It took four years to transform what I call gas station landscaping into a four-season landscape of changing colors, textures, and patterns through a variety of annuals, bulbs, perennials shrubs and trees at the Gilchrist Hospice of Baltimore. At one time there were no flowers whatsoever, some interesting shrubs, and ivy, euonymus and liriope groundcovers that had become overgrown and unmanageable. The trees already there for the most part were well chosen. Now it is a place of ever changing quietness, a respite of acceptance and tranquility.
At the entrance to the hospice is a circular garden several years before was only a mass of juniper groundcover and low growing yew shrubs. Now in spring it awakens to a carpet of yellows and purples that changes to a creamy yellow pathway of orange trumpets announcing spring is here, spring is here! Following the announcement is a soft mist of double baby pink and pure snow white peony tulips that transcends into a standing ovation of salmon, purple and apricot tulips surrounded by splashes of rose carmine and soft violet rhododendrons that quietly fade into the continual summer and fall flowering of brilliant yellows, oranges, pinks, whites, and blues to the muted earth tones of autumn. Five red maples surround the circle. Within the circle one kousa dogwood tree sits among three Hinoki fern-leaf conifer trees standing off center. Golden false cypresses, green and blue junipers are grouped beside the cypresses all in a dance intermingling their boughs and lacy threads against the winter snows.
The walkway to the back gardens goes along a ninety-foot long wooden retainer wall that is four feet high containing a four foot wide bed that had a jumbled mass of euonymus groundcover and errant pyracantha shrubs. All of that was ripped out and replaced with specialty conifers as weeping deep green hemlocks, dwarf black pines with long, spiky needles protecting its pinecones, yellow tinged false cypresses, mugo pines and junipers cascading down the retaining walls along with masses of ever blooming summer pink primroses. Complementing the evergreens are clusters of boulders and rocks, with a spontaneous mix of more brilliant yellows, pinks and blues. Various groundcovers as sedum, ajuga disappears after frost allowing the evergreen wintermint with red and pink berries to tantalize the birds hunting for their winter meal. To the left of the walkway along the retaining wall I installed a butterfly garden, where butterflies can flit and flutter and play all day.
The back garden is a rectangular grassy courtyard, the hospice rooms forming an L-shape stone, English Tudor style building around two sides, a thirty-foot long wisteria pergola at the far end, and a hillside of pines, and firs, overgrown by ivy that features a flagstone waterfall tumbling into a pool with goldfish and koi. I ripped out the ivy growing around the waterfall and created a lush woodland type garden; velvet moss of fronds unfurling to catch the columbine seeds, red carmine tiny trumpets that humming birds drink from, petite violet faces peep through silvery green vines intertwining beneath and around the flagstones of the waterfall. Just below the hill, to the right of the pergola was a rose laden iron arbor that has a bench beneath it. The other side of the pergola, is a row of snowball hydrangeas that became a sea of white froth at the end of June.
Opposite the wisteria pergola at the other end of the grassy courtyard I put in a large perennial garden with three stewartia trees, holly and clethera shrubs and a mix of shade and sun perennials. In the fall I plant hundreds of tulips and jonquils for a bold entrance of spring colors. Between each doorway to each room are smaller, more private perennial gardens. Along the borders of each garden is a profusion of fuchsia and purple wave petunias and white snow alyssums for continuous color.
The patients here have life-limiting illnesses. Whenever they can, they spend time in the gardens alone, or with their loved ones and friends. When I garden it is a spiritual continuation of life and nurturing that encourages my passion and love to bury my hands into the earth. When I spend time talking with different patients, I have come to understand their final acceptance of their end of life without complaint. It is no longer a continuation of life but an ending. Dr. Kaplan was a patient who in spite of his illness, everyday that he was able took long walks, spent time talking with people, sat quietly in the garden reading a book, always smiling, making the most of what he could while he could.
I was sitting beneath the wisteria pergola resting when a frail elderly man in his bathrobe sat beside me. He told me how he loved to watch the birds take dips at the edge of the waterfall and pool, the humming birds whirling about, the goldfinches eating the seeds of the coneflowers and black-eyed Susies. He had an air of peacefulness about him that I had never seen in anyone before, I sat with him for awhile longer, quietly choking back my tears, as he chatted some more about the birds and the flowers knowing he had just lost his son in the Twin Towers tragedy.
Mrs. Folkart, always cheerful, always well-dressed and always wore earrings, never realized that she was ill which was probably why she lived a year and a half longer than expected. She always had her favorite spot under the maple tree where she would spend hours enjoying the gardens. She would say,” This is my garden! The colors, so bright everywhere. Yes, this is my garden!”
I was weeding in the front circle garden; it was a typical hot, humid Baltimore summer day, when a doctor approached me to inform me that her patient had just died. She wanted to tell me that her patient’s last words were that the garden was a bit of heaven for her final days.
Until I began working at the hospice, it never occurred to me that there was a final
acceptance to life. Yet it was always around me, the changes of season, the frost that finally kills the perennials and annuals, the deciduous trees preparing to lose their leaves in colorful glory, even the evergreen trees prepare for winter by going into hibernation by stopping the flow of their sap. In this realization, I have received the greatest reward not in the gift I
have provided for the patients, but in their gift to me for a deeper understanding of the
final acceptance of life.
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