“Hi!” reads the carefully formed letters in the book with the bright yellow cover tucked beneath a garden bench in the hospital.
“My name is Celia and I’m nine years old. I’m here for aCAT scan and I felt scared. But this is a pretty garden and it makes me feel better.”
Celia is right — the 1,800 square-foot garden tucked away in the Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center is lovely and serene, a respite from the high-stress, life-or-death struggle being waged in the medical complex around it.
The garden is surrounded by brown brick walls partly disguised by hedges. There’s a stream with a small waterfall that winds the length of the garden. In early May, the three-petaled bright blue perennial knows as spiderwort is blooming, and so is a soft pink and white azalea. The fine-toothed russet leaves of a dwarf Japanese maple tree rustled in the breeze.
There are plenty of benches to sit on, and wind chimes, and a sculpture of a frog reading a book makes visitors smile.
“The walls and the bushes growing up them … it almost gives you the feeling that the garden is holding you,” said Gretchen Mulvihill, the hospital’s grants manager and the garden’s “firesoul,” or combination of garden caretaker and advocate.
The Healing Garden has been a much-loved and heavily used fixture at the hospital since 2000. It is among nearly 150 urban pocket gardens that either have been created nationwide or are in the process of being built under the auspices of Nature Sacred, a private foundation formed in 1996 by an Annapolis couple, Tom and Kitty Stoner.
According to a statement on the foundation’s website, the Stoners were visiting London about 30 years ago and were beginning to feel stressed by the pace and the noise. Walking in one busy neighborhood, they stumbled upon a hidden park used by Londoners during World War II. Some had inscribed their thoughts on several benches scattered throughout the park.
“What we saw, felt, read,” the Stoners wrote. “It changed us.”
Tom Stoner had made his fortune in the radio broadcasting business. Shortly after the couple returned home, they funneled those proceeds into creating the TKF Foundation, now called Nature Sacred. The foundation aims to foster mindfulness and reflection by building oases of natural beauty in environments where they are needed the most, from hospitals to prisons to schools. Slightly more than half of the gardens in the network — 77 — are in Maryland.
Typically, this is how the process works, according to Angela Walseng, who handles publicity for the foundation: an institution sets aside a space for a healing garden and signs a contract with Nature Sacred to design a green space that incorporates input from the community the garden will serve.
The Morning Sun
Gardens in the Sacred Place network share five common design elements: an entrance portal setting the mood; a path guiding visitors on a journey; a surround that makes them feel safe; a destination; and a bench with a half-moon backrest made from wooden pickle barrels. Beneath the seat is a small shelf holding a waterproof journal on which visitors are encouraged to write down their thoughts.
“Day 2 of my mom being in the hospital,” a visitor wrote on Easter Sunday. “She’s in kidney failure. She is my only family and I love her so much.”
The plants were donated to the hospital by Homestead Gardens, Mulvihill said, which also provides gardeners to perform the needed upkeep.
The garden is as important to the hospital’s staff as it is to the patients, she said. Mulvihill has held staff yoga classes and conducted guided meditations in the gardens among other activities.
“We know the impact that nature can have on people’s lives,” Walseng said.
It has been well documented that spending just 20 minutes in a city park can lower heart rates and blood pressure and reduce depression. It mitigates stress and physician burnout. It’s a place to go when you have reached your limit.
“We want to create a sacred place in every community.”