Jill Severn’s Gardening Column

Gardening Lessons from Ukraine

“These flowers, they heal our souls”

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A startling image appeared on TV news last week: in the foreground a patch of brilliant red tulips bloomed; just behind them a Ukrainian house lay in ruins. In the aftermath of brutal violence, the tulips stayed calm and carried on, as bright and lovely as ever.

A few days later, the New York Times reported that “The markets in Saltivka were heavily hit . . . But some parts have reopened, including flower stands, where one resident, Olga Pavlienko, who was out shopping with her sister, bought armloads of brightly colored plants last week.

“These flowers, they heal our souls,” she said. “We have suffered a lot and I pray for peace as soon as possible.”

Olga Pavlienko reminds us of the connection between flowers and the state of our souls – not our souls as they might be in some unknowable afterlife, but the souls alive within us right now – the souls that are nourished by beauty, not bread.

It’s stunning to see how the need for the beauty of living flowers is magnified by the presence of death and chaos. You might think the opposite would be true. But catastrophes like war bring out both the lowest and the highest instincts of our peculiar human species.

Here in our own communities, we saw that in the pandemic: Rancor over masks and mandates was about evenly matched with acts of extraordinary kindness and compassion – and a dramatic uptick in gardening that left seed racks nearly empty in April 2020. We needed flowers to heal our souls too.

This year, as we witness the war from afar, more of us are planting sunflowers to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Before the Russian invasion, their fields of sunflowers produced 46 percent of the global supply of sunflower oil, but perhaps even more important than we thought, they were ravishingly beautiful.

But we can do more than plant sunflowers. Lacey has a sister city in Poland called Minsk-Mazowiecki. That city has another sister city – Borodyanka – in Ukraine. It is now in ruins, and many of its people were the victims of Russian war crimes. The mayors of these three cities have become friends, and Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder is in Minsk-Mazowiecki right now for its celebration of its 600th anniversary.

The Lacey-Minsk-Mazowiecki Sister City Association (a registered nonprofit organization) has been raising money to help its sister city with the influx of over a thousand Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are living in local homes.

These 1,000-plus refugees have arrived at this city of 41,000, a place smaller than Lacey. They need food, clothing, longer-term housing, job training, and tutoring in Polish so they can work and their children can go to school. Needless to say, their presence has overwhelmed this small city’s resources.

If you’d like to help, donations can be sent to the Lacey-Minsk-Mazowiecki Sister City Association (LMMSCA) at PO Box 5992, Lacey, WA 98509-5992. They do not yet have a way to donate online – the link is to their Facebook page. Contributions are tax deductible. They’ve raised $9,000 so far, but the need will continue for as long as the war goes on, and until Ukraine recovers from it.

We need to do all we can to help all the people like Olga Pavlienko, who has probably already planted that armload of flowers – flowers that will help heal the souls of all who see them, and refresh their hope for peace.

A Note to Drutty

A faithful but mysterious reader whose pen name is Drutty asked last week if it’s true that peonies need ants to bloom. The short answer is no. The long answer is that peony buds are covered with a slightly sticky substance that ants like to eat (Or do they lick it off? Do ants have tongues? This we don’t know.) Also, we are advised that the ants don’t always leave when they’ve finished, so some people who pick peonies complain about ants crawling out of their bouquets. The solution to this problem is to pick the peonies when the buds are big and fat, but before they open.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com

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