myself. But I wanted that reward system.”
She likewise began a lot of DIY and craft projects that could be completed in an hour and look beautiful. “Things like that really helped just making those steps forward,” she says.
In time, she could take on bigger projects, like an espaliered apple tree with five different grafted branches.
“We know gardening gives us strength in our bodies,” she says. “It’s scientific — so we’re constantly using our minds. We get out in the fresh air and the sunshine. It’s really good for our mood. So all those components really helped me transform.”
About five years after beginning her gardening journey, she joined the Vancouver Master Gardeners, started working with children’s gardens and put a charity garden in her sunny front yard. Her charity garden involved growing perennials that people living with addiction could dig up, divide and sell the divisions to gain valuable work experience and earn a little money.
Her yard transformed from green squares with a couple of forsythias into a lush oasis, and she changed along with it. Now, there’s a shady woodland garden out front. She also has an herb garden with a yuzu tree (a temperate citrus tree) that she started from seed 10 years ago — and hopes to finally get fruit this year.
“I started to get healthier and stronger,” Stephanie says. “I found all these wonderful people who also love plants. And that’s when I realized, like, these are my people — gardeners are my people.”
Instead of going back to the corporate job she had previously, she pursued gardening and writing books about it as a career. When she was offered the opportunity to write her first book, it was a dream come true. She relished being able to teach others how they can find their path in gardening.
Stephanie’s disability is something she continues to live with — with lupus, migraines and concussion syndrome — and she has suffered relapses as recently as a year ago. It’s not the kind of disability that others can see, but it’s there and she has learned to live with it.
Connecting Through Gardening
Training to become a Master Gardener helped Stephanie connect with others at a time when she was feeling lonely and isolated. She also started a blog, Garden Therapy, about healing through gardening, and joined social media, using Twitter to find other gardeners.
Stephanie began sharing photos of the projects she was working on in her garden, and others wanted to know how they could do the same. She began writing step-by-step instructions.
“I really fell in love with this idea of sharing my path with others because I was forced to find the easy and accessible way to garden with the high reward system,” she says. “So when I wrote out the steps, then it really motivated others when they saw how easy it was to do what I was doing.”
Stephanie combined high aesthetic value with high ease and fun. She also based her projects on the science behind gardening. It gave her a new perspective on how most people garden.
Adopting Permaculture for Less Work
“I don’t feel like the way we’re gardening is quite right,” Stephanie says. “It seems really laborious to go into your garden and clear out everything that’s there, turn your soil, put in brand-new plants, space them, water them, mulch them, water them, you weed them, water them.”
In fact, watering is one of her least favorite gardening chores. She wondered why watering is necessary in our gardens while meadows and forests regenerate themselves with no assistance.
“Why are we spending so much time making this a lot of work when Mother Nature is already doing this?” she wondered.
That’s when she found permaculture. Unlike agriculture or traditional horticulture, permaculture works by mimicking nature’s design of vibrant, interconnected ecosystems. It works in concert with nature rather than trying to control it.
Stephanie studied permaculture and earned a couple of permaculture design certificates. However, when she read the thick books full of information, charts and diagrams, she felt that it was not accessible to the average person. She broke down permaculture projects into the easy, accessible, high-reward format that she had success with before.
All of her books offer DIY project ideas with lots of photos, easy steps, and the answer to “why are we doing it?”
The same is true of “The Regenerative Garden.” It takes permaculture practices and puts them into home gardens so they become less work and cost less money while becoming an ecosystem on their own.
Stephanie’s garden is so self-sustaining that she can go away camping in summer and not have to worry about what will happen to it while she’s gone. “It’s an ecosystem that works on its own,” she says. She can harvest blueberries, yellow raspberries and the Alpine strawberries by the handful and then head off in her camper van to spend five days in the woods.
When she hosts garden tours, the first thing guests say to her is that she has so many plants she must spend a lot of time working on it. But the reality is quite different: “I set up the systems so that the garden thrives on its own,” she says.
Still, Stephanie walks through her garden in the mornings to enjoy it and see what’s blooming. She lets most plants go to seed then self-seed for the coming years, though she also harvests some flowers before they go to seed to keep them from spreading out of control. And she turns those flowers, such as St. John’s wort, into infused oils she can use for skincare.
“I do interact with the garden for sure, but it always feels like a place of joy,” she says. “… I’m not there for the garden. The garden is there for me.”
‘The Regenerative Garden’
“The Regenerative Garden” is broken into six chapters: Soil, Plants, Water, Ethics, Climate and Community. Stephanie says all of the topics touch on each other in a circular connection showing how they all work together. For example, the chapter on soil concerns plants, water catchment and climate.
“If you’re looking for six easy concepts for how we can start putting the regenerative garden together, each chapter opener discusses those concepts,” Stephanie says. “And then there are 80 projects where you can pick and choose like a cookbook, which ones you want to try to start applying in your garden.”
Fixing Soil with Wild Plants
Wild plants (what some people call “weeds”) move into an area when the soil has opened up an opportunity for them.
“‘I’m trying to get to that place where we as home gardeners are respecting the fact that these wild plants are coming into our gardens not only to give us information but also to help remediate the soil,” she says. “It’s a really fascinating thing, and here we are at war with all these wonderful wild plants that are doing things to help us.”
Look at lawns: a bunch of turf, which is made up of little plants with very shallow roots.
“Homeowners, we love our lawns because it gives us this beautiful curb appeal and a place that’s soft under our feet,” Stephanie says. “But we don’t necessarily think about that as a garden or an ecosystem. And each one of those little plants is trying to survive and thrive on its own.”
When dandelions seed themselves in lawns, they are providing a service, she says. They are breaking up compacted soil with their tap roots and bringing up deep minerals such as calcium and iron into their leaves, which later decompose, feeding the shallow-rooted plants around them.
“Every time we remove a dandelion, we’re removing the thing that’s helping us remediate the soil, that helps grow those turf grasses even better and stronger,” she says.
Each wild plant sends gardeners a different message. It could be about soil compaction, nitrogen deficiency, deep minerals, acidity, etc.
“It’s an opportunity for us to sort of look at them in a bit of a different way, understand what they’re doing and maybe give them a thanks instead of a yank,” Stephanie says. (That belongs on a T-shirt!)
She has replaced her lawn with “lawn alternatives.”
“To get a greener lawn, we have to understand that the life cycle of our grass is that it dies back above the soil when it gets really hot in order to protect the roots,” she says. “And what we do is we want it green in the middle of summer. So we’re watering it — watering and watering it — trying to keep those plants cool, trying to keep them growing, but it’s really stressing out the plants.”
Instead of grass, Stephanie suggests growing clover, which is a nitrogen-fixing leafy plant that has pollinator-attracting flowers and is low growing and easy to mow.
Another idea is to make a “bee border” in front of your vegetable garden, putting in swaths of flowers to attract pollinators that will fly down to visit the flowers and stop in your vegetable garden while they are there.
Water is a finite resource and we need to think about how we care for it, Stephanie says. By keeping as much water on our property as we can and allowing it to go back to the soil, it reduces our workloads while also improving the symbiotic nature of our relationships with our gardens.
There are rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns, or on a smaller scale, an olla: a terracotta container buried under the soil, with the top accessible so it can be refilled with water to keep the soil moist and the plants happy. Her book includes instructions on how to make an olla out of two terracotta pots.
Other projects can be as simple as redirecting downspouts so water goes right back onto your property and into the soil rather than into the sewer.
There was a time when gardeners could look at the 30-year weather average for their area to get an idea of what to expect. Today, due to climate change, the past is not a reliable indicator of what the future holds.
Gardeners also have to consider the unique microclimates of their gardens. The conditions on one property can be quite different than the conditions a few doors down, and even on a single property, different areas can have different microclimates.
Taking the time to do sun and shade mapping and understand wind patterns can give gardeners a better understanding of what will grow best on their land. Attaining this knowledge also prepares gardeners to implement projects that will harness the energy that the climate already produces to create a more comfortable and productive garden space.
Take wind. Stephanie’s book provides instructions on how to make small woven hurdles to protect individual vegetables from cross-pollination. There are also plans for creating windbreaks with a treeline or a row of shrubs.
Ethics in Gardening
In her book’s chapter on ethics, Stephanie talks in depth about composting and reusing what we have,
“The thing that kind of drives me bonkers, especially living in the city where people don’t have a lot of space for composting is that they will clear all the debris from their garden, all the things that have dropped, put it into the green bin, which then gets taken away to the city composted, and then they will buy it back from the city in the spring and put it back in their garden,” she relates.
Stephanie has vermicomposting bins and worm towers, and she practices chop and drop — what she cuts in her garden, unless it’s diseased, she allows the plant material to fall to the ground where it will decompose and return its nutrients to the soil.
Stephanie noticed during the pandemic shutdown, when her neighbors were staying home instead of going into offices, that people would get out and work in their front gardens more rather than relaxing in their back gardens.
“We lost our office buildings and our water cooler and how we connect with others, just sort of in a social way,” she says. “And so people started using our neighborhoods.”
When she first conceived of that chapter that would become “Community,” she had planned to call it “Wildlife.” She wanted to get at who we are sharing our garden spaces with. Gardeners immediately think of the insects, birds and lizards. But Stephanie says they’re also sharing with their families and neighbors plus anyone who we share our harvest with or who just passes by and enjoys seeing the hydrangeas.
During COVID, gardening also built community with seed libraries and by sharing plant starts. Urban flower stands and harvest shares also popped up.
Stephanie’s neighborhood now has an annual event called the McSpadden County Fair that includes “zucchini races.” These are like Pinewood Derby races, but instead of wooden cars, zucchinis outfitted with axles and wheels race down a ramp. And the participants grow the zucchinis themselves.
Stephanie’s 9-year-old son won a trophy for a first-place win in the “Outlaw Category.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Stephanie Rose. If you haven’t listened yet, you can hear this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
How had gardening helped you heal? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the wait list here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Garden Made: A Year of Seasonal Projects to Beautify Your Garden and Your Life” by Stephanie Rose
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.