Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue of Midwest Living.
The land speaks to Nancy Endres.
When she learned how to pay attention to what it was telling her, the messages became surprisingly clear: Slow down. Look. Smell. Enjoy. Don't worry. Trust yourself.
For Nancy, the land also teaches how inner darkness can be transformed into outer beauty. How going outside into nature can actually bring you inside yourself. "There are forces that direct us if we just can be still enough and listen," Nancy says. "Everyone has this gift."
It was a gift she didn't recognize until about five years ago. During the first 20 years that she and her husband, Stephen, lived on their wooded five-acre lot in South Haven, Michigan, their yard was a playground for their three daughters. Every winter, a natural indentation was flooded to make a skating rink. In summers, the girls and their dogs romped on the lawn encircled by mature pines and maples. But when her daughters left home, Nancy realized it was time to return to her passions for painting, sculpture and gardening.
Nancy busily dug beds and berms to fill with ferns, hostas, conifers, lilies, hydrangeas and more. From nearby quarries (where she became known as "the rock lady") she dragged in literally tons of granite rocks, and she scoured nearby Lake Michigan beaches for driftwood and shells, some of which she formed into an abstract cross hidden along a garden path in the woods. Paths of grass and stone linked smaller spaces she carved into the land.
As the beauty emerged, Nancy started thinking of it not as her garden, but as Zoie's Garden (zoie is the Greek word for life). Something beyond her own abilities was driving the creation of this beauty, she felt. The land itself was helping her in ways she had not anticipated. "I am one of many who have struggled with depression," she says. "The development of Zoie's Garden has been, and continues to be, an intimate healing ground."
Gardens—special spaces within nature—can change us on many levels. A secluded garden bench provides a nook to read a book or share a confidence with a friend. A few whacks of a hoe at a patch of weeds offers a safe way to practice anger management. An evening's repose near the trickle of a fountain lowers blood pressure raised during the workday. The plants we tend with our hands deep in the soil produce food for the table, screening for privacy, beauty to surround us or shade for our houses.
By their nature, all gardens are, in a way, healing gardens. Now we know why.
In the past two decades, experts in medicine and horticulture therapy have paid more attention to the healing qualities of gardens. Research shows that patients with access to a natural view recover faster and need less pain medication. Hospitals, care facilities and other places now often incorporate "therapeutic landscape design" in their grounds.
Healing gardens are a bit different from therapeutic gardens, says Jean Larson, coordinator of the Center for Therapeutic Horticulture in Chaska, Minnesota. "A therapeutic landscape is really a part of the 'prescription,' for the patient's rehabilitation and healing," Jean says, "whereas a healing garden is for a person to find their own healing while in the landscape."
Nancy didn't realize at first that Zoie's Garden was anything other than a physical escape. It took a bulldozer—oddly enough—stuck in heavy clay when the operator attempted to dig a pond, for the spiritual aspect to emerge. The mired bulldozer could have been the last straw. But to her own surprise, Nancy volunteered to drive the precariously angled dozer while the heavy-equipment operator used a backhoe to pull. It was an empowering moment.
"I broke the barrier of fear walking into the unknown, freed from the hesitation and indecision that held me hostage for so long," Nancy says. "I'll never be the same."
The very next day, more lessons came from the land. Rain poured throughout the night, and water gushed into the new gash in the ground.
Suddenly, she realized that not having all the answers is OK. "I marvel at how being unsure of a situation is not a bad thing," Nancy says. "Rather, it opens us to being observant and allows us to seek the portal within, guiding us to our own creative flow."
As the garden grew, so did the sense of safety, peace and energy within it—and within Nancy. Her friends remarked about the unusually calming effect it had on them. Nancy herself doesn't understand it. But she knows it's real.
"Working in this garden is kind of like working with watercolor paint," Nancy says. "You have this idea in your head of how it's supposed to be and then nature happens, or the watercolor bleeds, and you have to go with the flow. Like sunflowers planted by the birds, you have to have enough faith in nature to allow it to create."
For now, the garden is private, though it has been part of local garden tours. "I don't want to turn everyone into a gardener. That's not my purpose," says Nancy. "But I want people to rediscover themselves."
That rediscovery often comes with a connection to nature. A survey by Roper Report showed that nearly 60 percent of Midwesterners rate being outdoors as "very important" when spending their leisure time—slightly higher than other regions. Connecting to nature, as Nancy learned, can be done in your own yard.
"For me, the garden is a serenity slowdown," Nancy says. "To be able to sit and watch a hummingbird land on a mimosa and just experience that is important. I feel when I'm in this garden that I'm not separate from it, I'm just another animal, another creature. And it heals."
Panda and Pippi, the family's two dogs, romp in the yard. The koi, seeing her approach, swim toward Nancy for a handout. The lotuses she planted in the pond raise fist-size pink flowers a couple feet above the pond's quiet surface. Cannas, ornamental grasses, ferns, hostas, and the sheer number of other plants added to a space that once held only lawn could seem overwhelming. But it all happened one bit at a time. Anyone, she says, can experience the peace of Zoie's Garden.
"Quiet is important," Nancy says. "Your space can be small and intimate. It doesn't have to be elaborate; it just has to be soulful."
Now, when Nancy takes time to listen, when she acts out of giving rather than reacting in fear or depression, she is always shown what to do—though not necessarily in a way she could have predicted. "If your spirit is right and your attitude is truly wanting the best for everyone else, to give rather than receive is what it's about."
So she listens. And the land responds.
Healing Garden Design Ideas
A SPECIAL ENTRANCE A beckoning gate, arbor or other opening creates a feeling of welcome—and anticipated, yet-to-be-revealed delights.
WATER Whether it's a small, still birdbath or a rushing waterfall, the sight of water is soothing and relaxing. The sound of moving water mutes traffic or other noises.
COLOR AND LIGHTING Visual cues change a viewer's mood: Cool colors (blues and greens) soothe; reds, vibrant pinks, yellows and oranges excite. A spotlight or candle can transform a dark space into something mystical or cozy.
SITTING AREAS A simple log, a chair or an ornate bench offers space for rest or quiet contemplation. Add pillows, smooth surfaces, or a corner to nestle in if you expect to linger.
GARDEN ART By adding something that inspires you, such as a simple piece of art, a sculptural stick or rock, a birdhouse or shrine, you turn your garden into a thoughtful gallery that reflects the things you most treasure.
WILDLIFE HABITAT Plants that provide cover or food for wildlife also are attractive to humans. Deliberately sharing space with other beings connects you to a larger environment.