Nature and Nurture

22nd Annual Gardens of the Year Winner

As she stands on a weathered deck overlooking her terraced landscape in Encinitas, Ellen Speert says, “Notice the quiet.” On this late spring day, the soft air beguiles with the scent of snow white alyssum, while seasonal blooms and more entice the eye. Eventually, though, birdsong and buzzing bees join the sensory mix, reinforcing Ellen’s point that the sound-track of urban life is turned off here.  “It’s a source of solace for me,” she says. “This is where I begin every day.” Decades of labor transformed a decrepit avocado grove into this serene setting, which was on this year’s Art, Garden & Studio Tour presented by San Dieguito Art Guild. The 1.5-acre garden is the heart of Ellen’s thriving California Center for Creative Renewal. Clients from all walks of life come here individually and in groups to make art, tapping their creative processes for self-discovery and emotional healing.
“They are stimulated and soothed by nature,” says the American Art Therapy board-certified professional who gives presentations around the world. “The gar-den is always changing, and that notion of impermanence is helpful to people stuck in pain.” Like the creative process, the landscape is designed for discovery. Paths descend, divide and circle across terraces, under arbors, through rustic gardens and past a dozen private alcoves and group retreats for yoga and making art. Many embrace what Ellen calls “the big view,” across the canyon to the horizon where snow-capped mountains can be seen glistening in the distance.

“I like the idea of enclosure and expan-sion,” she says.   Artwork spreads across the landscape — in niches of a bamboo fence, atop tree stumps, peeking from groundcovers or towering into the sky. Ellen (a ceramist, quilter and textile artist) and her husband, Paul Henry (a furniture maker) made much of the work. “There are metaphors in every part of the garden,” Ellen says.

Since Ellen and Paul purchased the property in 1981 and replaced its “shack” with a solar-powered, Craftsman-style home, the water-wise garden has steadily grown. The progression evolved into beds of low-growing succulents, blooming shrubs and perennials — sage, pride of Madeira, pincushion, lion’s tail, grevillea and more. Sheltering trees include liquidambars that, when their leaves color in fall, remind Ellen of her East Coast childhood. A 3,500-gallon rain-harvesting system continues the couple’s decades-long com-mitment to sustainability.
“We were early adopters,” Ellen says. “I’m often asked why I don’t have a water feature in the garden. I don’t because it’s not natural in our climate.”  
Past a “burning barrel,” where woes and worries are symbolically released in a puff of smoke, lie a thriving kitchen garden and an orchard that includes newly planted stone-fruit trees. A coop across the way houses four Araucana hens that add their blue-blushed eggs to the bounty that Ellen celebrates as “nourishment from the Earth.” Below, guarded by the erect arms of  Euphorbia ingens, stands the garden’s largest artwork: Ellen’s soaring wood, metal and bone sculpture of Priapus, the Greek god of fertility.

“There’s so much that’s feminine in the garden. I felt we needed some masculine elements,” she explains. On the summer solstice in 2001, Ellen realized two longtime dreams for her practice and the garden. One, a 450-square-foot studio, draws clients to the heart of the garden to enjoy panoramic views as they create art. Baskets of garden gleanings —ranging from seedpods and dried flowers to eggshells — join paper, paints and other traditional art supplies.“Nothing goes to waste here,” Ellen says.Steps away, a labyrinth patterned after a storied design from ancient Crete swirls in paths rimmed with orange sedums and river rocks. Rosemary and lavender hedges scent the area, where 15 years of meditative walks are marked by mementos left behind: a rubber duck, shells, a doorknob, a PEZ dispenser, even a wedding ring.  “Everyone’s experience is different,” Ellen says. “Some laugh. Some cry.”
The final section of the garden is its wildest. A thicket of native plants crowds a narrow path that passes an alcove embraced by manzanita branches before reaching the garden’s remote edge. A solitary bench clings to an outcrop above steep, weatherworn, sandstone cliffs and chaparral. Ellen glances at the ground, bends and pushes stones back into a circle atop a line. She smiles at the easily missed design reminiscent of timeless life symbols. “There’s a place for art everywhere,” she concludes.

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