By Steve Adams
When 1970s community activist Stevie Little urged then-Department of Natural Resources Secretary James B. Coulter to swap a parking lot for a beautiful garden, she likely had no idea of its lasting impact.
Little asked DNR to take a flat lot surrounded by the Tawes State Office Buildings and DNR’s headquarters and transform it instead into a public garden, named in honor of a former First Lady of Maryland.
Today, 44 years after its dedication, the Helen Avalynne Tawes Garden & Arboretum is a true hidden gem of Annapolis, according to Mary-Stuart Sierra.
“Although it’s much smaller than a state park, Tawes is a unique natural green space right inside the city limits,” says Sierra, who is a member of The Friends of Helen Avalynne Tawes Garden and a former nursery owner herself.
“Its open, diverse design offers visitors of all ages a range of experiences not to be found elsewhere in the city. Thickly surrounded by mature plantings, it is shielded from urban bustle and offers a quiet respite for anyone wishing to stroll its various paths, sketch or take photos, or just sit on a bench to contemplate nature. It’s also a good birding site, with recorded sightings of well over 100 species,” Sierra tells us. “And though many Annapolitans might not know it, it also makes a great walking destination, being approximately half an hour’s easy walk from State Circle via the pedestrian walkway over the College Creek bridge.”
As I learned on my own recent visit, Tawes also offers no shortage of flora and fauna to see. Designed to reflect the various geographic areas of Maryland, this garden, across the street from the Navy Marine Corps Stadium, is filled with the native plants that DNR Ranger Jay Myers says are proven to not just survive, but thrive, in our region’s inconsistent climate. Walking through Tawes takes you from the woods of western Maryland to the grassy Eastern Shore. There is a wide array of spring bulbs and wildflowers, summer annuals and perennials, flowering trees, shrubs, herbs, and evergreens interspersed around five acres of paved and unpaved paths, a small stream and forest, a rock garden, a number of statues and a series of ponds.
One of the newest additions to the garden, and likely the most historic, is a young tulip poplar that was planted on July 16. It’s a descendant of the famous Annapolis Liberty Tree, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1999 after surviving on the St. John’s campus for an estimated 400 years.
“The plants and animals that you’ll see constantly change and depend on the season, so there’s never a bad time to visit,” says Sierra, noting that there are plenty of benches from which to take in the views.
Things looked a bit different during the pandemic, when those who normally tend the garden—state park staff, certified Maryland Master Gardeners, the Friends of Tawes Garden, and many volunteers—were unable to perform the routine maintenance of clearing fallen trees and branches, raking leaves, mulching, and pulling weeds. But the garden remained open and available to visitors throughout what Sierra calls an unfortunate state of “enforced neglect.”
She adds, however, that Tawes is in much better shape today than it might have been thanks to receiving some much-needed attention from members of the AmeriCorps program Maryland Conservation Corps, who conducted as much masked maintenance as possible, and the Maryland Tree & Landscape Services Company of Davidsonville, which volunteered both heavy equipment and workmen to cut and remove a number of large trees and limbs that were lost to storms or disease during the pandemic.
“Volunteers play an extremely important role in maintaining the garden, especially in the face of decreasing budget/staff support from the state,” says Sierra. “The Anne Arundel County Master Gardeners have a continuing role, and we (the Friends of Tawes Garden) look forward to continuing to support and enhance it by catching up on maintenance and planting, re-initiating programs for the public, and offering educational and cultural programs as well as trips to major regional gardens/events.”
Looking further down the road, Sierra reports that the 10-year plan for Tawes Garden includes restoring the funding and staff needed to carry out major improvements like handicapped walkways and raising public awareness of and appreciation for the space.
“Our vision is to have a fully protected and funded green space which would be the centerpiece of an Annapolis ‘Green Zone’ encompassing the whole western periphery of the downtown area,” says Sierra.
So, whether you’re looking for a short stroll before or after a Navy game or a deep dive into Maryland’s flora and fauna, this garden offers a peaceful escape.
The Helen Avalynne Tawes Garden, located at 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, is open dawn until dusk.