Camellia japonica, like this Les Marbury one, grow in filtered shade and are evergreen.

Garden Therapy

Why playing in the dirt is good for your soul

By Dawn Liles  |  Photos by Ray Sepesy

Gardening can help reduce stress. It can also provide a sense of shared community or needed time alone, some exercise and increased levels of vitamin D.

Driving around Ballantyne-area neighborhoods in the spring is proof that many residents devote time to gardening — and enjoy the restorative aspects as well.

Marvin resident Joanie Russell is one of them. She has had a passion for gardening for as long as she can remember. Her family and friends who live in different states have shared plants and cuttings over the years. One of her favorite plants is a Mary Frances iris that her mother gave her.

“Mary Frances was a close friend of our family, so when she passed away 25 years ago, my mother found an iris named Mary Frances and gave one to me and each of my sisters-in-law,” explains Russell. The plant still blooms today in Russell’s garden.

Other prized shared plants include pale pink daylilies that her father gave her 15 years ago and a white mum from her mother’s garden in Maryland.

Russell enjoys gardening because she studied art and gets to let her artistic side come out. “I share plants so others can have the same satisfaction I do, and they have a part of my love,” she says. “It’s also fun to see if plants do better when moved to other environments.”

Russell’s neighbor Mary Sipe grew up in a big family on a farm in Georgia, where she and her siblings had to help work in the garden. For many years she thought of gardening only as work. Then she got a job in finance, moved to a place of her own and missed having a vegetable garden. “I felt a need to go back to my roots,” says Sipe. “I realized that gardening was calming for me.”

Sipe feels a void in her life when she doesn’t make gardening a priority. “There was a time when I was working full-time and caring for aging parents and didn’t have time to get out in my garden,” she says. “I could feel the tension building up and realized that just putzing around in the garden was therapy for me.”

Sipe earned her master gardener designation five years ago and now uses her skills to benefit the community. She manages the cottage garden at Marvin’s Efird Park, oversees the plantings in the common areas of her neighborhood and shares her love of gardening with students at Sandy Ridge Elementary School in Waxhaw. “The kids love seeing the incredible amount of vegetables that can be planted here in the spring,” she notes, “and it’s great to see the kids put down their devices and get outside.”

The emotional aspect of gardening also continues to impact Sipe. One of her sisters passed away unexpectedly about 18 years ago. “She had a very small garden in Atlanta with some beautiful irises, which I dug up and transplanted, first to my yard in Elizabeth and then to our yard in Marvin,” Sipe says. “Every year when it blooms, I think of her. It’s a lovely way to keep alive the memory of a person who has passed away.”

Joanie Russell
Mary Sipe
Mary Jane Lamperski
Stephen Baumeister
Daphne Odora, like this one from Mary Jane Lamperski's garden, is known for its fragrance.

In addition to this sentimental value, Sipe likes the sharing aspect of gardening. “I’ve never met a stingy gardener,” she says emphatically. Her prized camellia bush began from a cutting that was a gift from friend and fellow gardener Mary Jane Lamperski.

Lamperski grows many varieties of camellia plants around her four-acre Waxhaw property, and she is applying to have several registered with the American Camellia Society in Fort Valley, Georgia. “I love camellias because of their beautiful flowers,” she says.

For Lamperski, a lifelong gardener, the activity keeps her young, active and healthy. “My yard is a peaceful place for me,” she says. “I don’t go to a gym for exercise as I am always bending and stretching. Most days, I wear a Fitbit and record over 10,000 steps.”

She also loves to share her flowers because, as one of her neighbors observed, “The more you share, the more you will have.”

For people who are afraid to try their hand at gardening, all the sources interviewed for this piece said to start small, consult someone with experience and just have fun. Fortunately, perfectionism has no place in gardening.

Joanie Russell received this "Bob Hope" Camellia japonica from a friend whose dad used to grow them in Raleigh. "I think of her and her dad every year when it blooms," Russell says. "He (has) since passed away."

Gardening 101

Expert shares beginner tips

For many people, gardening can be intimidating. What’s the best place to start? Ask an expert at a local nursery, such as Pike Nurseries in Toringdon.

“One of the best parts of my job is interacting with customers and helping them choose the right plants for their home and yard,” says store manager Stephen Baumeister. “It’s also really rewarding to sell something to a customer, and then they bring back pictures of it and show the staff.”

The most common question heard by the Pike staff is, How do we keep houseplants alive? “Neglect is the best thing for them, says Baumeister. Overwatering is typically the culprit. It’s definitely better to under water houseplants.”