05/06/2011 10:06 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Mother's Garden: 7 Tips to Heal a Mother's Soul

Ellen Michaud is the author of "Blessed: Living a Grateful Life." She is also a University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener, and can answer questions at

* * * * *

The sun-filled days of splashing happily in a baby pool, hose-flooded sandbox or giant mud puddle in the middle of my garden with my young son may be past, but the joy he brought as a child still ripples abundantly through my life and garden now that he's grown.

Yes, he keeps the airline industry healthy with visits home, calls frequently and tweets a pithy comment on the social fabric of American life whenever the absurdity of it strikes him.

But on those days when missing his presence washes through me as a kind of grief, I can go out into the garden, sit on a bench made from old country stones and inhale the jasmine he brought 3,000 miles across the country to make me smile. I can wiggle my toes in the fragrant thyme that edges our tiny frog pond just as he did as a child, and I can reflect on the blessing of our relationship as I study the stone lantern I light when he's on his way home.

A mother's garden can be as simple as creating a corner on your apartment balcony or as elaborate as the acres and acres of cultivated space at the Duke University children's garden. I came up with the idea when I wrote "Blessed: Living a Grateful Life," a small gift book that contained a section on creating a garden for my own mother. (See "A Garden for My Mother" at

If you'd like to plant a small space that reminds you of your children, here are a few tips to get started.

1) Pick a spot.

Pick a sunny spot, sheltered from the wind, that you can see from a window. That way, just a quick glance outside can lift your spirits. It's like a quick, fly-by hug from an on-the-go child.

2) Install a tiny pond.

Water makes a great focal point for any garden, whether it's a large terracotta saucer tucked between plants on a balcony or a 12-foot pond on an acre of pine. And it's sure to remind you of all the splashing in pools, ponds and puddles your child has enjoyed.

For a small city or suburban garden, pick up a pre-formed pond shell made of resin or fiberglass from your local nursery or garden supply. Turn the shell upside down in your emerging garden, trace its shape on the ground with chalk, then dig your hole. Fit the shell in place, and line the bottom with round river stones. Use larger stones to edge the shell's outer rim. Then set a few aquatic plants--in their containers--on the molded shelf you'll find inside the shell about 18 inches from the top and fill the shell with water. You can install a tiny solar fountain to aerate the water, or you can simply flush the pond with a garden hose once a week.

3) Edge the pond with fragrant herbs.

What were the herbs your son or daughter liked as a child? My son loved thyme sprinkled over a wide variety of foods, and to this day the smell reminds me of all the thyme-flavored chicken I made. So when I constructed my pond, I bought half a dozen 4-inch pots and planted them around the stones edging the pond. Since thyme stays short, spreads widely and comes up every year, I now have a fragrant green border surrounding my pond. I also have a boffo crop of frogs. Turns out they love nestling in the thyme -- and every time they wiggle, a fresh burst of fragrance drifts across the water.

4) Use small, delicate trees.

Use small trees to provide vertical structure to the garden, just as you would use framing to build a house. Small birch, sand cherry, weeping pea, weeping cherry or apple are all good choices. They'll contribute to a sense of being sheltered in a loving place. If there's a tree that your child liked to climb or read under, find a dwarf variety and include that, as well.

5) Ask for a perennial plant on Mother's Day.

What could be more uplifting than being surrounded by flowers given by your children every year? You can label each plant by painting the year it was given on a small, flat stone and tucking the stone under the plant's branches. Every time you see the plant, you'll be drawn back into a particular memory -- the Mother's Day your son burned breakfast, perhaps, or the Mother's Day your daughter fell off her bike.

6) Light the way.

Add a small, Japanese stone lantern to your garden. Place a candle inside, and light it as a welcoming beacon for your children when they return home.

7) Add a bench.

Put a small bench or large, flat stone near the pond. Then take a moment in the crazy busyness of your life to sit quietly and reflect on all the blessings your children have brought into your life -- and those you've brought into theirs.