Tranquillity tucked in capital concrete

In Tawes garden, state employees find peace, quiet

October 29, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

For 26 years, Don Myers has watched his secret garden grow.

Under his care, a sparse collection of young trees and shrubs has matured into a lush, forested escape from the boxy concrete buildings that line Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis.

Tucked among a complex of state government facilities, the Helen Avalynne Tawes Garden is a little-known oasis. Named after Maryland's first lady from 1959 to 1967 - the wife of Gov. J. Millard Tawes - it's open to the public but is primarily used by state employees for a lunchtime stroll or to find peace and quiet in a busy day.

"The fact that it's hidden is part of the reason why it's so nice once you get in here," said Myers, who began working at the garden in its early years, while on summer break from his landscape architecture studies at West Virginia University.

"It's been most interesting," Myers said, after years of pruning, planting and mulching the garden into a hidden showpiece wedged behind four state Department of Natural Resources buildings, next to the Courts of Appeal building and across the street from the Maryland State Archives.

Designed with a "Maryland in Miniature" theme, the 5-acre garden offers visitors three distinctive state landscapes - Ocean City sand dunes, a wooded stream environment typical of Central Maryland and a Western Maryland forest.

"It's fantastic. It represents all of Maryland," said Paula Hose, who works at the DNR for the secretary and a deputy secretary. "You can go to Ocean City, then go to Western Maryland."

Limestone and sandstone rocks have been trucked in from Western Maryland, and the Eastern Shore beachfront features rippling sea grasses and Bayberry shrubs with clusters of slate-blue berries.

The idyllic spot is known among some DNR employees as a place for bosses to deliver bad news, said Ces Goldstein, who works in DNR's forest service division.

"When you go for a walk in the garden with your supervisor," she said, "it's not good."

But state employees agree that the open space is a nice perk.

"It's a world away, and 10 steps away," said DNR biologist Tom A. Parham, who ventures from his office at least twice weekly to visit the garden. "It's an awesome place."

"I go there to decompress after staring at the computer," he said. "You take a walk and you're ready to go."

"There are no ringing telephones," said Kate Ashley, a secretary at the District Court building, who visits the garden daily during her lunch hour, "even into the winter when I need a coat."

"On one real misty morning, I saw a great blue heron here," Ashley said.

Eric Schwaab, director of DNR's Fisheries Service, has an office that overlooks one of the garden's three ponds.

"You sit there and look out over the pond and feel like you could cast a line in," he said.

"It's a peaceful place to go in the middle of this busy area," said Lee Evans, an archival assistant at the Maryland State Archives. On a mild, clear fall day he sat on a bench in the garden, eating his lunch.

He didn't have much company, as no more than four people walked the pathways.

"I'm not sure many people in Annapolis really know about it, because of it being here at a state building," said Goldstein, the forest service division employee. She and some colleagues ate lunch at picnic tables overlooking the garden, as a shower of burnt orange leaves covered the patio.

The Tawes garden grew to life on a large concrete lot that for years was home to a carnival.

After the DNR complex was completed in 1972, Annapolis garden-clubber Stevie Lyttle approached the secretary with her idea to create a garden for the disabled. Intrigued, the secretary set up a committee, which expanded Lyttle's concept to a handicapped-accessible garden with the Maryland in Miniature theme.

Myers joined the garden staff in 1975 to help plant the Western Maryland section. Twelve-foot evergreens that he put in the ground are now more than 40 feet tall.

Sugar maples, witch hazel shrubs and wild hydrangeas are some of the trees and plants that combine to form the small forest. A 6-ton sandstone boulder called a "waffle rock" bears grooves where iron deposits have worn away the rock.

"This is our mountaintop, so to speak," said Myers, standing atop a gentle sloped path. "You have to use your imagination."

The garden morphs from a shaded forest to a sun-washed Eastern Shore coastal plain, complete with rippling sea grasses, prickly pear cactus plants and a pond stocked with bass, bluegill and catfish.

A lot of planning has gone into creating the natural regional settings.

"We added rocks to give it more of a natural character," Myers said, crossing the bridge through the stream section. "Sometimes it trickles over them a little more and you can hear sound, but today I don't hear much."

The garden wasn't officially named until 1977, when Helen Avalynne Tawes' name was submitted in a naming contest at DNR. Her husband, J. Millard Tawes, served as secretary of natural resources from 1969 to 1971.

The DNR's 2001 budget for the Tawes garden, $190,000, mainly covers the salaries of Myers and the garden's two other full-time staff members. Horticulturist Jay Myers and naturalist Amy Henry - who have worked at the garden for 22 and 12 years, respectively - run programs for the public, including nature walks for children and garden club tours.

Revenue from the garden's gift shop in DNR's lobby, operated by volunteers, covers the cost of plants, supplies and hiring summer help. The state Department of General Services mows the grass, rakes leaves and cleans the ponds.

Recent improvements include replacement bridges and a redesign of the garden's sheltered area with new benches and a swan sculpture to honor Stevie Lyttle.

As the garden has matured, DNR staffers have developed a sense of ownership of the peaceful place, Jay Myers said.

"You'll hear employees telling visitors, `You've got to come out and see our garden,'" he said.

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