Lessons Learned From a Sensory Herb Garden

A gardener discovers through a blind acquaintance a new way of experiencing a sensory herb garden.

| October/November 1992

  • A lesson on experiencing a sensory herb garden in an entirely new way.
    A lesson on experiencing a sensory herb garden in an entirely new way.
    Photo By Fotolia/Kyrylo Grekov

  • A lesson on experiencing a sensory herb garden in an entirely new way.

A gardener experiences a sensory herb garden in a new way through his visually impaired acquaintance.

Some time back, an acquaintance named Terri called to ask if I would teach her something about herbs. Specifically, Terri planned to have a small herb garden in her back yard and wanted to learn to distinguish one herb from another. Terri has been blind since birth but is very independent: she lives alone, tends her guide dog, maintains a garden, and gets back and forth to work.

I was surprised at the feelings of panic that came over me as we talked on the phone. After all, I enjoy speaking to large audiences. I’ve presented television programs about herbal subjects, lectured to garden clubs from coast to coast, taught historical herbal medicine to Civil War and other historical groups, and conducted university adult education classes in herb growing and marketing. But Terri’s simple request just sent shivers up my back. What could I share with a blind person in a sensory herb garden? How could I communicate to her what I see in my herbs?

As a landscape architect for the past twenty years, much of my focus has been on the visual characteristics of herbs. When I spent a year doing research to design a small garden of historic herbs for the State of Arkansas, the visual aspects of the herbs were uppermost in my mind. How could I explain to Terri the difference between red and green perilla if she couldn’t see the difference between red and green? But she was enthusiastic and persistent, and I agreed to do my best, recognizing that it would be a learning experience for both of us.

Terri, her driver, and her guide dog came to attend an herb fair on my lawn on a summery day in May. The dog, Marsha, was all business, requiring an introduction from me before I could give Terri a hug. We then walked to the garden for an initial tour.

I have long insisted that gardens should be accessible to everyone, and I’d planned my garden and shop to be as accessible as possible. Terri easily found her way among the pathways and raised beds.

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