Gardens Where People Grow

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, November 27, 2008

The emergency room at Anne Arundel Medical Center presents a scene we all know: The chairs are full of people waiting, their eyes betraying worry or weariness. There are few smiles, and there is no laughter.

But walk a few steps outside the corridors, and the atmosphere is transformed. An enclosed garden nestles against the building, divided into beds of maturing shrubs and trees in fall color. A canal runs its length and provides the soothing sound of water humming over river stones. Small patios and teak benches invite groups to sit. In a quiet corner, a distinctive hump-backed bench encourages private contemplation.

"Nature heals," said Tom Stoner, who has spent the past 12 years seeing how gardens can repair souls. In 1996 he and his wife, Kitty, established an Annapolis-based charity, the TKF Foundation, to help build public green spaces such as this healing garden in the hospital complex in Annapolis. It is one of more than 100 gardens the foundation has created in partnerships with users, mostly in Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis.

They range from tiny enclaves to landscapes of an acre or more. They are found in inner-city neighborhoods, next to churches, on rooftops, or, in the case of the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md., in a prison.

They share, however, design elements that induce a sense of well-being and separation from the norm: a portal, a circulatory path, that hump-backed bench and, in most cases, the presence of water. Water has been a symbol of purity and rebirth in gardens dating to ancient Persia. "We are all 90 percent water, and somehow we know we are connected to that," said Stoner, whose foundation has so far given $5.75 million in grants.

In a niche in each of the benches, the foundation has placed a yellow rainproof journal where visitors can record their thoughts. In the prison garden, inmates write their notes on scraps of paper and send them into a submerged pipe, where no others can see them. It's not a place to wear one's heart on one's sleeve.

Stoner is a former broadcasting executive and past chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; he and his wife, who are natives of Iowa, long ago developed an affinity for the outdoors. During a trip to London in the 1990s, while waiting for a hotel room, they stumbled across an oasis: a small, enclosed city park where they explored the transcendent qualities of the place.

He said the foundation didn't set out to furnish gardens in difficult environments; rather, it was people and organizations in drug-ridden neighborhoods, poor and neglected communities, places where people are ill or bereaved, etc., who came to the foundation.

"A pattern developed of organizations and individuals who found themselves in a stressful place," he said. The gardens seek a spiritual quality without reference to an organized religion. Stoner calls them "Open Spaces, Sacred Places," which is the title of a new book on the foundation's work that he wrote with Carolyn Rapp (TKF Foundation/Chelsea Green, $30). The book is full of compelling stories of some of the individuals who worked with the foundation to establish the spaces. Stoner calls them "Firesouls."

At Kids on the Hill, an urban park in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill neighborhood, artist Rebecca Yenawine has used sculpture and other art forms to teach and inspire inner-city youths. "This place that was once a drug hangout," she writes in the book, "is now used by neighbors of all ages; and lots of people, young and old, consider themselves guardians of the space."

At St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Falls Church, the foundation worked with the pastor, Horace "Tuck" Grinnell, and others to create a garden of peace and remembrance that includes a columbarium for the ashes of parishioners too poor to have their remains placed elsewhere. Some were homeless, others poor immigrants. Grinnell writes in the book: "I think the TKF vision of what gardens can do for the human spirit is exactly what the postmodern world needs. People feel deeply fragmented and yet open to a spiritual awakening that is almost pre-conscious. A garden is exactly the environment people need to open the door to mystery and spirituality."

Several of the gardens contain a labyrinth, a mazelike pattern of masonry but without the hedge walls. The device invites a slow, contemplative walk through its winding, circular paths. Stoner and the foundation's director, Mary Wyatt, took me to see one in Annapolis at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. As I mentally traced the journey to the center, Stoner said: "You ask yourself a question when you go in, and hopefully you will have the answer when you walk to the center and then out. The amazing thing is, you can always see the center, but you can't get to it right away. . . . For someone in the 21st century who's absolutely determined to go from point A to point B, it causes you to contemplate and be disciplined."

I wondered whether it would be possible to create a healing garden in one's back yard, if one is lucky enough to have a back yard. Surely one of the reasons for keeping a garden is its ability to soothe.

There is a difference, Wyatt said. "Say you're upset about a health problem. In your own garden, you're going to self-obsess. Sitting in a healing garden in one of the hospitals or clinics, you read things that other people are going through that are so similar, and you feel a part of the universe, and it becomes easier to deal with."

At the garden at the Anne Arundel Medical Center, one woman's journal entry was particularly poignant. She wrote: "I'm a chronic pain patient, so many times I just want to give up and die. Then I sit in a place like this and contemplate. I have six beautiful, healthy kids, my parents are still living, I can see, hear, talk and walk. And I am complaining. About what?"

"All of this," Stoner said, "is seeing possibilities: with yourself, your community and the spaces. The design process, the openness, the journal all support that idea. It's all about hope. We are all a little short of hope these days."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company