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Gardens at this Annapolis home create a soothing retreat for the retired couple



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After years of living in the Historic District of Annapolis, Tom and Kitty Stoner wanted a soothing retreat by the Chesapeake Bay.

“We both wanted a place where we could be in a more solitary setting,” Tom Stoner said. They sought an environment of gardens conducive to reflection and mindfulness, as they long embraced the concept that gardens and nature can nurture healing, well-being and rebalancing one’s life.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, they founded the TKF Foundation, renamed Nature Sacred, to create gardens where those sanctuaries were needed — more than 100 currently exist.

The Stoners’ striking dry rock garden, or "karesansui" in Japanese, created by Boston landscape architect Shin Abe, features crushed stone raked to evoke the patterns of ripples in a body of water. In contrast, a verdant hillside beckons from a stone path.
The Stoners’ striking dry rock garden, or "karesansui" in Japanese, created by Boston landscape architect Shin Abe, features crushed stone raked to evoke the patterns of ripples in a body of water. In contrast, a verdant hillside beckons from a stone path.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

As Tom Stoner neared the end of his chairmanship of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation board in 1998, they bought a contemporary house with large windows facing the backyard. It sits on about an acre along a tributary of the bay.

Since then, they’ve transformed their Annapolis backyard and home to visually blur the line between the two, while blending their love of the bay with a Zen-style garden.

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“We wanted to create a serene garden that is really representative of traditional Japanese gardens,” Tom Stoner said. He recalled conversations with landscape architect Shin Abe of Boston.

“He asked us, ‘Is there a centerpiece you might think of,’ and we said, ‘the bay.’ ”

In their garden the bay’s water is symbolized by white turkey grit — crushed stone similar to sand used in Zen gardens in Kyoto. The grit is raked into a pattern of ripples.

Two long stones spanning the grit represent the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; they are part of stepping stone paths for various journeys through the yard.

“You walk and think,” Tom Stoner, 85, said. “This is really a meditative experience. The stones— no two are alike — it causes you to think about what you are doing at that moment.”

River birch trees add texture and grace to the shady woodland garden, which is more informal than the gardens closest to the house. The gardens at the Annapolis waterfront home of Tom and Kitty Stoner use many native plants and trees.
River birch trees add texture and grace to the shady woodland garden, which is more informal than the gardens closest to the house. The gardens at the Annapolis waterfront home of Tom and Kitty Stoner use many native plants and trees.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Stones in earthy grays and beiges structure the dry garden. Boulders and tufts of mondo grass recall the shoreline. Evergreen shrubs and ferns emerge like peninsulas and islands, adding greens and textures. In spring, azaleas bloom into white and pink clouds along with other colorful shrubs and trees.

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Nearby, water drips into a shallow rock basin. Clean water in a basin symbolizes the Japanese tradition of hospitality, Abe said.

Kitty Stoner, 69, said the sound lets her imagine water trickling through the dry waterfall.

Abe created an irregular-shaped patio of bluestone slabs, edges nicked to appear worn, in a running bond pattern in the dry garden. Ceramic stools encourage sitting and contemplation.

Rising from the dry rock garden is Abe’s abstract expression of the bay’s watershed and elevations. The hillside has a forest at the top. A rock stream leads to the dry waterfall.

The hill’s deck is where the Stoners eat and entertain in the shade of a cherry tree, among the mature trees Abe retained.

“You have the best view from here,” Kitty Stoner said.

Tom and Kitty Stoner pose in their Zen garden at their Annapolis waterfront home, where Pennsylvania bluestone slabs form a patio overlooking the dry landscape dotted with shrubbery. The Zen garden, conducive to spiritual reflection, was designed by Shin Abe.
Tom and Kitty Stoner pose in their Zen garden at their Annapolis waterfront home, where Pennsylvania bluestone slabs form a patio overlooking the dry landscape dotted with shrubbery. The Zen garden, conducive to spiritual reflection, was designed by Shin Abe.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The view captures the garden and its greenery — including black pines, icons of Japanese gardens, which Abe raised and pruned into their distinctive shape.

Spring brings the fresh growth that adds subtle color change that is a hallmark of the orderly Zen style. When the cherry trees flower, the Stoners have a cherry blossom party.

Understanding that the garden recalls the bay isn’t critical, Abe said. “You don’t need to know. You can simply enjoy the garden.”

“Our 3-year-old grandson loves to pick up these rocks and put them in the fountain and play around there,” Kitty Stoner said. “He can play for hours.”

From indoors, she said, “I gaze out into the garden 100 times a day.”

A mini-garden in the dry courtyard is visible only from an office and the couple’s bedroom, blurring the indoor-outdoor distinction. A dwarf weeping Japanese maple spreads hand-like foliage over plants and layered bluestone representing a boulder.

“The [moonlight] comes down through it,” Tom Stoner said.

A few years ago, the Stoners further blurred the interior-exterior line. Abe’s firm redesigned a room as a quiet space, replacing windows with a wide, floor-to-ceiling, garden-level glass pane.

“You are really invited to look at the garden,” Tom Stoner said.

Native honeysuckle in bloom along the bank of the Chesapeake Bay, by the dock of the Stoner waterfront residence in Annapolis.
Native honeysuckle in bloom along the bank of the Chesapeake Bay, by the dock of the Stoner waterfront residence in Annapolis.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Beyond the zen style garden

The other restorative gardens have a more natural style.

Years ago, Annapolis landscape architect Jay Graham turned the side yard into a woodland, giving its existing pool a pond-like appearance. The woodland remains among Tom Stoner’s favorite places for being absorbed in thought.

More recently, Graham lined the driveway with native plants. Pawpaw trees — the Stoners use the fruit to make smoothies and pie — shade groundcovers, with more native plants nearby. With horticulturalist Ron Ammon, who tends all the gardens, Graham created a flowering waterside garden at the lower part of a thickly planted steep slope.

A rustic railing of branches leads Kitty and Tom Stoner to the water.

“The way we’ve done it from the entrance to the water, it’s really about creating a place for mindfulness and for joy,” Tom Stoner said.

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