Metro-East Living

Swansea garden becomes a healing place

Arla and David Chevess stand in front of an 8-foot arch that leads into a backyard full of fruit trees, bushes, plants and a vegetable garden. Yellow roses are now in bloom.
Arla and David Chevess stand in front of an 8-foot arch that leads into a backyard full of fruit trees, bushes, plants and a vegetable garden. Yellow roses are now in bloom. mhouston@bnd.com

Arla Chevess is proud of how her garden came about.

Her husband Dave helped create it to take her mind off of a back injury.

“In 2009, I was in an auto accident which limited my mobility,” said Arla, 51, who lives in Swansea’s Stonefield Crossing neighborhood. “I can’t lift or carry heavy things. I was only able to walk about 200 feet, which left me hopeless and angry. I was in a terrible place, physically, emotionally and mentally. I was no longer the woman I had been. My husband tried pulling the best of what was left to the surface.”

Dave bought her a digital SLR camera, put a chair in the backyard and said, “Look for something beautiful to photograph.”

His thinking?

“Let me give her something that will allow her to capitalize on her abilities,” said the retired U.S. Air Force colonel. “She had the ability to compose things. She would do things I would consider unconventional.”

“Every day, I sat in that chair, sometimes for hours, and took photos of my surroundings,” said Arla. “For the first photos, I was able to pick some plums and put them on a chair,” she said, showing a photo. “When I ran out of things to photograph, my husband brought something else home — a tree, flowers, bushes and fountains.”

More trees — now, there are 54 on their half-acre that borders a retention pond.

It was something to look forward to. Going outside every day looking for beauty slowly healed my soul. I suddenly had a purpose again and it was to capture the beauty all around me.

Arla Chevess on photographing her garden

“It was something to look forward to. Going outside every day looking for beauty slowly healed my soul. I suddenly had a purpose again and it was to capture the beauty all around me.”

For Valentine’s Day a few years ago, Arla made a hard-cover photo book for Dave. There were butterflies feasting on nectar. Roses in every shade. Ducks and geese leading babies across the pond. Bounty from the vegetable garden arranged in her blue Polish pottery.

The interest in photos and gardening made Arla stronger.

“When butterflies would come, I would have to chase them across the yard,” she said.

She watered on good days, which strengthened her back. Backyard vegetables and herbs inspired Arla, already a good cook, to try new recipes.

During winter, the Chevesses painted birdhouses and thought about spring. They gave the houses names: Apple Cottage, Canary Bungalow, Lantana Lodge, Tomato Townhouse.

“We’d talk about it and laugh,” said Arla. “He would keep me focused on the future.”

Her garden photography led to photo books for family and friends. A cookbook followed. She journeyed outside more.

“I put down roots in the community, one organization at a time.” She started with the Collinsville Area Camera Club.

“By doing activities like this, meeting and working with talented folks in the community, it was eye-opening for her,” said Dave.

“As I got stronger, I took a Master Gardener class through the University of Illinois Extension, and graduated in May 2015,” she said. “Once I became a master gardener, doors opened, and that made him happy. I wasn’t home annoying him. I joined the Mid-Illinois Iris Society. (“The nice thing about the society, you get free plants.”). The rose society I joined because my roses were dying. I somehow ended up in the Greater St. Louis Daffodil Society.”

She showed one of her books to Sandy Richter at Sandy’s Back Porch Garden Center which led to being one of eight homes on the Gardens in Bloom tour last June.

“She’s the Martha Stewart of the Midwest,” said her friend Sandy Richter, of Sandy’s Back Porch. “ I don’t know how she has energy to do what she does. She had me over for lunch. This woman can cook like no other. I asked her, ‘When are you going to start opening your garden as a public garden?’ It’s absolutely beautiful. The thing I love: Her enthusiasm is just beyond. For someone who’s gone what she has gone through, she loves life.”

For the brochure, Arla described her garden this way: “Named ‘Goose Grove,’ this is a functioning garden for the cook, photographer and those who believe in storybook places. Enter this whimsical garden through an 8-foot arch. There is a meadow orchard of fruit trees, a berry patch, nut trees, two vegetable gardens and a butterfly garden.”

Dave built the home’s cedar shutters, window boxes (look for yellow, pink and purple annuals) and a potting station.

“He is very handy,” said Arla.

In an instant

Arla grew up in Sahuarita, Ariz., part of the Sonoran Desert.

“When I was 5 years old, I would pester my mom. (She gave me a) stick with a string that was my fishing pole and said, ‘Catch a fish and you can come inside.’”

Her fishing pond was a tiny shallow rock-bordered well around a peach tree. “The water soaks down to the peach roots. ... I was dreaming about real birds and grass.”

She and Dave, who have two sons, Austin, who will be 23 on May 21, and Daniel, 20, moved often during his Air Force career. They built their Swansea home in 2005.

“It was my dream come true. Near a body of water with real geese and ducks. Flowers and grass everywhere.”

She planted its first apple and pear trees to remind her of the backyard of a home they rented in Belgium for three years.

“I loved our yard there,” she said.

After the 2009 car accident, back pain limited how far she could walk.

We used to joke, saying if Dave couldn’t find me in the house, all he had to do was walk out of the front door 200 feet and make a circle, and I would be somewhere in that circle.

Arla Chevess on her limited mobility after a car accident

“We used to joke, saying if Dave couldn’t find me in the house, all he had to do was walk out of the front door 200 feet and make a circle, and I would be somewhere in that circle.”

Dave was stationed in Texas.

“He was gone for four years,” said Arla. “The accident was at the end of his second year. I knew I had another year and another year before he was able to come home. His last year was a deployment. There was no him coming home.”

When he did come home?

“I was not the easiest person to live with.”

Which is a little hard to believe because Arla is friendly, enthusiastic and full of life.

Their two sons were in grade school at the time of her accident.

“I felt so bad for them,” said Arla. “They missed their father. Now, their mother, who was someone they could rely on to take care of things, suddenly couldn’t.”

A walk in the garden

Dave and Arla’s yard, front and back, is ever changing.

“What you see in the front yard just happened last year,” said Dave, who sells commercial insurance for Sentry. “This was where the roses were. We decided to do something different.”

Naturescapes in Collinsville helped them create a walk-through garden with stepping-stone path close to the house, a place to walk or stop and take a photo. After rhododendron and azaleas bloom, roses pop, followed by daylilies.

“We always have something blooming, somewhere so I can take those pictures,” said Arla, who estimates she has taken more than 20,000 photos.

Benches, statues, fountains and trees, such as Japanese maple and weeping Atlas cedar, are part of the mix. Some represent family members.

“This is a serviceberry,” Arla said of a tree on the side of their house. “Both of our fathers were in the military. (His dad was in the U.S Army for 30 years; her dad in the Navy for 20). Both have passed on. We got two serviceberries, one for his father, one for mine.”

Along with two American Beauty dogwoods.

“Both of our mothers were movie-star beautiful,” said Arla. “Serviceberry will provide shade for dogwood.”

They planted three quaking aspen trees because Arla has three sisters.

29 varieties of fruit trees in their yard

54 trees on their half-acre property

The Chevesses are proud of the variety of fruit trees —29 varieties if you are counting — including plum, nectarine, pear (“This guy last year gave us 300 pears.”), cherry, and a variety of apple — honey crisp, Granny Smith and Yellow Delicious. An espalier tree of grafted apples produces five varieties, Graniston, Gala, Macintosh, Fugi and Golden.

“That’s an apricot tree,” said Arla. “They say it doesn’t grow in Illinois, but don’t tell my trees that.”

Roses in yellows and pinks hug the area near the back of the house.

“They’re so fragrant,” said Arla, “I open the kitchen window and the house is filled with the scent of fresh roses.”

Some garden items are happy accidents. David bought an arch that was too big for its original purpose, then bought a second one and created a butterfly garden with honeysuckle, red trumpet vines, butterfly bushes and annuals, for color.

Then, there’s the time she sent him to the store for a roast chicken.

“Instead, he brought home an oak tree,” said Arla.

“I was distracted,” he said. “I had to put my arms around it. When I was looking, some guy pulled up with a large trailer. He was buying all the trees.”

They grow berries — blackberries , currant, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries — and herbs, from basil and cilantro to oregano and parsley.

Ruffly irises were in bloom that day and hydrangea were on the way.

“Some of our favorites neighbors have given us — black-eyed susans, bee balm, coneflowers,” said Dave.

Both tend the garden.

“ I am still limited in what I can do, but I am better,” said Arla. “If I have a stool, I can sit, but not for long. I work like gangbusters 20 minutes, rest for 30.”

Recently, Arla got a call from Sandy’s Back Porch, asking her to show how to use fresh herbs in cooking.

“She took it and ran with it,” said Sandy Richter, who follows Arla’s Goose Grove Facebook page. “Before I knew it, she had all these things she was going to make. She’s amazing.”

Dave helped Arla with the cooking class.

“He made a demonstration table for me,” said Arla. “For two days, he was in the garage building it.”

The class tasted her goat cheese herbal quiche, salsa, egg salad with herbs, minestrone soup, herbal butter and more.

“I was excited as much as you,” said Dave.

Soups are Arla’s specialty because they use up vegetables in her garden and they go a long way. Here are a couple she shared from the ringed cookbook she put together.

“There are two (cookbooks) in existence,” she said. “I sent one to my mother. If I die, the next wife will know how to cook for him.”

She noted that black-eyed peas are full of calcium, protein and Vitamin A.

Black-Eyed Peas (Cow peas)

3 tablespoons butter

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 celery ribs, chopped

1/2 cup bell pepper, any color, chopped

1/2 cup pork or ham, in chunks, cooked

2 cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed

1 tomato, peeled and diced

1 cup beef broth

1 cup spinach, washed and stems cut free

1 bunch parsley, chopped

Salt. and pepper

Riley’s Seasoning is ideal for the dish, at least 1 tablespoon, but more is recommended.

In a 10-inch or larger skillet, melt butter and add onion and garlic on medium low heat. Cook until onions are translucent. Add carrots, celery, bell pepper and pork and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to cover with the onions and garlic. Add canned black-eyed peas, tomato and beef broth. Bring to boil and lower to simmer for 20 minutes until black-eyed peas are tender. Add spinach and continue to cook a few minutes until wilted. Taste and salt and pepper to your liking. Add parsley and stir to cook thoroughly.

May substitute kale for spinach, but add to dish 10 minutes before black-eyed peas are finished cooking.

French Cabbage Soup is both light and filling, said Arla. Serve it with soft white butter bread.

French Cabbage Soup

4 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, chopped

5 celery ribs, sliced

3 carrots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large potato, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 head of cabbage, chopped

2 Polish sausage, 12-inches long, sliced

6 cups chicken broth

Rosemary to your liking, or season to your liking wiith other spices, such as tarrgon, thyme, marjoram or sage.

In large soup pot with lid, melt butter and add onion, celery, carrots, garlic, potato, bell pepper and sausage. Add broth, rosemary and cabbage and cook slightly covered till cabbage is wilted and tender.

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