Written by Kelly Norris
Photos by Ben Easter
The percussive din of cicadas rains from the canopies in Rita and Ernie Perea’s garden south of Grand Avenue, a cadence audible for a few weeks only every 17 years.
“Well, they are majestic,” says Rita Perea, walking toward me, hand pointed upward, the trees and the cicadas both the objects of her gesture. She’s fond of their rain stick-like rattling, even as they’ve taken up a brief residence among the hostas in her front yard.
Indeed, the cicadas are hardly annoying here; rather, they help foster a Zen-like calm that seems almost eerily intentional. That’s not surprising: Over the past eight years, Perea, founder of the International Contemplative Gardening Association, has purposefully created a tranquil respite for relaxation and reflection. Architected with thought and purpose, her style is intentionally meditative, from the fountains and spiritual icons to the color conversations between plants in vignettes throughout the garden to a small greenhouse, which she uses as a wintertime escape.
“Everything has a story,” says Perea, motioning to the garden laid before us as we settle into two matching green chairs. “I want the garden to exude love.”
Love was lacking when Rita and husband Ernie, a local physician, first viewed their future home in February 2005. “We lived in Ankeny at the time after having lived around the state, but we knew we wanted to live South of Grand,” Perea says. The neighborhood’s access to city life motivated their search, but the midcentury house, though not what they originally sought, sealed the deal. “When I walked in, I got this overwhelming feeling that we were supposed to be here, to help the home heal,” Perea says.
The yard, hardly a garden then, needed similar bedside manner. Perea grimaces with the memory of disappointment. “There was mint everywhere,” she says. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, there isn’t any mint here today.) A lonely picket fence marked the southwest corner of the lot, complete with homespun graffiti that read, “Fences make good neighbors,” not exactly an expression that appealed to Perea’s sense of mind.
Beyond these few scars, the lot essentially was a blank slate. “When I looked out the kitchen window, I didn’t like what I saw. It felt very chaotic,” she recalls. There was a magnolia just north of the garage, though at the time, Perea didn’t know its name. The words “cucumber tree magnolia” didn’t enter her lexicon until 2011, when she enrolled in the Master Gardener program. “But I liked it, so it stayed,” she says. “I had a deep appreciation for the tree.”
Gardens are expressions of their creators, and as she planted her rhapsody in green, her spot of ground grew to reflect her keen interest in world religions and spiritual practices. “I became very interested in meditative traditions,” says Perea, a former school administrator turned professional leadership consultant and executive coach. A certified spiritual director, she also has a Ph.D. in transpersonal psychology with an emphasis on organizational psychology.
“I had been a yoga practitioner since I was 13,” she adds. “Meditation became very important to me.”
Her awareness of mindful living translated into a deliberate pursuit of plants like 70 Sweet Kate spiderworts and 55 hellebores, the winter-blooming perennials she counts as her favorites. “I don’t just see green,” Perea says. “I see the plant colors dancing with each other.”
Today, gardening is a family affair, reinforcing the interpersonal bonds in her life. “Ernie has really enjoyed gardening,” she says. “He’s out here with me every weekend.” Her son, Scott, also became interested in the garden’s evolution. “We attended Master Gardener classes together, and now he’s a certified arborist,” Perea says.
“The gardens almost force me to be mindful, to do the tasks that need to be done,” says Perea, studying the muscular trunk of an aging black walnut. She pauses, looking off in the direction of the magnolia. “I would say that gardening for me is a spiritual practice,” she says. “I would absolutely say that.”