Seeing with Other Senses: Gardens for the Blind

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A Perkins School for the Blind student enjoys the scents at the school's 3rd Annual Flower Show.
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The Enabling Garden at The Threshold, Westbend, Wisconsin, helps blind people develop skills for jobs outside the center.
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Mary Steiner from West Bend, Wisconsin, has helped to establish The Enabling Garden at a training center for the handicapped called The Threshhold. In it, blind students plant and care for annuals, deadhead flowers and weed.
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A Perkins School for the Blind student enjoys the scents at the school's 3rd Annual Flower Show.
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A Perkins School for the Blind student enjoys the scents at the school's 3rd Annual Flower Show.
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Perkins School for the Blind student Austin Abele-Castro prepares for the school’s 3rd Annual Flower Show.
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Perkins School graduate Melissa Loeb harvests basil as part of a community-based off-campus work experience.
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Perkins School graduate Janice Lee works in the garden.
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The Ethel L. Dupar Fragrance Garden features Braille plant signs and is laid out for easy access.
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A visitor enjoys the Ethel L. Dupar Fragrance Garden, a part of Seattle’s Lighthouse for the Blind that is being restored after years of neglect.

I first became aware of the subject of blind gardening when my friend Kitty, now blind after years of deteriorating eyesight, expressed a wish for some plants in her life. I gave her a few scented herbs–lavender, oregano, mint and sage–and suggested her husband plant them in a barrel, thinking that exhausted the possibilities. How mistaken I was, for that was just the beginning. Kitty wasn’t satisfied just to sniff and touch, she wanted a real garden, a place to gather herbs for use in her kitchen. I asked a blind friend if she had any suggestions I could give Kitty’s husband to make a proper garden his wife could enjoy. “Why can’t she make her own garden?” she asked. I realized that I did not have any idea how the blind carry on their daily lives, let alone make gardens. I embarked on a journey to an unknown world.

There are approximately 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States. “Blind” ranges from totally sightless to the legally blind, who have vision worse than 20/200 (20/20 is normal) that glasses cannot correct. How many are gardeners? No one knows, but I became acquainted with three (and heard about many more) whose inspiring stories gave me insight into the tremendous power of touch and fragrance.

Deaf and blind Helen Keller once observed that people were surprised that she could enjoy nature. It is really they, she said, who were blind, “for they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.” Those who have lost their sight develop their remaining senses to a heightened degree the sighted cannot imagine. Try walking through your garden with your eyes closed tight. At first you might be lost, but with experience your other senses will begin to guide you.

The World at Her Fingertips

For Ellen Di Nardo, a longtime gardener blind since age 4, touch is the primary way of navigating the world. She is a voracious reader on gardening subjects, using an Optacon–a small camera-equipped machine that gives her access to traditional print. When Di Nardo runs the Optacon over text, she can feel a vibration in the shape of the letter it is photographing; if it’s an “o”, she feels a circle. She also uses it to read the names on seed packets, then makes Braille labels for them on a manual Braille typewriter. She gets Braille books or audio books from the local library. The Library of Congress has a national service so that every state has at least one, if not more than one, library that sends out such books to the blind and visually impaired for free. If Di Nardo wants to pursue a gardening subject in depth (she’s mad about heirloom tomatoes) she also has access to the Internet through her computer’s speech program.

In her upstate New York garden, Di Nardo grows 60 to 70 tomato plants a season, 40 hot peppers and 60 to 70 sweet peppers, as well as garlic, basil, cucumbers, broccoli, sometimes melons and a few flowers, especially marigolds. By any standards, she is a terrific gardener. As such, she has a few tricks that help her throughout the gardening season.

She emphasizes building up the soil and feeding plants early on so they have fewer problems later. Following author Mel Bartholemew’s suggestions for getting the most out of a small space (Square Foot Gardening, Rodale, 1994), she draws 4-foot squares using 4-foot tomato stakes, then marks the square’s corners with short metal stakes. With an 18-inch-wide path around the square she can reach in from any side to tend the plants. She documents the entire garden–where each heirloom tomato is located, for instance–on her computer, noting in it landmarks, such as the patio, driveway and lawn.

Di Nardo raises her plants from seed and she and her husband, who also is legally blind, cook up a storm of great sauces at the end of the season from the garden’s bounty. She makes it sound easy.

“I generally just let my touch replace sight. Since I’m 54 and have been gardening since I was a kid, most things I grow are very familiar,” she says.

Keeping the Garden Alive

Northern Michigan gardener Connie Payne is legally blind from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. Her vision is limited to a small central spot, which is also imperfect. But as her vision has deteriorated, she has been unwilling to give up gardening. She has learned to identify plants using her senses of touch and smell. By rubbing a leaf, for instance, she can note its scent and feel its texture, as well as how it grows on the plant. She learns the shape of blooms and the plant’s form by touch, too. As she has become more aware of shape, texture and fragrance, she is better able to distinguish between the plants she wants to grow and unwanted weeds as she moves her hand across the ground.

Like Di Nardo, she loves to grow tomatoes and marigolds, which are easy to identify by touch and smell. When purchasing plants, she gets help reading the plant tags, paying special attention to height, color of bloom and suggested site. She says that adding a double row of patio stones–8-by-16-inch blocks–to her garden’s edge has helped her to recognize it more easily. Her favorite herbs for texture and fragrance are garden sage, creeping thyme, tarragon and various members of the mint family, which are easy to recognize by their square stems. She also loves groundcovers, such as sweet woodruff and the dead nettle ‘Orchid Frost’ (Lamium spp.) for their low, compact growth. “I don’t like bending over to smell or weed and getting poked in the eye by a plant I cannot see,” she says.

“Gardening is one of my favorite pleasures,” Payne says. “Getting my hands into the earth is healing and experiencing the season’s flow with the succession of blooming herbs brings peace to my world.”

A New Life Grows

For Cindy West, afflicted with a narrowing of vision similar to Payne’s, gardening was a natural outgrowth of her life’s work as a midwife, where she used medicinal herbs, such as shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) to stop bleeding. Diagnosed with tunnel vision as a teenager, six years ago her sight deteriorated to the point that she had to give up driving and her profession.

But that didn’t mean West was going to slow down. After graduating from a Master Gardener course, she entered a new garden-centered life. She likes to garden in a raised bed in the form of a natural soil berm (her boyfriend, Charlie, helps with construction), because it has no hard edges. In her Colorado garden she feels she is in a safe environment, a sanctuary, where she can move slowly.  In her daily life she uses various herbal supplements, such as bilberry for night vision improvement; chamomile, St. John’s wort and valerian for their calming, soothing properties; and astragalus, echinacea and goldenseal as needed to boost her immune system. She grows lavender, clary sage, horehound, motherwort, mullein, self-heal, garlic, chives, thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary and parsley, as well as vegetables and fruits. She also loves to grow flowers. She enjoys the beauty of every bloom every day, preparing for the day when she may not be able to see at all.

West wants her gardens to encompass nature. With Charlie’s help, she creates natural habitats, such as a pond garden to attract wildlife.

Gardens Grow More Than Herbs

In schools and institutions across the country, teachers and devoted volunteers help blind, deaf-blind and hearing-impaired children and adults (who may have other disabilities) develop skills and improve their social, psychological and physical well-being through gardening activities. Horticultural therapy, increasingly valued for its ability to directly reach students, is at the forefront of this effort.

Deborah Krause, horticultural therapist at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, always knew she wanted to use her horticultural skills and knowledge to help others. She says she is rewarded every time she sees young hands reach out to touch or smell a flower for the first time.

Established in 1829, the Perkins School for the Blind is the oldest school for the blind in the United States and the alma mater of Anne Sullivan and her student, Helen Keller. Horticultural therapy began there in 1979 as a part-time pilot program (students had been involved in gardening and animal husbandry in the past). It quickly became a national model and with the 2003 establishment of its Thomas & Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center, Perkins continues to move forward with innovative plant-oriented programs that include science classes, garden and greenhouse experience, and learning vocational skills, such as making gifts, wreaths, herbal teas and potpourri.

Even the most disabled students can help water seedlings and transplant cuttings. These activities are a tremendous esteem boost to students who have spent a lifetime receiving care, letting them offer care and nurturing. The Perkins Spring Flower Show–with categories such as “Plants Grown from Seed” and “Fresh Flower Vase Arrangements”–highlights the students’ achievements for their families, friends and the local community and exemplifies the school’s slogan, “All we see is possibility.”

At the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, California, an herb garden project allows students to practice the independent living skills they are learning at the residential training program. They plant, tend, cultivate and harvest herbs that they use to flavor oils and vinegars, which they bottle, label and sell to raise funds for their recreation budget.

Jerry Duncan, the creative arts therapist assigned to the blind center, and Jane Phillips, project organizer, report that three alumni of the center have used their herb gardening experience to help others in their communities after leaving the center. One gardens with inner city children in Ohio; a second gardens with a mission project in South Africa; and a third generates income by selling homegrown herbs to area restaurants. As blind people who have used gardens to help themselves now use them to help others develop their potential, seeds of hope for the future continue to grow.

Nation’s Best Gardens for the Blind

Gardens for the blind and visually impaired feature Braille signs, fragrant and textured plants, often water features, and are laid out for easy access.

Betty Ott Talking Garden for the Blind
Rockefeller Park Greenhouse
750 E. 88 St.
Cleveland, OH 44108
(216) 664-3103

Recorded messages at the entrance and at intervals along walkways guide visitors through the garden. At the bronze sculpture of Helen Keller kneeling at a water pump, visitors can operate the pump and feel water run over her hand.

Elizabethan Herb Garden at Mellon Park
Fifth Ave. at Shady Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 341-8014

Designed and maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Unit of The Herb Society of America (HSA), the garden was not designed for the blind, but garden chair Liz DePiero has installed large print and Braille signs throughout. The garden features culinary, fragrant, Shakespearean and Lewis & Clark beds. Liz hosts tours for the blind (and their guide dogs).

Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden
7637 N. 55th Ave.
Glendale, AZ 85301

Especially designed for the blind and nearly blind, the Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden features a bronzed map at the entrance that helps visitors visualize what the park looks and feels like. There are four miniature themed parks, a water feature and low stone benches.

Ethel L. Dupar Fragrance Garden
C/O Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind
2501 S. Plum St.
Seattle, WA 98114
(206) 436-2116

After decades of neglect, the Ethel L. Dupar Fragrance Garden is being restored to its former beauty. It features hardy fragrant blossoms, herbs and spices, raised beds and a sunken garden. The garden needs plants and volunteers. Contact Melissa Mueller.

Garden of Explorationat the Arkansas School for the Blind
P.O. Box 668
Little Rock, AR 72202
(501) 664-1713

Maintained since 1969 by the Arkansas Unit of the HSA, the Garden of Exploration features scented, textured and culinary plants, as well as brightly colored flowers (marigolds, zinnias, coreposis) for those with some sight. Contact Betty French.

For more information

Perkins School for the Blind
175 N. Beacon St.
Watertown, MA 02472
(617) 924-3434

American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
(212) 502-7600

The Western Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Palo AltoVeterans Hospital
3801 Miranda Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
Contact Jerry Duncan
(415) 307-7921

J.R. Curtis Jr. Memorial Garden
100 Grand Blvd.
Longview, TX 75606
(903) 237-1230

This garden hopes to create a space in which learning and recreation come together to form a healing environment. Features include a pond with a perpetual fountain, butterfly garden and statuary.

Martha Franck Fragrance GardenMorehead School for the Blind
303 Ashe Ave.
Raleigh, NC 27606
(919) 733-6382

Maintained by the Garden Club of North Carolina, the Martha Franck Fragrance Garden features a statue of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing for the blind. The details of the raised sculpture are easy to interpret by touch and the inscription is written in Braille. Contact Dennis Thurman.


Blind Seniors Garden Too

Gardening for the Blind: Tips for People with Impaired Vision

Gardening for the Senses

Jo Ann Gardner is a writer, gardener and cook living in the Adirondacks of New York.

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