Catherine StewartMovie Review: Gardening With Soul

If you love a gentle movie that slowly reveals an extraordinary and memorable character, then you will love Gardening with Soul. Film-maker Jess Feast reveals the rich and thoughtful life of Sister Loyola, a 90 year old nun in the Home of Compassion just outside Wellington, New Zealand. If you can’t imagine that such a woman would have a story worth telling, think again.

Gardening With Soul Primary 3 medium_dion howard

Sister Loyola Galvin, Gardening With Soul. Photo Dion Howard

We have much to learn from the older members of our community. Often ignored or overlooked, they hold wisdom and experience that could benefit many of us, if only we took the time to ask the questions and listen to their answers. Sister Loyola is of that generation that doesn’t chatter and volunteer information but, when encouraged, can tell a story in a way that moves you to tears, or laughter, or compassion, whether it’s about the making of compost and collecting seeds, or the caring for a child rejected by her mother.

Film maker Jess Feast with Sister Loyola

Film maker Jess Feast with Sister Loyola

Gardening With Soul follows Sister Loyola across four seasons in her garden, a garden that feeds many in a literal sense, but also nourishes souls, encouraging community engagement, sharing, and a contemplation of nature, the metaphysical and personal faith. At a time when the Catholic Church is under close scrutiny for the terrible crimes committed by a few and the inept or complicit hierarchy that allowed it to happen, it is so refreshing and restoring to see the work of those in the church who really did, and continue to do, good.

As Sister Loyola says:

“unlike other many other interests, the garden never stops”

From watching her thriving winter vegetables covered with snow while she busily plans her spring and summer crops, through the new growth of spring, the bounty of a summer harvest and then the winding down of autumn, Jess Feast shows Sister Loyola’s garden in a way that makes you feel like you could easily find your own way around it in real life. Current day TV filming of gardens is so annoyingly brief and superficial that you forget what good film-making and quality cinematography can show. This garden is truly four-dimensional and as a gardener, I instantly related to its weeds and pests, seasonal change, layout and crop choices, and Loyola’s clever and thrifty ways.

Sister Loyola Gardening With Soul. Photo Dion Howard

Sister Loyola Gardening With Soul. Photo Dion Howard

Through Loyola, we see how gardening creates sharing, a sense of being in the present (now favoured by many psychologists as an antidote to depression), a feeling of not being alone, a way of understanding your god, and a constant metaphor for life – and death. Says Sister Loyola:

“The garden is saying to me all the time ‘Life is evolving…..life is evolving…'”

Gardening With SoulSister Loyola’s generation of nuns is probably the last ‘flowering’ of this kind of religious service we will see, as noviciate numbers continue to decline. I’m not a religious person and am even a little confounded at the whole idea of priests, monks and nuns, but I do wonder about who in our community will take their place.

I recommend you see this film – 4 stars. And who could resist a woman who says of a stinky bag of composting seaweed:

“That’s our idea of lovely!”

Gardening With Soul opens nationally around Australia on May 29, 2014. To find your nearest cinema, visit the Gardening With Soul website

If you’d like to think about the spiritual side of gardening, the way gardening can build resilience, relationships and communities, and how we now think about religious service and even our old people, have a listen to my conversation with Gardening With Soul’s film maker Jess Feast.

GardenDrum has 5 double passes to give away to see Gardening With Soul at a cinema in Australia. To be in the draw to win a double pass (at participating cinemas), just leave a comment below about an older gardener who inspires you……

[Congratulations to Anne-Marie, Techa, Rhonda, Jennie and Lou whose names came up in my draw to win the movie double passes]

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

44 thoughts on “Movie Review: Gardening With Soul

  1. Christopher Owen on said:

    Perhaps we gardeners will take their place!
    Gardeners don’t need robes and ceremony, access to the ‘Knowledge’ is available to all patient gardeners past, present and future.
    I will be sure to watch this film thanks Catherine.

    • You’d better check out Loyola’s ‘robes’. Lots of good garden clobber and hand knits there!

  2. Anne-Marie Strickland on said:

    It was a man in his eighties who first made me think about gardening. Mr Ryan looked after the plants around our primary school and church – obviously our nuns didn’t have green fingers – and one day he asked if I knew why the roses at the cemetery always looked so beautiful. There followed a discussion of what happens when you die, and how your blood and bones make you “still very useful to God”. Since I told my daughter this story, she threatens to dispose of me in the compost heap.

    • Nothing like a good dash of blood and bone to get the compost roaring along!

  3. Julie on said:

    It is lovely to read the eloquently expressed spiritual aspect of gardening. I think of gardening as an endless circle of nurturing. The exercise of digging, lifting, pruning exercises the body. The mind is calmed. You can paint with plants, you give with plants, you can enhance with plants, you are at peace with plants.

    • Yes, I find it a great place of ‘otherness’. In the film Loyola is asked if she gets lonely in the garden. She just laughs.

  4. Judy on said:

    My elderly neighbour inspired me to plant roses despite experts saying they would fail in our climate. Living in rural subtropical NSW we have hot humid summers that are not kind to roses. However her experience, advice and love of old fashioned roses inspired me to plant a couple of tough china roses and they are thriving. Sadly my neighbour passed away last year but she lives on in the healthy and vibrant deep red, pink and white roses she planted more than 30 years ago that still bloom profusely and make me smile each time I pass her old house.

    • I hope those roses survive a new owner. You may have to become the teacher now.

  5. Karen Montgomery on said:

    I have been inspired by many older gardeners, their knowledge and passion is contagious. I have the pleasure of knowing Lolo Houbein author or One Magic Square & Outside the Magic Square (and there is another book in progress). Lolo & I share the love of environment, community and growing food. She has survived hardships I will never have to overcome in my lifetime and I am thankful to her for her vision, compassion & gardening love that she shares with everyone!
    I am really looking forward to seeing Gardening with Soul and learning about Sister Loyola and her life’s ‘work’!

    • I shall investigate Lolo’s books – thanks for letting us know about her.

  6. Rhonda on said:

    My current inspiration is an 89 year old man at our community garden. He has 3 plots to garden, he mows and weeds the site, he helps everyone, he shares his produce. Though he is a font of knowledge and has a wealth of experience as a former market gardener, it is only when asked that he quietly advises. This gentleman is so active in the community, so generous with his time and care, and so humble that he inspires me in many ways. He’s a true gardener with soul and I reckon he would love this movie.

    • Perhaps you can ask him to go with you. And, as you point out, we need to ask the questions as that generation don’t automatically put themselves forward as a source of knowledge.

  7. Techa Henry on said:

    Peter Cundle always inspired me. I would marvel at his passion and his dedication to the joys of working in the garden, his respect for the environment and his love of educating others.

  8. Dirtgirl on said:

    My elderly neighbour Clare, now in her late 80’s so inspires me to keep on gardening. She still maintains a beautiful garden and never hesitates to offer me cuttings that she thinks will fill my large garden. She is always happy to share her vast knowledge of gardening and I so want to still be gardening at her age!

    • Garden sharing is a great way to stay in touch with your neighbours. So many of us scurry from car to house and don’t interact with anyone nearby.

  9. Kerry on said:

    I cherish the childhood memories, gardening with my grandparents. Spending quality time with people that I worshiped whilst learning so much. 40 something years later I am as passionate as ever and I am teaching my daughter the pleasures of gardening whilst learning the lessons I learned from those that went before us. The garden is my heaven and my solitude.
    Hope to see the movie.

    • It was an unexpected pleasure for me when my own daughter suddenly developed an interest in gardening. In the film you’ll hear Loyola talk about her relationship with her adored father and how much that influenced her life, even though he did not approve of her chosen vocation.

  10. Lou on said:

    To single out one elderly person who inspires and encourages me with my gardening is difficult as so many have offered little gems of advice or ideas that I have taken on board. Recent contributors have been an older friend who last week told me that gardening is all about sharing – sharing your ideas, your plans, your failures, your problems and your produce. She does this all the time with everyone she knows and her life is truly richer for it. Then there’s an elderly gentleman I know, whose knowledge, gardening skills and attention to detail are incredibly impressive and he shares so generously too! What would we do without these unselfish sharers amongst the gardening community?

    • Yes indeed Lou. So much wisdom and experience – and so often overlooked and undervalued as people from whom we can learn.

  11. I have read a lot of reviews of this film (disclosure – I am Australian distributor), and this is one of the loveliest, most understanding pieces I have read on it. Superb work Catherine.

    • Why thank you Simon. Perhaps I have a new career as a film critic before me.

      • Catherine, i would love to read another film review by you. If you choose to do so, please let me know.

  12. Pat on said:

    I was 9 years old (now 77) and we lived opposite a Park. I would often wander over to talk to the old man on his knees weeding, his hands deep in the black loamy soil. I asked him the name of the brightly coloured flowers and he replied:’Sweet William’. He picked me a large bunch and before I bent to sniff their aroma I was hooked. I make a garden wherever I go. And I am still fascinated. I find the current gardening shows disappointing – those quick make-overs – a garden has to be nourished, loved, disciplined, tended to when sick, and when necessary to control those who want to take over! I confess I an cannot understand those who wilfully wield a chainsaw where there was once greenery: ‘it drops leaves and makes a mess’. So you can be sure I will certainly be seeing the film Catherine.

    • I love that such an early memory is still so vivid for you. Yes, garden makeover shows are the pits. So silly and superficial and nothing whatsoever to do with gardening, or even proper garden design. I’ve thought a lot about what’s ‘real gardening’ but listening to Loyola still gave me new insights.

  13. Barbara on said:

    Ahhhh, thank you Catherine,
    I will be seeing this movie tomorrow. My last trip to the cinema was to see Secret Garden with an elderly friend from South Africa 21 years ago. I was unfortunate not to have a gardening role model as I lived in a concrete city in Eastern Europe in my youth, but I think Secret Garden book which I read hundreds of times was my inspiration.

    • I was lucky to be raised in a big suburban garden but The Secret Garden was also a much-loved companion. I read it to my children who also love it, and was pleased and relieved when I re-read it again only a few years ago to find that it stands the test of time. I hope you enjoy the movie – come back and let us all know what you thought of it.

      • Barbara on said:

        Well, I saw the movie and… I should have expected it (sorry too much reference to God in my liking being not a religious person, however it was about a nun after all), but very much about aging gracefully, what she said and is extremely important ” concentrate on what you achieved in life not on what you lost”. One can be just as humane and compassionate without including a made up Father God image. However, i would love to be like she is at 90 which is not that far off!! As for gardening her gardening style is exactly what mine is all about, no upmarket design stuff, though I love to look at it, but soil and compost making.

        • Yes, I’m not one for god stuff either Barbara but I agree that her ideas about life and gardening rise above that. So to speak!

  14. Don’t know if Wendy Whitely would like to be called an “older person” but I’m nominating her as an inspiration. Her once-secret garden in North Sydney is remarkable for its transformation of an abandoned piece of land into a beautiful public place. I go there frequently and admire her creativity and imagination. I’m on the lookout for an abandoned bit of turf that I might one day turn into something just as lovely.

    • We won’t ask Wendy if she considers herself ‘older’, we’ll just add her to our list of wonderful and inspirational gardeners who never let bureaucratic red tape stop her creativity.

  15. Gillian on said:

    Oh this sounds like an awesome movie, I feel as though I am feeding my soul whenever I work in my garden. My grandfather had a huge fruit orchard and a huge prize winning rose garden. I remember him pruning the roses, and saying that a hard pruning allowed the plant to put out good strong shoots for the following season. Sometimes our lives need a good hard pruning too, and following his sage advice, I am never afraid to get out the secatures in both the garden and in my life.

    • That’s excellent advice Gillian. To the pruning I’d add a ‘paring back’ – Sister Loyola is a great example of ‘make do, mend and reuse’.

  16. Wendy Harris on said:

    My mum has always inspired me. Even when i thought i wasn’t listening as a teenager, i must have been. Working in my own garden, i just seem to know things, i know its all those years helping my mum in our family garden. I love it, love soil, mulch, everything. I am always at peace in the garden.

    • My mother’s favourite time in the garden seemed to be when you could still incinerate the clippings. I can still see her now, silhouetted against a red glow. I wonder if pyromania and gardening are really spiritually aligned though?!

  17. Lisa on said:

    What an inspiration! Gardening seems to transcend age, gender and any other category you care to mention. Therapeutic and never ending!

    • I always think it’s interesting that in Australia, gardening seems to be seen as not particularly manly, whereas in the UK it’s nominated as one of men’s favourite things to do, rating above having sex. Apparently the French press’s response to that news was a truly gallic “but of course, they’re English’.

  18. jennie on said:

    My biggest inspiration for my love of gardening is my 85 year old Mum. She has the greenest thumbs and her tiny retirement village back yard is always full of veggies, herbs and flowers. From striking cuttings found in other people’s gardens, stopping to get free/cheap manure on the side of the road, to propagating seeds from last year’s crops, she does it all with such love and enthusiasm. I am now passing it on to my own daughter who has just started a little balcony herb garden. Can’t wait to see the movie!

  19. Joy on said:

    Jennie, your Mum sounds just like mine – same age and home environment and she can coax beautiful things out of the (sandy) soil with investment of more love than money! She calls hers a “Friendship Garden” and can tell you who gave her this plant and that as cuttings. And, of course, the sharing is reciprocated. I’m ashamed when I think of how many plants she nurtured that have met an untimely end at my hands but, still, every time she comes to visit, so do more plants (I’m getting better!).
    Free passes or not, I’ll be seeing the movie anyway, especially as the Regal at Graceville is our favourite cinema in Brisbane!

  20. Congratulations to Anne-Marie, Techa, Rhonda, Jennie and Lou whose names came up in my draw to win the movie double passes.

    • jennie on said:

      Thank you! thank you! thank you Catherine!

  21. Jacinta on said:

    I have been fortunate to be surrounded by gardeners my whole life. My paternal grandfather was a market gardener during the war and lived with us (my parents and my 3 siblings) while I was growing up. We were fortunate to have beautiful fresh vegetables and fruit most days. My maternal grandmother had a beautiful ornamental garden the kind that is perfect for childhood games of hide and seek and cosy cubbie corners. Growing up in rural australia everyone had some kind of garden it wasnt considered particularly special and was always done economically. My garden goals are grander wanting a functional and beautiful garden. I feel peace and the connection to my ancestors when Im gardening.

  22. Clare Bell on said:

    Would a woman- Sister Loyola!
    It was, in fact, my very early memories as a six-year-old student bringing home the nuns’ prized collection of Coleus plants before the school holidays that must have inspired me! (I lived across the road.)
    I wish the nuns had suggested a career then in Horticulture for me instead of the ‘big discovery’ at age 50!!! Who knew?
    Great review Catherine!

  23. I love the sound of this film …certainly will get along to see it.
    Not sure if he was my inspiration but Malcolm, our blind next door neighbour when I was a child amazed me. He lost his sight from disease contracted in World War II in North African desert as a Rat of Tobruk, so by the time I knew him, he had been blind about 15 years. Malcolm could do so much we always forgot he couldn’t see and certainly wouldn’t poke our tongue out at him.

    He gardened all weekend in his slouch hat, whistling melodically all the time, weeding, mulching, carrying compost, all by feel, mowed his front and back lawn and carried the catcher full of grass straight to the beds where he wanted to deposit without a missed step. He had “second sight” we think. He was so calm and joyful, turning over the soil and plants, pruning, and shaping (his pieces de resistance were his beloved hydrangea) – all to his renditions of glorious arias or upbeat ragtime. I think his senses feeling, hearing and smelling the sun, breeze, birds and his fragrant roses were heightened by his sightlessness. He showed me gardening was transcendental, could take you to another place in your mind. Yet he’d be immediately alert if you stood near him and could tell by your footfall who was at his side. I keep his image in my head nearly 40 years since his death, as I go about my garden now. Wish I could get his secrets to growing hydrangea, though.

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