These Trees Hug Back: Church’s Memorial Garden a Place for Therapy

At St. Gregory’s garden in Woodstock, everyone is welcome to walk the labyrinth, meditate in the shady grove, perhaps get some horticultural therapy, or simply find a peaceful retreat

St. Gregory’s Episcopal church in Woodstock is a striking A-frame building soaring more than 50 feet at its apex, with a wall of chevron-shaped windows in front giving it a mid-century modern look. It was constructed in the late 1950s, and sat for the next four decades on an unadorned grassy plot. In 2002, the Reverend Tom Miller — the priest at the time — discovered that one of his flock, James Dinsmore, was a landscape designer. Reverend Miller told Dinsmore that he’d always wanted a garden at the church. “The idea was that it would be a garden for the whole community, that would welcome everybody,” Dinsmore says. He accepted the commission “purely as a labor of love,” and conceived a cross-shaped layout that would align perfectly with the church and serve as an extension of it.

For Dinsmore, whose designs are often architecturally inspired, that was the easy part. Next came figuring out how to pay for the hardscaping materials, the fences, trees, plants, and benches. “We started having fund-raising events, and then I thought, ‘Why not have people buy a tree in memory of somebody?’ ” Dinsmore says. That idea resulted in the first planting: a grove of river birches arranged in two concentric circles like a halo beyond the top of the cross. And work began on fences and paving for the main body of the garden, which became known as the memorial garden.

You enter behind the church, passing through an arched gate into a fenced space where a walk lined with star magnolias leads to a wide, paved area about the size of the church’s sanctuary. Spirea, viburnum, fairy roses, hydrangeas, and other flowering shrubs line the edges, and pollarded plane trees on either side form a canopy in summer that arches above the “aisle.” Benches in between the trees double as pews for outdoor services. At the far end, there’s a hefty stone altar. “I call it the Druid altar, although we don’t have human sacrifices,” Dinsmore jokes. Beyond the altar, flower beds edged in clipped boxwood surround a stacked-stone fountain that was contributed by the writer Gail Godwin in memory of her partner, Robert Starer. Looking back, you see that the pointed arch over the entrance visually intersects two A-shaped windows at the rear of the church — a motif of the church that’s repeated in the garden.

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memorial garden stone

The memorial garden, secluded behind the church (left); at right, different types of stone define the seven circuits of the labyrinth

The memorial garden was completed within a year. “And it quickly looked quite mature, because all the plants did so well,” Dinsmore remarks. “Some people attributed that to my horticultural skill, and some to the fact that it’s sacred ground. But truth be known, we had to elevate the whole garden for drainage, so we brought in 100 yards of good topsoil.” Whatever the reason for its serene lushness, the garden proved so popular it earned “Best Place to Escape the Hubbub of Woodstock” from this magazine soon after it was dedicated. As the church’s Web site declares, it also serves as a venue for “weddings, concerts, readings, baptisms, anniversaries and any joyous occasion.”

Dinsmore is enthusiastic about the new horticultural therapy garden that occupies one arm of the cross. The idea for that came about by chance. “A friend of mine, Jesse Jones, got into a conversation with a woman at a bar who had just received her credentials in horticultural therapy,” Dinsmore recounts. “Jesse at first thought it was one of those goofy Woodstock practices like hugging trees.” But after the newly minted horticultural therapist, Mariann Durkin, explained the now clinically recognized benefits, Jones suggested they meet with Dinsmore. “The three of us came up with the idea of creating a garden specifically designed for classes in horticultural therapy,” Dinsmore says. Several years elapsed while money was raised for construction; when funding for the classes themselves came from Episcopal Charities for youth programs three years ago, Durkin made do in the memorial garden. Her first lessons in the therapy garden took place last year. So far, most of the students are autistic, but Durkin plans to add classes for needy or at-risk kids — or anyone, she says, “young, old, in a wheelchair or not, who can benefit from the restorative effects of nature. That’s the mission of the garden… Some kids who come have never seen a worm!” 

Pathways in the therapy garden are wide enough for wheelchairs, and beds are raised to different heights for those unable to get to ground level. A raised koi pool with a stone fish fountain anchors the center. There’s a shady pavilion for kids whose medication reacts with the sun. Four sturdy masonry columns holding up the pavilion’s roof will eventually be covered in tile mosaic, each column representing a tree during one of the four seasons. Mosaic artist Curt Boll is donating materials and instructions on how to apply them. It’s an ambitious project, but Dinsmore expects one column to be finished this summer.

therapy garden memorial garden

Left: The new horticultural therapy garden, with its raised beds. This summer, the fish fountain will burble into the pool. At right: With the support of locals and businesses like Kingston Block, Pioneer Natural Pools, and the Burpee Seed Company, Dinsmore has created a unique garden complex at St. Gregory’s. Many a service has been conducted from the stone altar in the memorial garden, but people also come just to relax, or even eat lunch

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Another ambitious project that came to fruition last year was the installation of a 54-foot-wide, classic seven-circuit labyrinth beyond the birch grove. It, too, was the result of a conversation over drinks, Dinsmore notes with amusement. “We had a rustic labyrinth, just stones laid in mulch, and somebody at a cocktail party mentioned it to a woman named Elizabeth Murray. She’s extremely knowledgeable about labyrinths, and she invited us to see the one in her garden in Katonah. I thought it was so beautiful, it was my inspiration for ours,” he says. Better yet, Murray arranged for a grant to pay for the one at St. Gregory’s. “It’s funny how time after time that has occurred — that a chance conversation resulted in somebody giving us some money,” Dinsmore remarks. Getting businesses to donate materials or contribute also proved to be “an easy sell — everyone gets excited,” he says.

He leads the way around the labyrinth, where each circuit has contrasting colored stones, inset on a poured concrete slab. “We wanted all of the garden to be handicapped accessible, so it needed to be smooth,” Dinsmore explains. In the middle, there’s a marble bench, and a water feature to gaze upon before you stroll back out. “We intend to plant groups of fragrant shrubs, so that when you walk the labyrinth you get a little aromatherapy at the same time,” he adds.

This year, work begins on the columbarium in the other arm of the cross, which will take the form of two half-circles of stone at bench height, with niches for urns and ashes. And there are plans for a vegetable plot and a wind garden.

Dinsmore conceived of the garden not just as a spiritual place, but as an enjoyable haven from the everyday world. “One day, a bunch of utility trucks pulled in, and the priest came running out, concerned there was a gas leak or something,” Dinsmore recounts. But no, the men had just come to eat their lunch in the garden. “That’s what this is all about,” he continues. “That’s what we wanted.”

On Saturday, June 7, from 2-5 p.m., St. Gregory’s hosts a party, with refreshments and music, to show off the new labyrinth and therapy garden and talk about church programs. All are invited, admission is free.

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