Artist Rabi’a Uses Sculpture and Mosaic to Grow Beauty in Her Garden

Free spirit and artist Rabi’a uses sculpture and mosaic to celebrate life in her Slocan Valley garden of edibles and self-seeding flowers

Credit: Rod Currie

Seedheads, grasses and sculptures infuse the mountain-framed acreage

Rabi’a has singlehandedly converted five acres of riverside property in the Slocan Valley into an extensive garden sanctuary

“I was teaching a mosaic class once,” says Slocan Valley gardener, sculptor and mosaic artist Rabi’a (just Rabi’a, in case you’re wondering). And one of the students asked Rabi’a what she grew in her garden. “I thought – it’s so much more than flowers, vegetables and trees.” Rabi’a reflected on the carved rocks in her garden, the giant sculptures, the mosaics scattered everywhere, the moon mirrored in the pond outside her bedroom window. “I told him, I grow beauty.”

An immigrant to Canada from Holland – she arrived in 1958, on her 15th birthday – Rabi’a bought her property on the Slocan River in 1995, after nearly 20 years homesteading on the B.C.–Yukon border and another five spent in Maui, Hawaii.

In the 17 years since, she has single-handedly converted her five acres of riverside meadow into a garden that contains vegetable beds, herb gardens, fruit trees, perennial terraces and tidy lawns – all liberally adorned with her outdoor art.

Pretty and Practical Garden

In Rabi’a’s garden, flowers, food and art are inseparable; beauty and practicality are both essential to feed body and spirit. Three acres of the property are fenced off from the marauding deer.

Between the river and house are stands of raspberries and peas with spinach and tomato beds at their feet, and potato and carrot rows liberally spattered with the smiling faces of Johnny-jump-ups, the ubiquitous wild pansies.

When it comes to gardening, Rabi’a says she allows nature to make many of the decisions. She loves the accidental surprises that come up in spring: dill, arugula, cilantro, lettuce, scores of poppies. “Once you have poppies,” she says happily, “you have poppies for life!”

Another vegetable bed, featuring salad greens, tomatoes, squash and corn, is located closer to the house. Rabi’a grazes on her fresh produce as she works; much of the food she grows never makes it as far as the kitchen.

It seems as good a strategy for the body as her irrepressibly playful approach is to the spirit. Given to dropping even the most pressing chores in a heartbeat to work on an idea for a new piece of art, the 69-year-old is suntanned, fit and healthy, with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm to spare.

Mosaics grow alongside the plants (Images: Rod Currie)

Carving Stone and Creating Mosaics

Stone carving is one of Rabi’a’s greatest joys, and the products of her labours are scattered throughout the garden: a small statue by the pond; round balls decorated with mosaic patterns among the daffodils and tulips; etched rocks with relief patterns of fish and women under trees. The idea of carving rocks just came into her head one day, and without further ado she borrowed an angle grinder, found some blades and got to work.

Almost everything she does is intended for placement in a garden, partly because she herself prefers to spend most of her time outside. The setting of the pieces is part of the creativity and design. An artfully placed mosaic-bordered mirror located in a corner creates a window into another space, for example; a line of fluttering batik banners invites the visitor to walk through them and see what’s on the other side. A small carved rock beckons a closer inspection. Crouched for a better look, the observer finds an array of small, ground-hugging plants waiting to be admired.

Rabi’a has put her practical skills to good use in creating her environment. After learning straw-bale construction at a course in Arizona, she built two adobe cabins that she uses for her bed-and-breakfast business. She also built the outhouse and outdoor solar-powered shower. Rustic they may be, but the rewards are great.

In the warmth of a summer evening, a leisurely stroll from the coolness of an adobe room to the shower takes you through the vegetable garden, infused with the scent of dozens of different flowering plants, and into an airy structure sheltered by cottonwood trees on one side and the solitude of the riverside meadow on the other.

Private Pond

Beside the porch outside her bedroom is a small pond stocked with goldfish, surrounded with gently drooping grasses and irises and more sculptures. The pond is one of Rabi’a’s favourite spots, a place for contemplation and rest. There she sits and dreams up new ideas for the garden.

She listens to the frogs singing in her backyard swamp and wonders what they’re saying, and she contemplates the wisdom of 13th-century ecstatic poet Jelaluddin Rumi, whose philosophy she has made manifest in her own little piece of heaven: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Beauty and Function Combined: Recycling Rubber Tires

Rabi’ a’s gorgeous perennial beds in front of her kitchen and living room have what at first seems an unlikely partnership with several terraces of rubber tires, carefully placed in half a dozen cascading rows. She knew that off-gassing from an old, disused car tire is negligible.

So when she was looking for ways to contain her perennials, and having discounted wood (which rots) and rocks (which permit weeds to grow between them too easily), her mind turned to a pile of tires that she knew about and thought she could use.

“Rubber tires need a good home, and they’re free containers. It’s a great way to do it.” She hauled them over to her garden and cut out the sidewalls with a sharp knife (the sidewalls make great collars for young tender plants – the dark rubber holds the warmth of the sun; they are also useful for holding down plastic over the compost piles).

Rabi’a placed the tires in position, filled them with dirt and compost, surrounded them with bark-chip mulch and planted her favourite flowers. Now maintenance of the perennial beds is a pleasure instead of a chore.

Rabi’a also uses some of the leftover tires to grow potatoes. Starting with one tire (again, with the sidewall removed) she plants potatoes in a mix of soil and compost. The dark rubber keeps the soil warm and prevents weeds from crowding the potato plants.

As the young plants grow, she gradually adds new layers of tires and more soil and compost so that the plant will produce multiple layers of potatoes – all easy to extract without heavy digging required. Simply remove the tires again and pry the potatoes out of the soft soil.