IOWA CITY — Tucked away at the end of a residential cul-de-sac in Iowa City is a garden oasis.
Gaia’s Peace Garden, at 2066 Bristol Drive, is a privately-owned garden turned public sanctuary within hearing distance of busy Interstate 80.
In the garden, however, the sounds of traffic are secondary to the buzzing of bees from three honeybee hives at the back of the property and songs from birds nesting in the 36 fruit trees.
Iowa City residents Mary Kirkpatrick and her husband Blair Frank bought the 1.1 acre plot in 2008. Inspired by a visit to gardens at the Findhorn Foundation, which has an eco-village community in Scotland, Kirkpatrick wanted to recreate the atmosphere she found there in Iowa. Frank has become an enthusiastic supporter of her vision.
Iowa City non-profit Backyard Abundance helped design the garden’s layout, and Kirkpatrick and Frank worked to enrich the clay soil to prepare it for planting. Today, the soil is black and rich, supporting countless plants that grow densely from fence to fence.
Mulched paths wind between tall coneflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace and comfrey. Raspberries and blackberries abound alongside monarch-supporting milkweed.
Peach, apple, pear, cherry, plum, persimmon and pawapaw trees provide shade, and bees roll happily in the blooms of a rose hip bush and buzz among patches of creeping thyme. Five kinds of sage, lavender, lemon and bee balm, valerian, calendula and sage are among more than 30 varieties of herbs.
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“Everywhere I look there’s some surprise,” Frank says, admitting even he’s not sure what every plant in the garden is.
The space is a designated United Plant Savers botanical sanctuary, dedicated to preserving herbs, and herbalist Mandy Dickerson assists with the efforts. Frank emphasizes he won’t prescribe any herbal remedies to garden visitors, but he talks up the benefits the plants can provide.
“This is like going into Walgreens,” he says, gesturing around the garden.
He also extols the spiritual and psychological advantages of the green space.
“A garden is where healing happens,” he says.
A sign near the entrance reads “Friends of Gaia Welcome Here.” Gaia is the Greek name for Mother Earth. Frank, a retired pastor, says the garden is meant to be a spiritual sanctuary for all, regardless of faith or belief. The guiding principals of the garden are respect for the earth and respect for others.
As a monarch way station certified by Monarch Watch and sponsored in part by Decorah-based organization Seed Savers, education is central to the garden’s mission. Garden volunteer Jennifer Kardos helps with children’s programming and public education efforts. The garden hosts classes throughout the year, including an upcoming session to examine herbs from the mint family and teach how to preserve them in honey and vinegar.
The couple asks people not harvest any of the plants or herbs without permission, though anyone is welcome to visit the garden at anytime and take a stroll through the paths or sit a while.
Kirkpatrick and Frank started opening up the space to the public about three years ago, and word of their efforts is starting to spread. An open house that first year brought about 35 visitors. At last year’s open house, Frank stopped counting at 100 guests. The couple will host this year’s open house on Saturday (7/25).
Tucked among the property’s plants are small way stations. A fairy garden features tiny houses, and angel statues and crystals alike are placed throughout the garden. Child-sized benches offer children a place to sit. A labyrinth provides a place for meditative reflection, while a fire pit and a seating area create places for socialization.
“There’s a lot of magic here,” Frank says.
If you go
Gaia’s Peace Garden — 2066 Bristol Dr., Iowa City; (319) 721-7741
What: Garden open house
When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday
What: Herbal Tinctures & Oxymels Workshop
When: 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $3 materials fee; $10 suggested donation