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In the Garden

I'm at a spa and you're not



AS YOU MAY KNOW, WRITERS HAVE VERY DIFFICULT lives filled with poverty, loneliness and existential dread. Right now, for instance, I am huddled over the keyboard in my drafty attic, trying to get this column finished early, because by the time my deadline rolls around, I'll be at the Lake Austin Spa garden

Yes, that's right. I am spending four days at a spa in a warm, southern climate. There will be honey-mango massages and rose-frankincense herbal wraps and paraffin wax pedicures. The sheets will smell of lavender, breakfast will be served at any hour, and there will be a yoga class or a boating excursion anytime I'd like to go. The phone will never ring. I will not see or touch a computer. The staff will know me by name, and, miraculously, they will remember some charming little anecdote I told them last time I was there. It's a shame you can't join me. I hope it doesn't rain too much while I'm gone.

[One of the gardens at the Lake Austin Spa Resort.]

Lest you think I've won the lottery or been seriously overpaid here at the Journal, let me explain: I do have to sing for my supper. I'm there to teach a writing workshop, so I will have to put in two hours of hard labor for every 10 hours of spa indulgence. See, the life of a writer is not so glamorous after all.

This particular spa (I will tell you the name -- Lake Austin Spa Resort -- as long as you promise not to tell anyone and ruin my secret getaway) is a gardener's fantasy. I went there -- it's in Texas -- for the first time a couple of years ago, and life has not been the same since. The entire facility is scented with their custom herbal fragrance. Rosemary and catmint spill out of planters on the guest cabins' front porches, which look out over a native plant garden and, beyond that, the lake. Meals include fresh organic produce grown on site. Casual bouquets of flowers and herbs grace every table.

They even offer a two-hour spa treatment that involves strolling through the garden with a massage therapist to pick herbs, then stretching out on the massage table for a salt scrub and aromatherapy massage using the herbs you've selected. Afterwards, they'll pour you a cup of tea, also made with fresh herbs. You can sip it while you stroll back to your room.

And the gardens. Oh, the gardens.

Like every other detail at the spa, they are tended by someone else, leaving the guests with the pleasant duty of strolling the paths, often wearing nothing more than a kimono and slippers. Trisha Shirey is all too happy to accompany guests on their daily walks. As Director of Flora and Fauna (yes, that's her actual title), it is her job to grow produce for the kitchen and make sure the day spa has all the lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena and scented geraniums it needs to blend salt scrubs and lotions for the guests. In between, she teaches gardening classes and leads tours of the nearby Wildflower Research Center.

It's not a bad job.

"I've only ever had one complaint," she told me when I was there last time. "Somebody complained that there were too many butterflies around their cabin. Can you imagine? We do get a lot of them in the summer. If you don't look where you're going, you can run right into them. But that's what coming here is all about. You learn to slow down and walk with the butterflies."

I can tell you from experience that there are few moments in life more painful than the checkout hour at Lake Austin Spa. The airport shuttle rolls into the gravel driveway and guests dive for the bushes, hoping that if they miss their plane, the staff will decide to let them stay another week. In fact, when you check in, they actually make you sign a piece of paper stating that you agree to leave on the designated day.

When I came home from my first trip to the spa, I was so distraught about returning to my everyday existence that I thought I'd plant a spa garden that would somehow help me recapture the experience. I'd read about such things in garden magazines. Soon I'd be making my own facial steams and massage oils. I'd forget all about that overpriced resort and I'd have the satisfaction of creating this experience with my own hands.

I went to the nursery and came home with a carload of lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena and thyme. I bought dozens of scented geraniums and mints, which are available in a variety of soothing scents. I grew chamomile and calendula because I heard that they would bring out blonde highlights in hair. I added aloe for its skin-soothing properties, then a cucumber vine so I could lay fresh slices across my eyes the way they did at the spa. Before long I was considering an exfoliating loofah vine and hops, which can be used to make herb pillows.

When you know that a plant can be ground up with sea salt, mixed with almond oil, and rubbed into your aching shoulders, that plant suddenly takes top priority in the garden. I started looking around for other plants that could be put to more practical use. Avocados can be used in a face mask. Lemons are a key ingredient in hair rinses. I even found a recipe for a creamy pumpkin moisturizer. Over time, I told myself, my backyard would become a garden of earthly delights, ripe with beauty secrets and sensual pleasures.

But I overlooked one crucial element of the spa experience. What my garden lacks is a staff. I don't find it soothing to pull weeds or spray dish soap on the aphids. I could use some help keeping my kimono and slippers clean, and it would be nice if someone would answer the phone so my meditation hour on the deck would not be interrupted.

The very term "spa garden," I realized, is a misnomer, because it implies that the garden is planted around a spa. My garden is planted around my laundry room and the back of the kitchen. No one around here, not my husband or my cats, seems concerned about the state of my toenails or the chamomile highlights in my hair the way the staff at a real spa would be.

So I am abandoning my phony spa garden this week and returning to the real thing. There's an herbal wrap down there in Austin called a Wildflower Delight and a massage they call the Texas Two-Step, and I've got an appointment for both of them Wednesday. I'll see y'all in a week. And if I'm not back in time to meet my next deadline, don't come looking for me.

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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