On a drive along Cromwell Bridge Road east of Towson, you'll notice a classic white barn surrounded by a stretch of wooden fencing. Follow the entry drive at Cromwell Valley Park and you'll encounter a modest green sign marked Talmar.
Talmar stands for Therapeutic Alternatives of Maryland. It's a nonprofit therapy center where participants get their hands a little dirty during a day's work. Its home is a handful of acres containing rows of flower beds and greenhouses and a 50-hen chicken coop. The entire operation is organic. This place has a comfortable feel, casual and noninstitutional, that walks a line between being commercial and someone's garden enterprise.
It is not a park in the traditional sense of the word. The flower beds and rows of lettuce, cabbages, Swiss chard and other vegetables are the business enterprise, the result of the work performed by this unusual charitable entity, which enjoys support from local donors and the markets and restaurants that buy its produce. Numerous volunteers donate their time and labor here.
The farms that make up the Cromwell Valley Park once belonged to Franklin Eck, who raised Christmas trees; Robert Merrick, the Baltimore banker; and Frances Sherwood, who operated an apple and peach orchard here. The county acquired the properties in the 1990s under a state open-space land preservation program. Talmar Gardens and Horticultural Therapy Center leases the land from Baltimore County.
People with medical and social problems come here for horticultural therapy. They work in the fields and the greenhouses and produce the cut flowers, vegetables and eggs sold here.
Overseeing the operation is its founder, Cate Murphy, a Virginia native who earned her master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. She taught for a decade at St. Elizabeth School on Argonne Drive in Ednor Gardens, a nonpublic special-education school. But when her St. Elizabeth's students graduated, she observed that some were not doing much with their lives.
"I had a vision," she said. "I wanted a place for our people to be around others where they could work together on projects."
She credits her awareness of and experience in horticulture to growing up on the James River, east of Richmond, where family members owned the Berkeley Plantation.
I visited Talmar this week and watched the horticulture therapy happen in this gentle green setting in the lush Minebank stream valley adjacent to the Loch Raven watershed.
"There are people who have some challenges," Murphy said. "We work with people, all ages, all abilities. Anyone can be successful, given the right tools."
She said she enjoys working with people who have had strokes and want to resume living a healthy life. Other participants include those with autism and the disabled.
Murphy has arranged for Whole Foods, Mars and Wegmans to buy Talmar's cut flowers and resell them at their stores. She and her clients also send flowers for dining tables at Woodberry Kitchen and Herb and Soul restaurants. Talmar also participates in the Community Supported Agriculture program, which provides people with weekly produce.
The cut flower operation is the heart of Talmar. Murphy's flowers are mostly field-grown and have a natural, woodland feel. People often bring their own vases, which will make the return trip home filled with the zinnias, black-eyed Susans, lilies, salvia and yarrow grown just off Cromwell Bridge Road.
Her biggest seller is the lysianthus, a delicate-looking but tough bloomer she cultivates in a greenhouse where its petals can be sheltered from downpours and wind. The lysianthus is a favorite of brides. Talmar provides the flowers for about 20 weddings a year.
"Many herbs make gorgeous cut flowers too," she said.
"People at Talmar learn self-worth and a sense of accomplishment for their valuable work," said Peter Dunn, a Glyndon resident who teaches a course at The League for People with Disabilities and has been a volunteer at Talmar. "It is an inspired place."