Gardening for the spirit

When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such exhilaration and health that I realize I have been defrauding myself in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

IMG_0582Throughout my life, gardens have provided many spiritual lessons and moments of refuge.

Among them was the fern garden my Scottish grandfather tended in his back yard on Detroit’s west side — an oasis that restored his spirit during the sad summer my grandmother died. The essay I wrote about that garden was published in both British and American editions of Reader’s Digest magazine, and is included in my book, Writing Home.

Today, my own garden is so much more than a plot for herbs and perennials. Working the soil, I’m often mentally untangling one of my elderly mother’s health problems. Or, while preparing a bed for basil and rosemary, I might be digging my way through a stubborn case of writer’s block. Or just daydreaming.

As I reminded my husband recently, gardening is the best therapy I know. (The money I ought to save for a psychiatrist is well spent on garden gadgets and plants at the local nurseries.)

Along these lines, several authors have written inspiring books on gardening as soul work. Here are a few of my favorites.

Praised as a hymn to nature, Diane Ackerman’s Cultivating Delight (HarperPerennial Library) is a sensuous garden memoir. With the keen eye of a naturalist, Ackerman recounts her back-yard discoveries through the seasons, including the time she uncovered a tiny frog asleep inside a tulip.

“By retreating farther and farther from nature,” Ackerman warns, “we lose our sense of belonging, suffer a terrible loneliness we can’t name, and end up depriving ourselves of what we need to feel healthy and whole.”

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“No matter how saddened I become by the events of life, when I see the world as a garden, I feel better,” writes author Julie Moir Messervy in The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden (Macmillan). A landscape designer and consultant, Messervy also sees the garden as a perfect outlet for personal growth. Her book includes exercises to plan your own paradise, whether you want an elaborate storybook garden with a gazebo or a Zen-like oasis. I used many of her tips when I plotted my own Japanese garden a few years ago.

The Sanctuary Garden (Fireside) reminds us that any garden can be a place of reflection. Authors Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell are founders of the Cortesia Sanctuary for Natural Gardening and Healing in Eugene, Oregon. Their illustrated guide provides tips on attracting wildlife as well as ideas for creating space for prayer and meditation.

“One of the most powerful examples of our relationship to the land came to me when witnessing the end of the war in Bosnia,” writes McDowell. “I was touched to learn that the first act of many of the citizens of Sarajevo was to till and plant their gardens.”

So what are you waiting for? Dust off your garden boots, grab a trowel, ditch your bad mood, and dig in.

— Garden photos (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —

Gardening for the soul

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”  ~May Sarton

I’m taking a week off to work in the garden, so I’ll leave you with one of my gardening essays. This one was published in Victoria magazine, March 2010. I’ll be back next week after a few more trips to the nursery ….

ZEN AND THE ART OF MIDLIFE GARDENING

Last spring, members of our Oakland County Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous.

And with good reason.

Master Gardeners aren’t just fooling around with bulbs and Miracle-Gro. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants; establishing lawns; growing vegetables and fruit trees. I bow to their expertise.

Barely getting my hands dirty, I’ve written a few magazine pieces and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. I’ve shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfather’s ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and I’m a dangerous amateur with a record of murdering rose bushes and planting azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading tulips. Somewhat relieved as I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we also lost several stately maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials – trillium, Solomon’s seal, or bleeding heart – that I’d collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world reminds us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my menopausal body and my newly emptied nest. For a while, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up – by choice or by accident – you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldn’t do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, I’d never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. The garden has become an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from deadlines and the clutter inside our home. It’s also living proof that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writer’s block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone who’s been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when black moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  But we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, it’s easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things can’t get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and tender new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs.  And that when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

–Reprinted from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —

Gardening Wright

As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.”  ~John Lubbock

Despite all the work involved, owning and caring for a second home is a privilege — especially if that home was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of our Wright home in St. Joseph is that it’s so unlike our 1926 Craftsman-style Tudor home in Royal Oak. It gives me an opportunity to explore a fresh new era of interior — and exterior — design.

Designed in 1957 and filled with many of its original Wright-designed furnishings, our ranch-style Usonian home evokes both streamlined Scandinavian and Mid-Century modern styles. Whenever I’m sitting in the living room, for instance, I can almost picture the cast of Mad Men kicking back on the sofa with their cocktails. Anyone for a martini?

Likewise, the gardens at both homes are practically polar opposites. (If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve seen plenty of photos of my garden in Royal Oak!)

In this post, I’ve included a couple of new photos from the Wright house. In the detail shot of the planter near the front door (bottom photo), you’ll see a large ceramic sphere that blends with the red brick and concrete used in and around the house. This area gets a lot of sun, so I’ve mingled succulents with the perennial grasses. The sphere was a gift from our longtime family friends, the Hemmings, as a memorial to Doug’s dad, who died last summer. Doug’s dad always enjoyed gardening, and I’m sure he would have appreciated this tribute.

We purchased our most recent piece of garden art (top photo) from the annual Krasl Art Fair on the Bluff in St. Joseph last weekend. It charmed me as soon as I saw it. Constructed from rusted scrap metal and embellished with rocks, this quirky sculpture features a part that moves like a weather vane or a mobile when the breeze blows through.

For now, we’re enjoying the sculpture on the terrace, which overlooks the woods and St. Joseph River (terrace shown in photo above). The piece looks right at home surrounded by the natural, untamed landscape — just the way Wright himself would have liked it. My next challenge is learning which plants the deer won’t eat. Any suggestions? –CL

— Photos of the Charles Schultz exterior by Cindy La Ferle. For a larger view, please click on each photo. —

Summer unplugged?

By isolating himself at Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn’t run away from life. He’d run toward it. Why couldn’t we leave our lives of quiet, digital desperation and do the same?” — Susan Maushart, from The Winter of Our Disconnect

Once in a while, we all need to unplug. Friends who’ve been visiting this site for a while know I spend less time hanging out here in the “Home Office” once summer arrives. Escaping outdoors — sans laptop — restores my spirit and makes me feel whole again. I’m ready to start this week.

As it happens, I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and A Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. It’s a compelling (and often hilarious) memoir detailing how Mausart, a journalist, and her kids made the difficult decision to live without technology for (gulp) six months. Using current research to back her premise, the author shows how limiting our use of technology, including social media, can enrich the quality of our lives and deepen what she calls “real-life” relationships. As soon as I’m finished, I plan to review the book in a column.

But I’m not totally unplugging this summer. Unlike Maushart, I don’t have the willpower to go for more than a week without checking Facebook, blogs, and e-mail. Through August, I’ll continue to post links to my newly published material; or I’ll rerun favorite (previously published) essays in keeping with the season.

Meanwhile, I’m still micro-managing my mother’s life, keeping a watchful eye on her dementia and health-care issues. Trying to find my balance in the midst of it all has been the toughest challenge I’ve faced in a long time. Whenever possible, I follow Thoreau’s sage advice to “Simplify, simplify.” Right now, things with Mom are relatively calm — and I am working to keep them that way.

When you get a chance, please fill me in on what you’re up to this summer … Will you be blogging more or less? Spending more time at the beach or in your garden? Planning a graduation party? Spending less time at the office? Please send me a cyber postcard before you unplug.  –CL

— Top photo: My Japanese garden, a favorite backyard escape. Bottom photo: A clematis arching over the gate in our backyard. All photos by Cindy La Ferle. —

Garden treasures

There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling.  ~Mirabel Osler

Like most people who love to garden, I’ve been by frustrated by spring’s slow arrival in Michigan. Finally, the sun rose in a cloudless sky this morning, and it was all I could do to keep from running outdoors in my pajamas to start weeding. But the soil’s still muddy, so despite the glorious sunshine, I settled for a little “indoor gardening” today.

As luck would have it, I stumbled on another wonderful vintage bird vase at an antiques emporium in Berkley this afternoon. So, I clipped a few pansies from the pots on our porch, and rounded up a few wildflower blooms from the backyard. Viola — my little bird is perched in his own garden!

I’ve collected several vintage bird vases to decorate the house in the summer months, or to use as small centerpieces for dinner parties. I can usually find them for under $10 at garage sales and flea markets. In the photo taken in my garden room, you’ll see my new treasure along with a painted birdhouse I snapped up for a song today at the same antiques shop. Please click on the photo for a larger view. –CL