Drawn together: In Fircrest's Healing Garden, compassion blooms

Occupational therapist Jeanne Shepard didn't let Fircrest's uncertain future stand in the way of securing a special space for her patients. Home to some of the state's most severely disabled people, Fircrest had the funding and a 90-acre campus with plenty of room for a healing garden. The clients and their families had dire need for a wheelchair-accessible outdoor space safely away from traffic on a busy thoroughfare in Shoreline. But because it is facing the possibility of closure, Fircrest was seeking not only a garden but some hope for the future.

Shepard put in a call to the University of Washington, looking to find a partnership between expertise and need. The result is the Fircrest Healing Garden, dedicated last June, open to the public and now a place of respite for residents, staff and visitors alike. "If Jeanne hadn't persisted, it never would have happened," says Iain Robertson, chair of landscape architecture. Jeanne's two years of tenacity culminated in a 10-week design-build collaboration between the departments of landscape architecture, architecture and public art. Four faculty and 27 students combined talents to create a sinuous, colorful garden that brings a stimulating outdoor environment filled with tactile pleasures to those so achingly in need of them.

"Our clients are about as disabled as you can be and still be alive," says Shepard, explaining that little organized activity takes place in the new garden. Rather, it offers a series of sensory experiences, a place where residents run their fingers over intricate mosaics, listen to wind chimes, and are stirred by the scent of the bee balm, lavender, rosemary and chamomile.

Last spring was the final quarter before graduation for many of the students, so they brought years of study and studio work to the project, as well as their own compassion. They began with brainstorming, then spent many hours getting to know the residents in order to come up with a design to suit such complex needs and varied capacities. The students designed and installed lighting and irrigation, and crafted pathways out of nonslip materials. They involved the patients, translating their colored drawings into the mosaics that swirl atop the walls and benches. "It's hard not to touch the mosaics — the clients love them," says Shepard of the brightly colored bits of tile and glass mostly donated by Art Tile and Bedrock Industries.

The 10-week deadline led to full-tilt work far beyond normal class hours. The result is a vibrant garden in the shape of a broad promenade anchored at each end by paved circles rimmed with seating. The design guides you, whether by feet or by wheels, along paths embedded with bits of beach stone, ceramics and glass, past planted walls and over a bouncy bridge. There are plenty of places to pause, rest or perhaps bang on a set of tall copper wind chimes, easily touched by any part of the body the residents are able to move.

At one end of the garden is leafy Memorial Circle, dedicated to the many people who have lived and died at Fircrest. An impressive time line engraved in brick begins with a fir forest in the 1800s, with highlights such as Eleanor Roosevelt's 1945 visit when Fircrest was a naval hospital. The outer rim of the garden is edged in native plants chosen to attract birds and add to the woodland feel. The wide path meanders into the sun, where fuzzy-leafed, sweet- and spicy-smelling plants, as well as bright flowers, fill the beds. All were carefully vetted for toxicity, since clients might well take a bite. The garden wraps around the field, ending in the Spiral of Celebration, a generous circle with seating for gathering and listening to music.

"The materials are simple and straightforward," points out Robertson. "It is the design that makes it special." Clients can pull right up in their wheelchairs to raised beds made of wooden boxes atop cement blocks, where flowers are held nose-high for sniffing, and it's easy to dig in the soil. "For a client group so restricted in their contact with the natural world," Shepard says, "this garden means so very much."

Now In Bloom

As winter winds down, the bulbs burst into bloom, and none are more beguiling than pale, fragrant narcissus. Early-blooming, sweet-smelling, and deceptively fragile-looking, they stand up well despite the vagaries of equinox weather. N. 'Fragrant Breeze' is showy, with yellow cup, creamy petals and rich fragrance; N. 'Thalia' (above) is petite, all-ivory and perfect in pots, while N. 'Cheerfulness' is a ruffled double the color of old lace, with multiple blooms on each stem.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com.