Just south of Interstate 80 and past the burgeoning home construction, a whimsical garden flourishes in the middle of suburbia. Here at 2066 Bristol Drive grows Gaia’s Peace Garden, a botanical sanctuary recognized by United Plant Savers and wildlife habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
The 1.1-acre garden is currently maintained by Iowa City resident Blair Frank, whose wife Mary Kirkpatrick bought the property in 2008. From their nurturing, what started as an empty lot has blossomed into an oasis of biodiversity grown with permaculture principles. There are dozens of fruit trees, 30 to 40 different medicinal herbs, multiple varieties of sage, catmint, quince, hazelnut, chives, comfrey, valerian, Egyptian Walking Onions and rhubarb. The chirping of bluebirds and cardinals blends with the hum of highway traffic nearby. In the spirit of its tagline, “Healing Happens Here,” the garden also has a five-circuit labyrinth, offering guests a path for walking meditation.
Frank, 67, admitted he’s not an expert botanist. As we walked through the garden’s winding stone paths, there were a few plants he didn’t recall the name of.
“In gardening, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just have to listen to a voice inside of you — that’s what I did,” he said.
Frank’s wife was inspired to buy the land after a 2008 visit to Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. Frank has been the main caretaker of the garden since 2012, cultivating a place for slowing down and connecting with nature in a world that, he says, moves too fast. Over the past few years, members of the community have partaken in many events, including herb workshops, yoga classes and permaculture gardening classes from Backyard Abundance. Due to zoning ordinances, the events are not technically public at the privately-owned garden.
“Whenever we have an event here, everyone needs to agree to be my friend, and that’s okay with me,” Frank said. “This is a place where everybody’s equal. It’s a template of consciousness — that was my intention, was to grow a place where we practice a new way of being.”
But now approaching his seventies, Frank said Gaia’s Peace Garden has become too much work for him to maintain. Earlier this year, he announced on the garden’s Facebook page that he is selling it.
“Why am I selling it? Because it’s complete,” Frank said. “I’ve worked on it for nine years. I want to sell it because I can’t keep it up anymore. I’m not sick — I’m old, I’m senior. And yet, I’m not desperate — it’s a gift.”
The land was originally purchased for $60,000. Although Frank said the garden is priceless, he’s set its sale price at $100,000, fully aware that whoever buys it could uproot the plants and scrape off the rich black topsoil. He hopes the high price will deter housing developers from buying it to make a quick profit.
“When I sell it, a bulldozer could come in and take it all away—take 70 fruit trees, medicinal herbs, a place of serenity and peace and wellness away,” Frank said. “But I want to ask the people of Iowa City — are you sure you don’t want to get to know what’s here first?”
Since he announced his intention to sell, Frank has held community meetings at the Iowa City Public Library about the future of the garden and a “safe local food system” in Johnson County, which he hopes Gaia’s will be a part of. He envisions an Iowa City where all the grocery stores “learn from each other,” and where restaurants source their food from local gardens.
Once Gaia’s is sold, Frank said he will “cry until the tears stop flowing.” While he’ll celebrate if it continues to be a garden, he said he has plenty of garden at his house to tend to. In addition to anchoring his energies there, he says he will contribute to the Crisis Center of Johnson County and Grow: Johnson County, as well as collaborate with others that are passionate about building a regenerative food system in Iowa City.
“No matter what happens to Gaia’s, I had to tell myself, in order to sell the place, that I’ve had nine years of therapy here. My previous wife had died of breast cancer. And so, I picked up my shovel and started working here — I pulled mulch and I potted plants for nine years. I would like it to survive and thrive, but it will — and it will, not but, survive and thrive in my heart,” Frank said.