Gardem grows from unlikely roots

January 18, 2001|By SUSAN REIMER

SPRAWLING AND ambitious garden sleeps beneath a light snow. Its gray-brown spikes and spires are crisp and brittle in their dormancy.

This patch of earth near downtown Annapolis has just won a major award, and not even squirrels are around to celebrate.

The garden, which wraps around the headquarters of the Arc of Anne Arundel County on Spa Road, has won the Coastal Living magazine "Best of the Coast" award for environmentally friendly design.

It is the sentimental favorite among the 37 MaryLandscape gardens funded as part of the Maryland 2000 celebration and honored by the magazine. The others are located at state parks, schools and public places around the state. All are planted with native plants that are drought-resistant and do not require the pesticides and herbicides that are polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

That the Arc garden (featured in the January-February issue of Coastal Living) should receive the award for splendor during its off-season is only one of the ironies here.

The garden was designed, for example, by a former defense contractor whose uncooperative heart does not allow him to do much more than turn a spade of earth before he must rest.

That's Mel Wilkins, 61, who worked for the National Security Administration and Lockheed Martin. He was the unlikely host last summer as the project's completion was celebrated with tea and cookies by ladies in flowered bonnets and pretty frocks.

The seeds of the garden were planted with a modest proposal for a handful of grant money to pay for a small sensory garden for the people with varying disabilities that Arc serves. But it has grown into 31 individual theme gardens, and there are plans for more.

It is located right alongside a busy urban thoroughfare, but almost hidden from view and waiting to be discovered. A journal, protected from the weather beneath a bench, records the delight of its discoverers.

Finally, it is a showy gift to the community from a struggling nonprofit that more often has its hand out.

And it will be all these things and more when spring unleashes its natural abundance later this year.

For Mel Wilkins, though, the garden was something to do just to keep from going crazy.

"I've worked more than I should have all my life, and I am paying for it," said Wilkins by phone from his Crofton home. His heart was keeping him from leading a tour of the garden.

"I was off work for about four months and complaining that I was driving myself crazy. I am not exactly a hobby kind of guy."

But he did garden a bit, and he had plenty of experience drawing up proposals and making presentations. So when his daughter, Laurie Scible, human relations manager for Arc, asked him to throw together a last-minute bid for MaryLandscape money, he was off to the races.

"The maximum grant was about $10,000, and I knew from my own gardens how fast you can throw $10,000 into the dirt, so I started thinking about how else to fund this thing."

Already, Wilkins was looking beyond Arc's backyard. As the garden grew on, as well as next to, public lands, Wilkins figured he could just keep going until someone told him to stop.

"Turns out, everybody likes gardens," he said.

Local corporate and foundation funding for the project was easy to generate, he found. But that didn't get the holes dug.

After he was done corralling money, Wilkins corralled workers. He received professional help from area landscapers and nurseries, but he also recruited volunteers, including an unlikely mix of students from St. John's College and the U.S. Naval Academy.

"That might have been my biggest challenge," Wilkins says, with a rueful laugh. "I am a get-things-done-now kind of guy. Patience has never been my virtue. And working with volunteers is like herding cats."

Certainly when his doctor suggested "a little volunteer work," he never imagined something on the scale of the Arc gardens, which now represent more than $100,000 in donated time and materials. Wilkins worked the phones and made visits to corporations when he was up to it. And he was even able to put a few of the 1,000 plants in the ground.

"But mostly I like to sit in the glider, eat my lunch and contemplate my navel."

The garden is more than a well-designed collection of native plants. Arc executive director Kate Rollason and her staff wanted a sensory garden that would stimulate their clients, no matter what the handicap.

Nameplates are etched in Braille. There are wide paths and raised beds for those in wheelchairs. But most challenging for Wilkins was to design beds that stimulated the five senses: the sound of wind through the grasses; the bite of the yucca plant's spiked leaves; the fragrance of the evergreens; the taste of the blueberries; the overwhelming color of a field of black-eyed Susans.

There are plantings to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and songbirds. There is a bed of edibles that the Arc staff harvested until November, and another of medicinal herbs planted by the staff nurses.

But it is winter now, and the fish sleep below the ice on the pond garden by Arc's front door, and the only color comes from the berries on the holly bushes.

And, like any gardener, Wilkins has cabin fever.

"I was thinking I need to get on the phone and get some volunteers together," he said. "We need to get things cleaned up and ready for spring."

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