Master Gardener and naturalist Heather Zindash really digs cultivating a soulful and inspirational outdoor environment for the visitors and inhabitants she welcomes to her yard. Armed with the tools of her trade and a Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic design and fine arts from the University of Akron, she uses her shovels, hoes, and rakes in tandem with her design expertise to inspire and educate others about the flora and fauna indigenous to our region.
She developed a connection with the great outdoors as a child on her family’s five-acre farm in rural Doylestown, Ohio. Surrounded by a menagerie of domestic and farm animals, she was an active member of the local 4-H Club and became deeply rooted in nurturing and growing things. “It was really a wonderful time. We had a vast meadow between our house and the barn. Because the yard was so big, you didn’t mow everything, so you had to walk through that area to get back to the barn. We saw all kinds of things like red-winged blackbirds, and mice, and butterflies. … We were already connected to nature without realizing that it was a big deal.”
After marrying, she and her husband moved to Florida. His job opportunity in 1999 allowed them to relocate to Gaithersburg. “It gave us back the seasons that we were used to when we lived in Ohio, and then we started our family, so here we stay,” she said.
Her natural affinity for nature’s wonders led her to coursework and numerous volunteer service hours to become certified as a Maryland Master Gardener and Maryland Master Naturalist through the University of Maryland Extension. Her naturalist training was conducted through the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. She maintains a website devoted to “cultivating for pleasure & insight.” Among the many hats she wears in addition to wife and mother are gardener, nature writer, photographer and speaker.
Her day job as a client care specialist and executive assistant at The Empowered Performer, a company that coaches and instructs singers and speakers to use their voices as powerful tools for their businesses, pairs well with her avocation. “It’s helping me use my voice to connect people with plants and nature for health and well-being,” she said.
“Trowel and error” is a phrase she has coined to describe her approach in the garden. “I’d far rather try something and figure it out, rather than just read about it only. I like to have my fingers in the dirt.”
At her childhood home in Ohio, a portion of the land was dedicated to a vegetable garden. “We turned up the soil, planted our vegetable plants, and we would go harvest them. My brother and I would always go out and collect the food and eat it,” she recalled. “It’s ironic. … It’s what we’re all going back to. Back then, we were just doing it. … It was part of our life.”
Zindash said that she and her husband took for granted that their children would have similar experiences, but outdoor living in the D.C. metro area “didn’t come as easily as it did back in Ohio.” Their first home in Maryland was a townhouse with a concrete backyard. Although there were park areas, she said it was not the same. “I wanted my kids to be able to roam safely in nature, go barefoot in the grass, and explore things the way we did, like finding toads under the rocks and catching fireflies, and just digging and being outside … so, we knew we needed a home with a yard.”
They bought a single-family home on a ¾-acre lot. After installing a swing set in the yard for their daughters who were ages three and 18 months at the time, Zindash said she added birdfeeders and selected plants that would attract hummingbirds and butterflies. “I knew that life would be attracted to the garden and that the kids would be able to enjoy it, and learn from it, and really experience it.”
In 2009, her family realized that the work they had completed on their suburban lot met all of the requirements for their property to be certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Requirements for certification are wildlife-friendly, sustainable gardens with native plants that provide food, supply water, create cover, give a place for wildlife to raise their young, and help wildlife thrive in a healthy habitat free of herbicides and pesticides to ensure wildlife abundance. “That was great for the whole family because they (the children) were old enough that we could talk to them about it, what it meant, and how to identify what it was that we were providing on our land. Then we started watching for the visitors in a different way because they were older and they could understand it, interact with it better, and, because they were now big enough, they could contribute.”
Among several basic tips for optimum results in the garden, Zindash suggests first taking stock of the existing plantings in your yard to determine what is already working well, and she encourages the use of plants native to the area “because they don’t require pesticides and fertilizers. They’re already used to going without water occasionally, they’re used to the soil, they’re used to our seasons, so you don’t have to do as much to coax them along. … It uses your land’s resources a lot better.”
Next, she said to consider the purpose of your plants. Perhaps you want to attract the Maryland state butterfly, the Baltimore checkerspot, which is becoming uncommon as its moist habitats disappear. “If you have moist soil, you could add their host plant, which is white turtlehead (chelone glabra). The reason we want to help them out is because it’s the only plant that hosts their young. Although they can eat nectar elsewhere, it’s the only plant that they lay their eggs on and their babies eat it.”
She mentioned another butterfly in decline—the monarch. According to the National Wildlife Federation, over the past few decades, the monarch population has declined over 90 percent. Zindash recommends providing the common milkweed plant (asclepias syriaca) for monarchs because it thrives in many different soil and sun requirements. Overall, she said, “What you want to do is find the right plant for the right spot no matter what you’re trying to do … so you have to think about the soil requirements, the moisture and the sun.”
Zindash, who is looking for more opportunities to speak about “life in the landscape,” recently spoke at The Wild Bird Center in Gaithersburg about gardening to attract birds. She speaks on a variety of topics including backyard ponds, the ecosystem, attracting wildlife, creating a certified wildlife habitat, and starting a first-time vegetable garden. “I like the idea of re-establishing habitat and living in harmony with all of these things on our properties because honestly, we are the custodians and we need them. … It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Her motto of “gardening and therapy through horticulture … bringing people and plants together” is echoed in her thoughts about early spring and the emergence of bulbs shooting up through the cold, snow-covered ground. “It is such a moment of hope for me. I know that soon they’ll be up blooming and smelling beautiful, and they’ll be followed by a succession of other plants. It’s just the renewal, the repetition of the garden … always something to discover. I also like that it’s a sanctuary. It’s so peaceful. I go outside to my garden to be centered, to find that place inside where you can relax, rejuvenate, and refocus.”
For more information, visit www.thesoulfulgardener.com.