Nana’s Garden Inspiration

As the holiday season fast approaches, I can’t help but think of my Nana.

by Jessica Walliser
Nana's influence is the driving force behind Jessica being a gardener
Photo courtesy Jessica Walliser

As the holiday season fast approaches, I can’t help but think of my Nana. She passed away 8 years ago, come spring. It’s hard to believe she’s been gone so long.

Nana (who was my Dad’s mother) is one of the reasons I turned out to be a gardener. She always had a lovely garden behind her house. For my sister and me, it was the most wonderful place to spend a day. Surrounded by 30-feet tall arborvitae that Nana planted when my Dad was small, her backyard was totally enclosed. It was like a secret. The only part of the yard that was “open” to a view was the width of a single section of spit-rail fence on the far edge of the garden. The view was of an alfalfa field.

There was a vegetable garden, beds of ivy with benches and statues, a blanket of lily of the valley, perennial borders, container plantings, and a fire place that was perfect for climbing on. She built her own brick patio when she was 60 years old and she painted her metal garbage cans with beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs and distelfinks (you’ll have to Google it). 

There were so many butterflies in Nana’s garden—way more than I ever see today, even on the best of days. Tiger swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries, and pipevine swallowtails were constant fixtures. This is going to sound terrible, but Nana taught us how to catch the butterflies, put them in a jar with a cotton ball of rubbing alcohol, and then make mobiles out of them using fishing line and wooden dowels. 

In the ground-breaking book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv says that one of the ways children learn about nature is by picking it up, handling it and sometimes killing it. It turns out that such close examination nurtures respect and reverence for the natural world. As little as 15 years ago, kids (both country and suburban) spent major hours in the woods and fields surrounded by nature—and they did it without adult supervision.

They did some things that by today’s standards weren’t very nice: shooting squirrels, squashing fireflies, keeping tadpoles in jars, putting frogs in their pockets, netting birds, and other ‘rough’ activities. Today’s educators sing the praises of hands-on learning. In my opinion, you can’t really do hands-on in a classroom. It has to be outside. And sometimes it has to be alone. So many kids today are only exposed to nature at the same time they’re being told to be careful with it. You can’t really touch something if you’re terrified to break it.    

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So maybe Nana’s butterfly mobiles weren’t very P.C., but over the years I think my karma has evened out. Nana was a major player in my life. From her I learned to love the woods, to eat daylily buds, to deadhead rhododendrons and to admire nature with the awe it deserves. Will I make butterfly mobiles with my son someday? Probably not. But not because I’d feel bad about it; it would be because there aren’t as many butterflies left to play with.

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