On a recent Wednesday morning, Karen Harwell's ducks, Pitter and Peep, nibbled contentedly at insects and tiny leaves in the dappled shade under a great, spreading lime tree. Dragonflies hummed above a burbling brook that recycles its water, and bees pollinated fragrant bouquets of orange blossoms.
Harwell has just one rule for the dozens of visitors who enjoy her Crescent Park property: Please close the gate. Her garden, named Dana Meadows for the street on which she lives and after pioneering environmental scholar Donella "Dana" Meadows, is a sanctuary and a teachable space for children and adults alike. On the one-sixth-acre lot (which includes a four-bedroom house), Harwell has managed to fit 18 fruit trees, a man-made brook, herb and vegetable gardens, a deck, rainwater recycling barrels and home for the two ducks and two bunnies, Flower and Tofu.
"The neighborhood kids named them because this is their garden. When our neighborhood turned over, the (new) kids would see me working in my garden and they wanted to help. So I thought, I'll just make this Dana Meadows," she said.
On any given weekend, dozens of people might stop by. The garden's allure -- its fragrances, colors and ephemeral nature -- is attractive because it is ever-changing. One day the soil is bare and brown; the next, green shoots pop out of the ground.
"Kids come from other blocks. I might put out the word that on Sunday we are going to plant potato heads, and a bunch of people show up. We're living in a time when we need to create community. I don't think that Palo Alto kids need one more structured thing in their lives," she said.
Harwell is director of Exploring a Sense of Place, a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to reconnect with their natural surroundings. It is based on the premise that many have lost that connection with where they live because they are so often surrounded by human-made constructs. By reconnecting with nature, individuals develop a greater understanding and respect for the diminishing natural world, and they will find ways to preserve and enhance it. And those connections strengthen personal connections.
"As humans, we identify ourselves primarily through relationship -- relationship with family, religion, ethnicity, community, town, state, nation. Two of our most prevailing challenges seem to be our limited identification, often forcing us into adversarial behavior with one another and our profound disconnection from place, which leads us to miss seeing nature as our teacher," she has written on her website.
As an outgrowth, her garden became a showcase for exploring a sense of place at home.
"I think what is the most inspiring for people upon experiencing our garden is it makes them realize how many edibles and native plants can be planted on one-sixth of an acre. The common comment goes something like this: 'I didn't think I had enough land to plant a garden,' and they suddenly realize they have more land than I have and go away fully inspired to plant their own garden," she said earlier this week.
Harwell opens her garden gate to several home-schooled groups and their parents. Each year, students at Duveneck Elementary School also come to the garden.
On April 13, Duveneck kindergartners from teacher Barbara Susco's class planted corn, tomatoes and cucumbers with the help of Harwell's garden assistant, Paul Schmitt. One group, dubbed the "Purple Dragons," went with Schmitt to dig holes and pat soil around the plants in the front yard next to the driveway. The others, the "Green Dragons," explored the garden with Harwell. There would be a surprise at the end of the tour, she promised.
"I love surprises!" a little boy shouted, jumping enthusiastically.
Harwell showed the children Pitter's and Peep's pen and where they sleep and lay eggs.
"Did you know that ONE duck egg has as much nutrition as FIVE chicken eggs?" she said.
New batches of chicks go to the Junior Museum & Zoo and a farm on the coast.
"So it's like they graduate and go off to college," she said, a bit philosophically.
Harwell served fresh-squeezed orange juice from her fruit trees; the kids tasted the honey she harvested from when she used to have a bee hive. Gardening has been an inspiration throughout her life, one with which she was raised.
"My dad used to graft roses. He said, 'You will always have the best relationship with nature; let nature reveal to you what it wants to,'" she said.
Harwell gave each child a lime from the Bearrs lime tree to take home. With all of the gifts the garden has given, perhaps the best is the knowledge and sense of connection it has imparted to others, she said.
"A lot of people have brought me things, and they say, 'It's because your garden taught me to do this,'" she said.