Sister Monica discusses her garden

Sister Monica Duong takes us into her vegetable garden and talks about experimenting with gardening techniques. She speaks to us about learning the art of patience with wind, rain, and pesky squirrels.

Gardeners know that their efforts can be exhausting, and they can be exhilarating. For Sister Monica, the real joy of gardening is harvest time — when she sees with her own eyes the mature, ripened vegetables.

While talking with Sr. Monica, I learned that just a few short years ago she knew nothing about gardening. It seemed like a useful but time-consuming hobby to her that involved too much work and irritation. And then something shifted. She decided to grow a few vegetables on a small patch of land as a way to reconnect with nature.

For years she had enjoyed going to a You-Pick farm in southern Illinois. These trips eventually led her to wonder if maybe she could gain as much pleasure growing food that she had grown with her own hands. The day she took on that challenge is the day her learning curve began. She made many mistakes early on, and still does, she said. But she’s OK with that. She says she solves problems as they come up, learning as she goes along.

“I have had to apologize to seeds and plants and take back threats I have made to squirrels,” she said. 

Sister Monica: meditative and humbling experience

Gardening has shaken her up and slowed her down. Sister Monica doesn’t plant genetically modified seeds or use chemicals on her plants. She believes organic food is grown in a way that is kinder to the Earth and to our bodies.

“Tending a garden is a meditative and humbling experience. I can’t force anything. I just have to have patience,” Sr. Monica said.

For example, Sr. Monica says she has failed at growing robust ears of corn on the cob, radishes and sweet peas, some of which she blames on squirrels. But she does tomatoes well and grows runner beans and cucumbers like a pro now. She also has a lush crop of rhubarb that is destined for a pie. But the pie has to wait and Sr. Monica said she realizes that she needs to be patient because it takes more than one growing season for rhubarb to mature.

Into her third growing season, Sister Monica says her patience continues to be tested by wind, rain, squirrels, and her own frustration. But she is working more in harmony now with Mother Nature, and it’s paying off. She is excited about her newest experiment: vertical gardening – training vegetables to grow upward on trellises instead of letting them sprawl on the ground. She is having success. Vegetables are getting plump, and they are ripening.

Joyful custodianship

Sister MonicaEvening is Sister Monica’s  favorite time to be in the garden. She visits her small garden at the end of each day to relax and lose herself while communing with her plants. There is a joy that she gets from being in the fresh air and sunshine, hearing birdsong, and getting exercise by tending a garden. It’s a happiness that makes her feel healthy and alive.

“Gardening feeds my soul,” she said.

Her gardening efforts also feed people. Sr. Monica harvests her fresh, homegrown vegetables for meals in the convent. She can’t eat the food she produces because of some digestion issues, but she said she really enjoys watching the Sisters benefit from her labor.

Sister Monica doesn’t know where the Sisters will be living next growing season, now that the Normandy property is for sale. But she hopes that wherever they are, there will be space where she can transplant her rhubarb and continue to practice homegrown gardening and the art of patience.

You can read this story and others about Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the monthly newsletter Items of Interest

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette is the Communications Coordinator for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. She is a career photojournalist who has served in various capacities of print, broadcast, and corporate communications. Jeanette is devoted to creation and is particularly focused on saving pollinators and other wildlife species and their habitat. She is an ethical vegan and created the website veganstoryteller.com