The Wisdom of Gardens
Growing benefits for body, mind and soul.
by Jean Eisenhower
The space around one's home can offer life-changing benefits to one's body, mind and soul (and of course one's pocketbook, too). Getting all the benefits at once requires a "design mind," what some have called "pattern literacy," and the perseverance to work a sometimes-complicated puzzle.
The life-changing benefits are worth it!
Benefits to the Body
A good garden design can deflect strong winds. It can shade special areas in summer and warm them in winter. It can direct rainfall to the gardens or into tanks while keeping other places mostly dry, saving work, making one more comfortable. It can even help protect one's home from fire.
A good design can provide healthy, organic food and natural medicine, more oxygen, and cleaner air.
A good design can make outdoor chores easier, more efficient and more pleasant.
Benefits to Mind
A good design can provide a nurturing place for private reflection, reading, art and visiting with friends and family.
A good design can absorb unpleasant noise, block less-than-lovely views, and accentuate the most pleasing scenery.
Benefits to Soul
A good design can provide food and habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife whose presence can delight us and remind us of eternal realities.
A good design can help us recycle and in many ways be more responsible with our little piece of Earth and all the resources flowing through our lives.
A good design can encourage us to spend more time with trees and other plants, which philosopher/mystics like Paracelsus, Rudolph Steiner and others have credited with providing valuable spiritual insights to humans through the ages.
A good design can help us learn about other living things and give us tangible feedback on our growing consciousness.
Benefits to Pocketbook
A good design can save us money on food, water, medicine and even entertainment: If home is so wonderful, why go anywhere else?
A good design can extend a home's living space and add significant beauty, both increasing the value of one's property.
So, how do we create this truly good design? I learned my skills 24 years ago in my training as a Permaculture designer. I define Permaculture as a philosophy, a practice and an ongoing conversation across cultures, bridging indigenous and modern people, sharing techniques and ideas for living sustainably on Earth. It can be applied to small gardens (even patios), neighborhoods, large landscapes needing restoration, communities, and even towns and cities needing rebirth.
The first step is observation, maybe lasting a year or more, humbly setting aside what we think we know and being willing to ask questions: Why have skunks, or deer, chosen to frequent this area? Why do those weeds thrive there? Why do I never use this area?
The second step in my process is to create a map with legal boundaries and constraints, such as easements, fence-height limitations and utility lines (check with the city on all these), buildings (with their heights noted), topography, existing plants and soil types, etc.
The third step is to analyze the elements: What elements (trees, other plants, animals, buildings) exist or are hoped for, what does each element require, and what does each element produce? For instance, a fruit tree needs good soil, water on a certain schedule and to certain depths, nutrition at certain times, pruning, protection from insect predators and poorly timed frosts, and more. It will produce not only fruit, but leaf "litter," shade, windbreak, wood and more. When a list of needs and products is created for every element, a good designer will plan to have each element's products supply its own and/or other elements' needs.
The fourth step is to analyze the energies moving through one's property: the winds (both prevailing and daily thermals), the sun's rays (daily and seasonally), water (rain and downspout), cold air flow, noise, wildlife, erosion, etc. These can be plotted on a series of maps.
The fifth step is to analyze the zones of human activity, beginning with the house. The first zone, the house plus the areas nearest the most-used door(s), is where to plan for daily activities like harvesting herbs or tomatoes for a meal, taking out kitchen compost, watching the children play, watering the garden, collecting eggs and feeding the chickens, and maybe taking a path to and from the house and town.
The second zone is for activities performed a little less often: hanging out clothes and taking out trash.
Zone three (these last three usually only on larger lots) might contain fruit orchards, bees and maybe goats; zone four will be for grazing larger animals and planting hardwood trees and other plants with long-term value and little maintenance; and zone five will be left wild for our personal education about things such as plant succession and perhaps some moderate wildcrafting.
Within each zone, a design needs to also consider the elements over time: how tall a tree will grow, what's to fill the lateral space until the tree reaches maturity, and how various elements might be "stacked," for instance, ground cover beneath shrubs and vines winding up trees — especially when these can share needs and products.
When the analysis is complete, the puzzle may seem impossible! But the longer I am here on my tiny, one-10th acre of rocky land with a house, small shop, vehicles and a corner with height restrictions, the more I discover I can do!
And it's important to recognize that the puzzle is ongoing. First, it's easier and smarter to implement a design in stages, so we can actually live with parts before other parts are envisioned. Second, life changes constantly, so the design will usually change as we live with it. I'll share two of my design challenges and solutions.
When I moved onto this lot seven years ago, my biggest priority was redirecting roof runoff away from the house and toward where I planned to have gardens.
I didn't want all this water to flow into the street, as bad design over a century ago has famously turned certain roadways around here into creeks during rainy periods, and I certainly didn't want to contribute to that. I also wanted to harvest the value — "turning a problem into a resource," a primary tenet of Permaculture.
Therefore, I created a long swale (a shallow depression with a berm on the downslope side) to move the deluge alongside the one-day gardens to a deep tree basin near the western boundary, then back east, again slightly downgrade, all the way across the property to a garden on the opposite side. Then I graded the rest of the land slightly to flow into this swale or other gardens, so that today not a drop of water flows into the street. Because of this, and because I mulch my gardens thickly, I don't have to water as often during the summer.
Growing on Rock
This property was long ago carved out of a solid granite hillside and has virtually no native soil on it. So my second major project was creating garden beds and holes in which to plant trees — speeding up a process that might otherwise take hundreds of years. Garden terraces were made of dry-stacked stone placed alongside the rock hill about three feet high, and tree holes were picked two feet deep into the granite ground.
Though I initially purchased garden soil and still occasionally purchase it, I've been working to be more soil-self-sufficient by making it from my own organic kitchen compost and garden debris, all of which is rich in essential nitrogen and creates excellent soil to grow in.
Over the years, besides food and herb gardens, I've planted six trees and three grape vines. In addition, I've erected a fence and shade patio, built a grape arbor, installed a few water-harvesting tanks, created a small pond, laid a natural varnish-hardened adobe-concrete patio, installed a water tank for summer dips, and built a chicken coop ready now for new birds!
Next plans include a solar hot-water heater, outdoor shower, eight more fruit trees and another large garden — and we still have enough social space for good-sized summer parties! (Gotta have those priorities in place!)
Today this yard, so desolate before, is where I spend a great deal of my life throughout the year — and not just working! My partner and I sit and read and sing and muse on the beauty for hours almost every day, most seasons, and in special times nearly all day!
The Soulful Part
Sitting in my garden amongst trees, flowers, herbs and food, I sometimes waver between bliss and faint fear. I realize the fear is connected to a memory of childhood when I heard the plants and spoke to them and was later told they didn't have minds, didn't speak, didn't listen — but I had been certain that they did.
Today I believe our culture is on the verge of coming to terms with a reality larger than that I was born into in the early 1950s. And this larger reality includes intelligence that resides in all living things — and I believe also in things we call "non-living," like rocks, or as Indigenous Americans call them, "Stone People."
Helping modernized Americans along is author Peter Tompkins, whose The Secret Life of Plants was a number-one New York Times bestseller — attesting to Americans' readiness to expand their world views. Tompkins also wrote The Secret Life of Nature: Living in Harmony with the Hidden World of Nature Spirits from Fairies to Quarks.
Quarks?! There was no marketing gimmick in that title. Nature mystics have been tested by physicists and at least sometimes are found to be able to perfectly describe things like quarks, superstrings, gluons and other structures that scientists measure in fractions of a centimeter, in one case with 35 zeros after the decimal point! And history recounts one mystic who described unknown isotopes before any scientist "discovered" them.
Psychics have also described, consistently throughout the millennia, intelligent beings who somehow inhabit our trees, forests, mountains, rivers and valleys. These have been given various names in different cultures throughout time, such as devas, fairies, elves, gnomes and the like. They usually avoid contact with humans, but occasionally communicate with them.
Whether by devas or our own intelligence, gardens are a wonderful place to learn and develop one's consciousness. I've noticed in recent years that I sometimes have an idea that a plant needs something different from what I am giving it, and if I ignore that idea (maybe feeling too busy), the plant suffers somewhat or dies. That feedback — relatively quick because of the short life of these plants — helps me to remember not to ignore what I hear, so I vow to listen and respect. Now, paying better attention, my garden is doing much better, and I am feeling more conscious and aware. We are both clearly serving each other symbiotically.
The Greek philosopher Paracelsus — and Rudolph Steiner, 400 years later, lecturing in Paracelsus' own Swiss canton — both described the trees and other plants standing nightly under the stars, receiving messages from the cosmos while we sleep, then passing the information into the earth. And if we put our hands in that soil, perhaps some wisdom comes to us in the process.
Wherever we are on our consciousness path, I've come to believe these silent beings — tomato plant, almond tree, comfrey — can bless our souls in more ways than we might suspect.
Jean Eisenhower has been designing homes and gardens for 24 years, and now offers workshops, design groups and consulting in garden and passive solar home design through her business, Home and Garden Inspiration, www.homeandgardeninspiration.net.
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