A spiritual sanctuary for the soul

Flowering Viburnum hanging over stream.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Reimert.

It was an interesting partnership between Russell Keich and Don Herring. “He thought there was no such thing we couldn’t do, or that was impossible,” Keich explains. “I’d say not to go further, but the next day, he would be on the tractor.”

Their Stonehedge Gardens in Tamaqua, Pa., was named for what was to be a stone arbor (and might still be one day) of reclaimed boulders from underpass construction on Route 61 near Harrisburg years ago. Recovered and delivered, Herring died shortly thereafter, and Keich has remained reticent to alter the dropped configuration of the stones in any way.

Stonehedge Gardens is a nonprofit garden venue with the mission of providing “a healing, sacred, inclusive environment for the cultivation of personal and community transformation and wellness through the gardens and nature, the arts and holistic education,” according to its Web site, www.stonehedge.org.

There are 7 acres of gardens at Stonehedge, including this Channel Garden.

Stonehedge Gardens, which was closed for most of 2009 for restoration, then reopened this past holiday season, features some 28 acres of turf and gardens, with 7 acres in cultivation. The garden began in 1966 when Keich and Herring purchased what was then a fruit farm.

Avid gardeners and artists, the pair transformed the old farmhouse and grounds into a living museum, using salvaged materials from dismantled churches, barns and other classic structures. At first, Keich thought he’d focus on his art, but then the “gardens took over my life,” he says.

Gradually, they transformed the surrounding cornfield and streams into breathtaking gardens and ponds, and the surrounding woodlands and meadows only complement the garden landscape. Where once there were no trees, Keich and Herring planted some, many of which are indigenous, and mostly hemlocks, white pines, oaks, firs, dogwoods and white birch nearest the ponds.

“I did not know what to do when Don died,” admits Keich, the 83-year-old founding horticulturalist who still mans a small volunteer crew to maintain the gardens and grounds. Then he thought of the nonprofit, and restoring the property back to the way it was, though more extensively planted and more orderly. “I’ve created a monster, but sometimes it’s a nice monster, and sometimes it’s not kind,” Keich says.

Along with Keich, Ken Young, Thomas Anthony and Steve Reimert maintain the grounds.

Reimert, a grounds consultant at Stonehedge, had been visiting the grounds for a decade to visit the gardens. “It’s meditative for me,” he says. “I’ve been to a lot of the formal gardens, but this is the perfect place for me. Every turn here there’s something new, all in a free form, natural and peaceful setting.”

Salvaged bricks from Auburn Brick Works line many of the pathways, especially around the various hosta gardens, which features 100 varieties.

Stonehedge’s annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony (reservations only) brought Reimert to the gardens, even in the winter. Each December, a 15-foot tree is adorned with 16,000 lights that are choreographed to symphonic holiday music. Typically, the tree supports 400 feet of Austrian crystal.

Last year when Reimert, a certified Aquascape contractor and a graduate of its pond college, lost his job, he came to Stonehedge. His long-term interest here is in furthering the water gardens, but his everyday concern is general maintenance.

“You start with one thing, and work until your tired,” he says. “There’s an overall presence that’s here. If I’m in a bad mood, five or 10 minutes on the property takes it away.”

As for working, and learning, in Keich’s shadow, Reimert says, “His knowledge of every plant on the property is overwhelming. Just working in the gardens with him, I ask him, ‘What’s this? What’s its purpose?’”

As for equipment, there’s one old tractor, a Ford from the mid-1970s, and lots of hand implements. The limited technology is partly budget and largely philosophy. Keich doesn’t use any chemicals, and for 40-plus years has gone without fertilizers. “Sometimes that means certain areas show badly,” he says. “I have no means to stop it, but I want to keep everything organically clean. That’s our philosophy.”

The biggest problem remains a lack of funding, so Stonehedge often makes do with it has. “It makes you very creative,” Keich says.

“It’s amazing what we do with recycled material,” Reimert adds. When a company donated polyethylene sewer pipe, Stonehedge redid water channels with it, used it to make garden beds and stood pipes upright to create tall planters. When some beams were donated, they were used to support the floor in the summerhouse.

If further funding was available, Keich says he’d hire six full-time caretakers, and “everyone would be busy 40 hours, five days a week. This is constantly a work in progress.”

The gardens at Stonehedge feature horticultural diversity, and the board of directors promotes the arts. There’s now a cultural center for small plays, local string quartets and poetry readings in what was a barn. Yoga classes are held upstairs in the grainery. Stonehedge’s wide mission has also evolved to include a spiritual factor, but not to outdo its original roots, on Wednesday’s once a month, there’s an environmental documentary on a big screen and a lecture-discussion group.

“People can think this is whatever it is,” Keich says. “It’s a garden, but people have found it spiritually affects them because there’s a pastoral and spiritual quality they can’t find elsewhere.”

About 36,000 bricks salvaged from Auburn Brick Works in nearby Schuylkill County, Pa., line many of the pathways, especially around the various hosta gardens, which features 100 varieties, including the finest hybrids. Keich says hostas are great shade plants, require limited maintenance and are generally an effective ground cover.

Next to a stand of bamboo is the Water Garden with water lilies, 12 varieties of ornamental grasses and many bog plants. Elsewhere, perennials are interlocked with annuals like petunias and zinnias that Keich and Anthony propagate themselves. Several gardens, like the Awareness Garden, which is a ribbon-shaped garden that pays tribute to a different charity each year, were completed as Eagle Scout projects.

The Exotic Tropical Spice & Flowering Specimen Collection includes various ginger species and hybrids, plus bougainvillea, begonias, Cestrums, bay, aristolochia, jasmines, olive, scented geraniums and more.

The new Peace Pole Garden, which has an oriental design to it, was dedicated in May 2009.

Keich still wants to add a native plant walk, as well as distinctive plant markers. A Daylily Collection Garden, which would feature 270 varieties, is also in the works. Stonehedge Gardens is also working on a grant for a labyrinth. “It’s just another adventure here,” he says.

He hopes to make a map for self-guided tours, and to perfect a lunar-white garden for nighttime enjoyment, and as a memorial garden for Herring, his parents’ and other lost loved ones.

When Dick Lane, president of Stonehedge’s board, arrived in 1998, he brought much-needed administrative experience and long-range perspective that’s helped shape Keich’s vision.

“I hope this can develop into a community of live-ins who carry on our environmental concept,” Keich says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.