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Originally published Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Plant Life

Jubilee Women's Center healing garden offers respite and activity

A new healing garden at Seattle's Jubilee Women's Center offers a place to read, think, chat, grow vegetables and heal from the harsh realities facing those who come to stay here. The center offers both transitional housing and skills training to help women in crisis get back on their feet.

photographed by Steve Ringman

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Maggi Johnson describes Jubilee Women's Center as a charity that bombs residents with support and training until they get back on their feet. Located in an old convent on Capitol Hill, the privately funded center offers transitional housing for women in crisis, from domestic violence to homelessness due to the medical costs of cancer.

Jubilee houses 34 women at a time; some stay as long as two years. Recently the center was remodeled to feel more like a home than an institution. "The board had a strong vision for a healing garden for the center," says Johnson, who helped make this vision a living, growing reality.

"We wanted to help the residents feel like they deserve to be in a beautiful place," says center director Lisa Chin. Which is where Johnson came in, donating her services to design a master plan for a healing garden, which was then funded by one of the board members.

The components of an institutional healing garden aren't really all that different from those that make a satisfying, engaging garden at home. Johnson designed in lots of green, what she calls "ebullient biomass," as an oasis from the city streets. Textural, fragrant plants and a bubbling fountain appeal to the senses. The garden emphasizes seasonal change against a backdrop of plants that stay green or colorful through the winter. Last year some of the residents were concerned about how much of the garden died down over the winter. "We hope that the women will be delighted and reassured to see what happens every spring," says Johnson.

Quiet corners offer shelter for chats or solo reading. Larger, more communal spaces work for barbecues and the annual mother-daughter tea. There's a smoking shelter with radiant heaters to draw the smokers away from the building, a place to park bikes, and a garden plot where the women get involved with growing fresh herbs, berries and vegetables. A shady contemplation garden offers the chance to play around with pebble mosaics, edibles are integrated into the landscape, a hidden arbor offers privacy and the fountain drowns out city noise. Low-income women from the neighborhood visit once a week when the center offers a "boutique" of donated clothes, and serves coffee and pastry in the garden.

The garden has become the center's unexpected hub. "The staff used to come into the building through the garage, but now we always walk through the garden to catch up on what's going on," says Katy Childers, director of development.

New as it is, the center garden has become much more to the women than simply a place to read, visit or have a smoke. "These women are learning personal empowerment and skillful living," says Chin. "These are strong women who want to take care of themselves."

The center offers Healthy Cooking on a Budget classes that depend on the P-patch part of the garden. Because residents and staff get a kick out of watching birds dive bomb and bathe in the fountain, a board member donated bird books for them to enjoy. "We hope the garden will become a robust part of our programming in the future," says Chin.

For now, tools and gloves are on hand so the women can take ownership and do some weeding, harvesting and flower gathering if they choose. Blueberries and huckleberries are available for the picking, herbs for cooking, and plenty of green plants to engage the senses and soothe the soul. "This place is all about dignity and the human spirit," says Chin. "You can feel it in the garden."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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