A garden that yields beauty and solitude

Through one woman's efforts, a group of volunteers plants and maintains a series of flower gardens at a hospice in Mississippi.

June Stevens would rather show than tell. When asked about the work she does at Whispering Pines Hospice, she says quietly, "You'll just have to come and see it."

Then, when you do, and you try to compliment her on the beautiful garden she's created, she quickly shifts credit to others.

Her husband, Tom, grows the roses, groups such as the Master Gardeners plant flats of annuals, this person and that nursery donated these trees and those perennials, and the volunteers keep it all in shape, she says.

But Mrs. Stevens' role?

"I just do what needs to be done," she says simply as she takes a visitor around a corner to visit her latest project, a secluded patio. It will be another "place to go" as she calls this series of courtyard gardens built for patients at the hospice and their families.

"Everyone deserves a place to go," she explains, "and this one will be out of the way and especially quiet when anyone needs solitude."

Stevens has always gardened, but never more than in the past few years. Her volunteer effort to create an inviting garden for Whispering Pines Hospice started after a family experience with its services. She started with containers, then planted roses on the grounds and began growing plants donated for the project.

Soon she had created a colorful oasis. But then the building was condemned.

As Hospice of Central Mississippi began a campaign to finance relocation, Stevens started to plan the new garden. She worked with committees and professionals and researched every aspect of the landscaping - from the lawn and street plantings to the courtyards and entrance gardens - right down to the tree planted outside each window.

The rewards of volunteering

Now in its third season, the garden reflects Stevens's devotion and the enormous amount of time she spends working on it. Jill Fitzgerald, volunteer coordinator at Whispering Pines, says she records 40 hours a month on site for Stevens and another 20 for her husband, who's a doctor, but it's actually more than that.

If Stevens is not at the hospice, she's probably rooting plants or reading gardening books or magazines with an eye to picking up ideas she can use at Whispering Pines.

Ms. Fitzgerald sees the garden as a place of solace for family members and staff. "It's a place to get a break and rejuvenate your spirits," she says, adding with a smile, "but it's so beautiful, it makes you realize how bad your yard looks at home!"

There's a mystery about devoted volunteers that is unknown to those who don't share their experience.

As Stevens says: "The garden gives more to me than I give to it." She saw what the first hospice garden meant to people, and found her own spiritual peace in the work. "Gardening [here] is uplifting.... It's truly a joy to be here through the seasons."

Dr. Stevens views the rose garden as his opportunity to give back to the community so dear to both him and his wife.

Volunteer Sheila Allen heard about the hospice garden at her church and wanted to help. She works each week to keep the flowers deadheaded, watered, and weeded, among other tasks.

"I saw how beautiful it was, and I thought they must have wonderful dirt," she says. "But I soon found out about the clay," which must be constantly improved with mulches and organic matter.

This is mostly a sunny garden, but Stevens filled the shady nooks between buildings with ground covers, parasol trees (Firminana simplex), and old-fashioned daylilies. They were chosen for color and texture, but also because they will grow in the heavy clay soil.

"There's only so much you can do with the clay, and we really had to concentrate the soil improvement in the larger courtyards," she explains.

Like the Stevenses, Ms. Allen believes the garden gives her more than she puts into it. In fact, she says, "It's almost a cop-out: I wanted to help [the] hospice, and I love gardening."

Even fanatic gardeners may wonder at the words of these dedicated volunteers. These folks sweat, dig, haul, grow, mulch, and weed - don't get paid for it - and ask for more. But to a person, they say they grow spiritually as they toil physically; their sense of peace is tangible.

The garden grows from plants and accessories bought, donated, grown, and built by friends old and new. Nandinas rescued from a construction site and lantanas that starred in a movie find new homes here. Often those touched by the comfort of the garden make a donation.

A four-season garden

The hospice is built around a series of courtyards, which deliver light and a view to each window and offer convenient outdoor patios. Stevens saw the need and opportunity for a range of flowering times and plant features to add interest to the landscape.

She also wanted the gardens to feel tranquil, even within the formal brick-lined architecture and concrete patios.

To accomplish this, she uses a combination of perennials, annuals, and small trees to make the plants and their arrangement different in each corner.

Grasses spill over one walk, verbenas creep along the patio's edge, and pansies smile from pockets around the seating areas, while roses bloom by one door and irises have a home near a corner entrance. A frog fountain gurgles in one spot, and a patch of poppies is coming into bloom in another.

"So much happens by happy accident," Stevens says when pressed for her secrets. "Like those poppies from my sister's garden. They were a gift.... I planted them last year, but they didn't do well, so I forgot about them."

This year they're beautiful, so she'll include them in next year's plan.

Three years ago, when the garden was just a pile of fill dirt, and summer's heat was pressing in, a local nursery gave her a truck full of rosebushes, which have now grown into a stunning cutting garden.

Dr. Stevens tends them carefully because they're part of a special tradition: When a patient passes away at Whispering Pines Hospice, one rose is cut and placed in a vase in silent tribute.

Four seasons of flowers in a Southern garden

Gardeners in zone 8 and warmer are fortunate because they can have flowers all year. By combining different varieties of each of the following classic, easy-to-grow plants, anyone can enjoy 12 months of bloom. That's what June Stevens of Jackson, Miss., has tried to do to make the grounds of the Whispering Pines Hospice in Ridgeland, Miss., look attractive all year (see story above).

These are the plants Mrs. Stevens depends on to create an ever-blooming garden:

Spring: Lonicera heckrotti (coral honeysuckle), Dicentra (bleeding heart), iris (bearded, Siberian, Louisiana), rose, Dianthus (pinks).

Summer: Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia), zinnia, dwarf gardenia, lantana, Pentas, daylily, and rose.

Fall: Lycoris (spider lily), chrysanthemum, aster, Rudbeckia (coneflower), Boltonia, aster, and Eupatorium.

Winter: Lenten rose, pansies, daffodils, Eleagnus (left unpruned, it blooms in January), Johnny-jump-up, crocus, and Vinca major (periwinkle).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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