It’s been nearly 80 years since the first known public Mary Garden in the United States was planted at St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole, Mass.
The garden was composed of more than 50 flower species dedicated to, or symbolic of, the Mother of Jesus. Like the European gardens it was patterned after, Mary’s Garden at Woods Hole became a place of prayer, rest and contemplation, a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of the world.
In the decades since, the concept of dedicating not only church gardens to Mary but backyard retreats as well, has taken root and branched out to churches all over the country. In the Trenton Diocese, Mary Gardens can be found in countless backyards and parishes including Sacred Heart, Riverton and St. Mary Parish, New Monmouth, and in surprising locations, like a corner of Center Street in downtown Lakehurst.
There, a few years back, in front of a religious goods store called Sisters in Faith, one-time proprietor Patricia Polchak, an enthusiastic gardener, took spade in hand and mapped out a Mary Garden in a small space.
“I tried to do a Rosary garden,” said Polchak, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Whiting. “I had stepping stones stained blue leading to a statute of Our Lady of Grace.”
Around the stones and the statue she planted flowers long associated with the Virgin including: columbines, said to have sprung up wherever Mary walked on her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth; old treasures like Our Lady’s Mantle and Our Lady’s tears; lilies in honor of her purity; and purple flag iris, long known as “Mary’s sword of sorrow”.
“I never cared much for irises before I planted the Mary Garden,” said Polchak.
“But when I look at them now, I see the swords of sorrow. It’s such a different perspective.”
It’s the perspective that enabled her to combine a deep religious sense with an abiding love of gardening.
Polchak is the health care administrator at The Pines at Whiting, a continuing care retirement community founded by America’s Keswick, a Christian service organization. Polchak said that over the years her interest in gardening with a spiritual theme has broadened to include biblical gardening – a blossoming trend that has been sprouting up all over the nation and the world.
She’s hoping other area gardeners who share these interests will come out to an April 17 workshop she’s put together on biblical gardening at The Pines which will be presented by one of the foremost experts on the subject: Dr. Ed Bez.
Planting the Bible
Bez, a biblical archaeologist, is the director of the Biblical Garden Society of the USA. In the workshop, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a noon break for lunch, he’ll focus on what a biblical garden is and how to create one. He’ll also talk about the five different uses of plants in the days of Jesus and how to nurture the spirit and body by growing and using the herbs mentioned in Scripture such as myrtle, mint, dill and garlic.
Called an articulate, interesting and knowledgeable presenter by those who’ve heard him, Bez, a retired Christian pastor, has a vast grasp of the contextual background of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures; the flora and the fauna of the lands of the Bible; archaeology and the climate and geology of the Holy Land.
When not out speaking around the country on a series of topics connected to biblical gardening, including the healing plants of the Bible, King Solomon as biblical gardener and botanist and foods Jesus would have eaten, he can be found at the Biblical Botanical Gardens in High Springs, Fla., a 26acre tract dedicated to the flora of the Bible.[[In-content Ad]]
“We focus on all the lands of the Bible, not only Israel,” Bez said during a telephone interview. “From Gibraltar to Spain to Northern Africa to Iraq, Iran, all the lands and what was grown by the people in them,” he said.
“What we are trying to accomplish is a collection of plants mentioned in the sacred texts,” he said.
That worthy goal received a setback from this winter’s rough weather, said Bez. Some 60 percent of the biblical plants sustained severe damage. “We’re trying to re-seed now. It’s a big vision we have in our hearts and it’s still very much in the nascent stage.”
Bez started cultivating the vision some years ago when he began considering the growing disconnect between how much the Bible was purchased and how little it was read and understood.
“I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that the Bible is the most purchased, least read book in the world. We’re living in a post modern age where young people have to be titillated by the techno world to be interested.
“I wanted to do what I could to make the Bible more understandable and enjoyable,” he said. “At the time, (the first) Indiana Jones movie came out and I knew that archaeology always interests people.”
He started taking archaeological trips to Egypt, “volunteering, learning conservation and the identification of artifacts. I discovered how the world of archaeology captures the imagination of young people and that was the mechanism I focused on to engage them in the Bible.”
At age 61, he decided archaeology was getting arduous. “I began thinking about what I could take into my post-active days and still propagate interest in the Bible.”
While taking meditative walks in the Holy Land, his “post active” prospects began centering on the flora he encountered there. “I have literally fallen in love with these wonderful players,” he said of the plant species he’s come to know so well.
“I’m not a botanist but I have come to be regarded as having biblical credentials which have allowed me to research them. The aim is to create a model garden for research, education and reflection that is family-friendly and reasonable.”
Branching Out Biblically in Whiting
Bez said that his program at The Pines, will include a section on creating a sacred garden in whatever space is available, a premise that very much appeals to Polchak who is hoping to incorporate Scripture-based gardening as well as horticultural therapy into the daily life of the senior development.
The program is open to the entire community, she said, because there are so many serious gardeners in residence at The Pines and in the surrounding area. She’s hoping the program will lead to volunteers who would work with her and residents in creating a biblical garden.
“It would be wonderful to have a volunteer base,” she said. “We don’t need a vast time commitment from everyone. Just give us an hour a week, come in and dead head some flowers. It would be wonderful.”
Registration with lunch is $10. Seating is limited. Please register by April 9 by calling 732-849-0400.