Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021
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Garden Party

An Edmonton pain specialist finds new energy playing outdoors

Moving to the Prairie flatness of Edmonton from the rolling hills of New Hampshire was a bit of a shock for Dr Raquel Feroe. But when the specialist in internal medicine arrived in 1988, it was June, and she recalls her delight with the long days and impressive expanses of sky. Within a few years, she built a home on a riverside lot in the historic community of Riverdale, just minutes from downtown Edmonton. Today, her garden and her friendships are deeply rooted in the unique valley community.

Raquel, known as Rocky to friends and patients alike, is passionate about gardening -- it's part of her family history. On her mother's side, which was Pennsylvania Dutch, there was her grandmother's garden full of vegetables, Queen Anne's lace and foxglove -- "palpable, smellable, luscious." Her mother was artistic, crafting things from natural materials, and Dr Feroe remembers nature trips to collect acorns and pinecones. Her father contributed traditions like planting a blue hyacinth for each of his children every Easter; he also built a raised brick flower bed to match their home.

Dr Feroe's Riverdale property, however, marked a whole new phase. "This is the first time I've had a whole big palette of my own," she says. Her river valley property is very long and narrow, presenting some true gardening challenges. In typically upbeat fashion, she sees these sticking points as pluses. Narrow is good because, "I can keep an eye on my domain, and you need something to check your obsessive tendencies." No fence means "there's lots of light and I get to visit with my neighbours." An eyesore telephone pole in the alley becomes a climbing challenge for scarlet runner bean.

Gone to Seed
The backyard is completely flat, so in addition to contouring the soil, she contours with plant masses: mounds of artemisia and grasses, clouds of nigella and blue flax, spires of delphinium and liatris, and jack-in-the-beanstock-height amaranthus. The alluvial soil is the biggest plus. It's quite sandy, drains well and is full of nutrients, producing an enthusiastic profusion of plants in her grass-free back garden. A slate path winds through expanses of pink, purple and blue pastels, punctuated with bold yellow and orange hues of rudbeckia, calendula, zinnia and gaillardia.

The garden is half annuals, half perennials. "My main focus has been growing things I can harvest for drying and making arrangements, to extend the season and make it more fun to garden here," Dr Feroe explains. Drifts of dainty blooms like silene and larkspur are watercolour washes beyond feature plants -- echinacea, roses, dahlias, nicandra. She notes that the latter, a boisterous plant known as shoo-fly, is not well known but makes a good temporary hedge with lovely blue flowers.

Dr Feroe grows most of her garden from seeds she buys or saves from the previous year. "There's a bit of sport in gardening economically," she admits. But there's another factor. Seeds that come from her own garden must have come from plants that thrived there.

Her favourite plants include liatris -- good for self-propagating and drying -- as well as bunny tails (Lagurus ovatus), large-bloomed Echinacea purpurea, Centaurea macrocephala and Rudbeckia herbstonne. She is also fond of dahlias. "They satisfy the propagation instinct." She splits up their big tubers and saves them over the winter.

Nowadays, Dr Feroe is becoming more interested in growing native plants. "Particularly because I live in a river valley, a very important ecological corridor for wildlife, I'm trying to naturescape and pick things that are happy where they are. Plants that won't take as much water and will help create habitats for native animals and butterflies." In addition to rabbits and grouse in the valley, she is the proud next-door neighbour to a Saw-whet owl, which spent the winter in fir trees on the adjacent property.

Tenacious Blooms
Hardiness is an important factor in what she grows, but she does push the zone a bit with her ginkgo tree. The oldest surviving tree species, the ginkgo is very slow-growing and quite at home where Dr Feroe's mother lives in Pennsylvania. In Edmonton, which is in zone 3a, it should only be attempted in a protected site. Dr Feroe's ginkgo, however, is in an exposed area, protected only by a mulch of plant material and snow cover in winter. Still, it's hanging in there.


Her ginkgo is doing what Dr Feroe encourages her patients at the LifeMark Health Institute to do: "Take their limitations and find a new acceptance of where they're at." Most of her patients suffer chronic diseases or chronic pain from industrial accidents. But she has noticed something interesting about her patients who are gardeners -- no matter how much pain they have, gardening is the last thing they give up. "Gardening is great for doing a bit here and there, when the person feels up to it," Dr Feroe explains. "It lifts the soul. Even if someone says, 'I had to give up gardening,' if you probe, they usually say, 'Well, I'll have to sneak in a window box.'"

Unsurprisingly, this gardening aficionado believes that interacting with nature is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. She spends as much time outdoors as she can: walks with her husband Eric and her dog Keisha, runs in the valley with friends, goes camping and, of course, gardens. And this connection with nature certainly seems to contribute to her carefree spirit.

Soil Sport
She has a very laid-back attitude about everything, including the times that Keisha goes trampling through her garden to meet a passerby. "Keisha and her dog-friends like to visit and do their own thing. But that's good; it keeps things in perspective. Gardens and nature are to be enjoyed -- not just looked at -- they're for everybody, not just you," she says with a characteristic grin.

Dr Feroe's passion for gardening is infectious, and her enthusiasm has resulted in a garden club that's working to beautify the community hall and entry roads into Riverdale. Masses of marigolds -- Edmonton's official flower -- are planned for this summer during the city's centennial year. The school's parent advisory committee is working to have naturescaping around the school, which the garden club will maintain during the summer.

In winter, in addition to her own arrangements, Dr Feroe gift wraps packages of potpourri made from her dried plants as welcome gifts for newcomers to the community. She also keeps the garden club together with the occasional social gathering, such as the Vine and Cheese party she hosted this past winter. The invitation typifies her sense of humour: "Your hostas will be the Gardening Group and we know how to have a good thyme. This party could become an 'annual' event of interest to all 'statice' seekers."

Dr Feroe says she loves the whole process of gardening: the dreaming and planning, being outside in the sun, digging in the dirt and getting exercise, meeting people and the satisfaction of having something pretty and inviting at the end of the day or season. "The lessons in the garden are the same as being a doctor," she says philosophically. "You can't hurry, you have to accept things where they are, and you have to keep looking for the good."


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