Natures Path to Well Being & Joy
by Robin Pfeiffer
Nature in general has a beneficial effect on the human psyche and our bodies literally need exposure to the outdoors to maintain a healthy, alive, dynamic life. The garden is a sacred space, out your backdoor or in your community, to cash in on nature’s healing power.
I never knew how passionate I would be about gardening and everything associated with this “hobby.” I grew up in the state of New York which is a fabulous place to grow produce and fruit. My experience of a garden was really about the “yard” outside the house which my dad and brothers tended. Cutting the lawn, trimming bushes, raking, watering and sweeping all seemed very boring, very tedious. I remember even thinking I would never want to waste my weekend having to work in the yard.
My grandfather had a green thumb with roses. I have photos of him standing amongst beautiful, abundant bushes. My mom had a small garden and my memories of her happiest self are when she was planting and tending to her snapdragons, gladiolas, mums, roses, portulacas, marigolds and trees. She loved trees and planted many everywhere we lived. I now recognize how she influenced me by example as I observe my choices in plants, trees and flowers.
Voila! Over 40 years later, gardening has reigned as one of my greatest passions. One of the others being food: buying it, growing it, cooking it, eating it, entertaining with it. Gardening and food are great companions. I am self-taught, at times reaching out for advice, referencing from a book, touring gardens and occasionally attending a class. I have truly learned most of what I offer through my experience. All knowledge comes through experience. Your greatest garden guru will be your personal experiences. Our senses create how we experience life every waking moment. Our most powerful connection to life is through the body interacting with the physical world. If we are not in our body we are not fully present. The body is guided by our senses. There is no better place than the garden to engage the senses. I love this opportunity to share my journey and inspire you to discover the multitude of gifts offered through cultivating a garden.
Over the years I have brought back the souls of three run-down, left-for-dead houses. Infusing them with attention and love I brought them back to life and they became homes. It was as a homeowner that I recognized the outside area to be crucial to creating a soulful, beautiful home. The importance of the garden in relationship to our human dwellings is often forgotten in our fast paced virtual reality world.
My first dump of a house was in Salt Lake City. The house was old and so I inherited mature grape vines, raspberry bushes and a huge Bing cherry tree! The first year I was clueless about anything outside the house and didn’t notice the bushes and vines. I was so financially strapped that I didn’t water the far reaches of the yard because I couldn’t afford to buy a second hose!
Plants are so forgiving and fortunately mine made it through a summer with a very neglectful owner. Plants are also very intelligent and if I leave them alone they often figure out on their own what is necessary for their survival. They move towards more sun, they heal themselves from aphids and they often take many summers to bloom. Plants teach me how to treat them. I can “feel” when they are happy and healthy where they reside. I do believe the natural world and gardens in particular love to be admired and tended to with love and affection. Some of my plants have grown far larger than normal because of the love and attention they receive. There is a definite feeling you get when you are in someone’s home or garden and you know it is loved. Time and experience have taught me these lessons:
1. Be patient and curious about why things are placed where they are. Whether it is a deck, plant, walkway, fence or wall, take the time to understand their purpose. My current home is 70 years old and was a neglected rental. There was a cracked, uneven concrete blocked slab which many would have removed. Placing a bench on the space provided a clear vantage point of Bachelor at sunset. Leaving it there creates a meaningful and aesthetic experience maintaining some of the home’s history. I also kept an almost dead, small rhododendron which after five years finally bloomed and is large, healthy and provides great spring color! I have also kept all my trees.
2. Keep the trees! Rooted in the Earth, trees add a firm foundation to any garden. They provide structure year round, food (late season plum varieties are excellent) attract birds and add color if you plant ornamentals. Crabapple trees do excellent in Bend providing blossoms in spring, colorful berries and leaves in autumn and food for birds. I never have to clean up my apples because the birds eat them in fall and the following spring. I choose trees with small apples the size of my fingernail. I have a very old, large Ponderosa three feet from my bedroom window as well as four other large such trees. I am so saddened by folks cutting them down because they are messy or too much shade. The shade keeps my home cool in summer — no air conditioning needed — and the trees inspired me to plant an understory of Japanese Maples (I have 11) and a Dogwood. I have planted a total of 26 trees on my property. I use the “messy” pine needles for mulch in my entire garden including my vegetable garden. Our climate is too dry to worry about acidity. The pine cones I collect and use as kindling for my outdoor fire pit. This year I had four nests and baby birds everywhere. The birds keep my garden healthy from insect disease and they provide beautiful music welcoming the start and end of each day.
3. Take the time to live in your home before creating or re-designing your garden. Most folks are in a hurry to get it done. Notice where the light comes in your home. What do you want to experience looking out into the garden? How do you want to live in your garden in the summer? What is the purpose of your garden? How is it connected to the interior of your home? Where is it warmest in the spring and fall where you might want to place a chair or patio? Where do you spend time in your home in the mornings/evenings/seasonally? I wanted to experience my garden from all the rooms if possible designing it close to my home. I wanted to smell, see it and hear it. I have no lawn. My home is literally “lost” in the surrounding garden. I wanted to smell the roses, honeysuckle and mock orange from open windows so I planted a mock orange called Blizzard by my kitchen window. My roses are cascading over my deck and the honeysuckle sprawls above a bench which is surrounded by lavender so when I sit there I brush the plants and delight in both fragrances. Daphne, hyacinths and the bloom on my two Vine Maples fill the air with fragrance in spring. I love flowers and fragrance so I planted flowers in my vegetable garden, adding two clematis vines and a honeysuckle. I also plant morning glories, scarlet runner beans and nasturtiums for annual color amongst my vegetables.
4. The element of water and rock is a wonderful addition to any garden. I have four water features throughout the garden placed by seating areas to enjoy the sounds and reflections of light on the water. I created a recirculating bird bath rising out of a small pond outside my living room picture window allowing me to enjoy the sound of running water and birdwatch from my sofa. In winter I place a livestock heater in two of my water features as an attractor in the dark days also providing much needed water for the birds as dehydration is a major cause of death in our climate. Rock can be added as boulders, a wall, a pathway or patio.
5. Flower boxes (very common in Europe) and pots add color to any garden and enhance the architecture of the home. One of my flower boxes (all painted a deep purple) sits outside my kitchen sink window. I place most of my pots in the path of the irrigation system so I don’t have to water them. Two large pots set by my front door send a warm welcome to guests. Kits to irrigate flower pots can be purchased inexpensively.
6. There is no “right way” to design a garden. I like a more “wild,” natural garden so I let plants sprawl onto pathways and re-seed where they desire. I have to duck under trees rather than keeping them tightly pruned. Let it reflect your values, spirit and soul. Be creative. Experiment with plants.
7. Be sure to amend your soil. We have what I call “moon dust” for soil. I have added over 50 yards of amended soil to my garden as it was being developed. It is most economical to purchase amendments by the yard rather than a bag at a time. I add manure to my veggie garden every spring.
8. Don’t let the North, South, East and West exposures determine your placement of plants. Exposures are influenced by what is around them. For instance, the South side of my garden is very shady because it is full of Ponderosas and the Northeast side of my yard has the most sunlight for the longest time so that is where I developed my vegetable garden.
9. Refrain from deadheading in the autumn. Deadheading works for moist, snowy climates originating in England and our New England. If you leave the plants to die they create mulch keeping in any moisture, provide food for the birds, squirrels etc., enrich the soil and support new plant growth in the often freezing spring temperatures we have in the high desert. We don’t have the insect problems that are often found in wetter climates. I clean up gradually in the spring.
10. A garden is NEVER FINISHED! Gardens are dynamic, ever changing entities. The joy of gardening allows me to interact intimately and consistently with Nature, to be physically active, entertained and connected to the outdoors without having to travel long distances. It feeds my body delicious sun ripened food, offers my soul true contentment and gives my heart warmth and love for all the seasons. Nothing is more nurturing than jar of home canned tomato sauce on a cold winter evening over pasta mixed with homemade pesto. The garden teaches me patience, a great reverence for life and true understanding of how dependent I am on the natural world, this Earth, for my life.
When people ask me what the secret is to a beautiful , healthy, happy garden I tell them it’s my commitment to attending to it with warmth, love and great respect. Your garden can be a great teacher if you slow down and take in the magic.
I would love to share my garden, answer any questions or hear your thoughts.