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Planting gardens to effect calm

The Baltimore Sun

There may be no explaining it, but there is no denying it: There is an ethereal link between human beings and gardens.

Something unknown but powerful in the careful arrangement of a few plants, a path or a bench can trigger a small smile or heal a broken spirit.

It is now, when our cities are crowded and dirty and our hearts are heavy with fear and worry, that people need gardens most, I think. Tom and Kitty Stoner think so, too.

The Annapolis couple - he, a Type A personality who made his fortune in radio stations, she a wise wellness counselor - are the yin and yang of the TKF Foundation, which has been putting gardens in the most needful places for 12 years.

From inside the concertina wire of the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland to a Baltimore street corner where children who died from violence are remembered, TKF has forged partnerships with people and communities and installed more than 100 gardens.

The foundation is celebrating its Johnny Appleseed existence with a new book, Open Spaces Sacred Places, which tells the stories of 12 of these gardens in the words of the "firesouls," the people who burned to see the gardens come to life.

"They are the F in TKF," says Tom Stoner with an almost impish smile.

The Stoners are Iowans who moved east 25 years ago and immediately missed the green spaces of home. But it was on a trip to London where, jet-lagged and without a hotel room in which to rest, they found a garden in the heart of the city and, in it, the restorative power of nature.

"To enter, we had to pass through a dark-red brick arch," Stoner writes in the opening chapter of this book. "We instantly felt as though we had left the city behind and had entered a place of serenity."

It was the Mount Street Gardens and it had survived the bombing of London during World War II. It was furnished with benches on which plaques described the lives of the people who, over generations, had been part of this park.

In that park on that morning, the Stoners discovered a way to share the bliss-making and healing powers of nature - they would build gardens.

Each of the 12 stories in this book is at once delightful and moving. But none is as compelling as the story of the meditation garden TKF created in a prison with the help of its inmates.

Western Correctional Institution asked for money for a greenhouse because its then-warden, Jon Galley, understood the humanizing effect of nature on prisoners. Instead, TKF asked if it could work with staff and inmates to create a "sacred place," and the result is astonishing.

The garden includes a human sundial where an inmate can stand, connect with the sun and the stars and locate himself in time and space. It includes red roses for violence and white roses for hope.

Learning from the inmates that it is often dangerous to speak your mind in prison, the Stoners knew that this garden could not have the weatherproof journals that are included in all other TKF gardens.

Instead, it includes "the well of unspoken truths" which goes 40 feet into the ground and into which inmates can deposit the slips of paper that contain their most private thoughts - thoughts that will never be read by another.

The curved-back benches that are a trademark of the TKF gardens are now made by the inmates in Cumberland. One of those inmates left prison, started a landscape business and TKF is now helping him build his own garden in Elkton.

"In the last 50 years, humans have experienced the chaos of the technology we have created," said Stoner in a recent lecture. "Technology separates us from each other and from ourselves. The gift of nature is to provide the green space, the sanctuary, the solace, the reflection, the peace to bring us back."

TKF does not have gardens everywhere. And we cannot be in them all the time. But Stoner knows that does not matter.

"You don't have to be there to feel its benefits," he said. "It is that you have been there. And you can anticipate being there again."

To learn more about TKF Foundation and the location of its gardens and to purchase the book "Open Spaces Sacred Places," visit tkffdn.org/index.php.

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