Elise Schlaikjer has named all the houses she has lived in Phoenix House, but when she moved to Greenfield, just two years ago, the name was especially apt. It took a fall and a head injury, but Schlaikjer decided that after 23 years in Michigan it was time to move nearer her daughter Laura, in Greenfield. At the age of 73 she was ready to start a new life, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, reborn and full of new energy.
The energy may have been renewed but it was an old passion for gardening that she carried with her from Michigan. The energy and the passion are evident in the gardens Schlaikjer has created during her first two years in Greenfield. She has chopped down great pines that threw too dense a shade, grubbed out a big area for a vegetable garden, berry patches and flower gardens, built a deck, and a stunning labyrinth with a tiny temple at its heart.
She has planted those favorites of mine, roses and lilacs. One border contains Wild Spice rugosa, Topaz Jewel rugosa, Souvenir de Malmaison and those David Austin hybrids, Gertrude Jekyll, and Graham Thomas, as well as the climbers, Golden Showers and Pearly Gates.
Throughout the perennial gardens she has planted lilacs from Greenfield Garden Club sales, as well as the beautiful double white Beauty of Moscow to the single dark purple Yankee Doodle, and President Poincaire, a double magenta lilac, all with delicious fragrance.
In Michigan she had big edible gardens that helped feed a retreat center as well as herself, and founded a farmer’s market that continues on without her, offering music, workshops, a newsletter, and fresh local produce to shoppers, as well as the support that all small farms need.
Here in Greenfield she has planted and fenced a 30 by 30 foot vegetable garden as she learns how much to plant for her own household and the new friends she is making.
The vegetable garden had to be her first project because “I feel strongly about being self sufficient, being able to feed myself.” Building that garden took compost that she bought from Martin’s, and Bear Path Farms, and help to build the raised bed frames. Still, “My back attests to the fact that I did most of the work myself,” she said.
She has also planted blueberries, a type of currant that does not host pine rust which can threaten pine trees, raspberries and elderberries. She even has a small chicken coop built behind her garage to house four laying hens.
Vegetables, berries and hens are all a part of her self-sufficiency plan, but Schlaikjer knows that our spirits require more. On the eastern side of her garage there is an ornamental garden filled with perennials, and stumps of old trees. She has covered these large flat stumps with the stones she removed from the soil as she prepared this planting bed, making them platforms for bird baths. I have never seen anyone turn rubble stones into a beautiful element in the garden the way she has.
Other perennial beds flank a gateway to the labyrinth. It is clear that Schlaikjer has a real affection for stones, because the most stunning part of her landscape is a stone labyrinth with a tiny temple in the center. The labyrinth was laid out with the help of her dowsing pendulum which also located the center of the labyrinth. When workers dug in preparation for the building of what was originally to be a gazebo they found a huge boulder of white quartz, a stone that is considered to be able to transmit energy.
With the discovery of the quartz boulder, Schlaikjer decided that the gazebo would become a temple that would receive energy from the earth and from the heavens. The main furnishing of the temple is an extraordinary throne-like chair, carved out of a maple tree trunk by a Michigan friend of Schlaikjer’s, depicting many wild creatures like a turtle, bear, squirrel and others.
Many of the stones that make up the labyrinth have been given by friends and visitors to the garden,. She wanted to make the creation of the labyrinth a community affair, instead of a solitary effort. “Also because, like a spider web, every stone becomes an energy connector between each contributor and the labyrinth…….. letting love and healing energy flow among us all. I do ask each person, when they lay their rock, to lay it with an intention or prayer. It is my place of prayer and meditation and I try to walk it every day,” she said.
Being a part of a community means that one gives and receives. When I asked Schlaikjer what advice she would give to a new gardener she didn’t only talk about starting small, making compost, and no till techniques. She added that “ a sense of adventure is important and not getting discouraged by things not working out as planned. I look at the adventure as a learning, a gift that teaches if we are open, and also a source of fun. And, yes, there are some things that feel very painful, like an invasion of grasshoppers, but that too, can give us a greater appreciation of what farmers have to deal with.”
I think Elise Schlaikjer is a gift we can all learn from. ###
Between the Rows November 6, 2010