Lessons Learned From a Sensory Herb Garden

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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.

I chose a sprig of lamb’s ear as the first plant to introduce to my visitor. Terri took it, felt the furry leaves, smelled it, and asked, “What’s this used for? It doesn’t seem like anything one would want to eat.” My description of the herb being decorative didn’t impress her, and she only smiled faintly when I described the leaves being stuffed into hard shoes by soldiers during the Civil War to cushion sore, blistered feet.

Terri sat down on the edge of the raised bed, making herself comfortable on the old pine log that formed the side of the bed. Her hands touched the pine needles that I use as a weed-deterrent mulch, then felt over the surface until she found comfrey. “This feels important!” she said. “What is it and what’s it good for?” I explained how useful I have found the plant to be for many kinds of garden wounds, how I use it in bath herb blends to ease sore muscles or scratched-up legs after hiking in the woods, and how I’ve grown to rely on comfrey more than any other plant in my garden. “Out of more than three hundred herbs,” I said, “comfrey is the one I use most often and in the largest quantity.” She moved on, finding garlic chives, oregano, and caraway thyme all within her reach, each generating different reactions and prompting more questions.

As Terri felt along the log wall to move down the bed farther, she found a large clump of costmary. “Now here is a plant that Terri won’t be impressed with,” I thought to myself. She broke off a leaf, ran her fingers over the surface, then held it up to her nose. “It’s fuzzy,” she said. (My mind said, “No, wait, costmary isn’t fuzzy . . . is it?”) Terri went on. “Smells minty. Is this some kind of mint?”

I explained that costmary is a mint relative. I’d never noticed before that it was fuzzy; I’d always thought of costmary as slick and smooth. And although the dried and crushed leaves have a fresh, slightly minty scent, I’d never experienced any particular fragrance from the fresh herb. “Costmary is one of the bitter-flavored herbs,” I told her, “and because of the bitterness, it is used in very small quantities to blend and bring out other bland flavors. For example, in a tasteless salad of iceberg lettuce, carrot, and celery, a couple of costmary leaves can give a spark of flavor. And the dried, crushed leaves help blend together the sweet fragrances of potpourri.” While I was talking, I felt the leaves. Sure enough, they were somewhat fuzzy on the under­sides.

“Show me more,” Terri said. We moved on down the bed, touching the rosemary, talking about sage. When she tasted the licorice-flavored leaves of sweet goldenrod, she observed that its flavor was similar to that of the tarragon we had picked earlier. “Of course,” I thought, feeling more and more the student than the teacher. “And the goldenrod grows larger and more vigorously than my heavily harvested tarragon.” I made a mental note to experiment with it in chicken salad.

Next on our tour was a clump of horseradish. Terri liked the giant leaves and said she could imagine children liking to dress up in costumes made of them. She described the leaves as lumpy and old-feeling. She didn’t think she’d like horseradish because it reminded her of some unpleasant meals she’d had as a child, but I explained how good the young leaves are chopped up in salads and how I like to sprinkle pork steak with pepper and mustard and bake it wrapped in horseradish leaves. She tasted a leaf, saying she wasn’t aware that any part other than the root was edible. “I like the flavor,” she announced.

We moved on to basil. “It feels warped, bent, and bumpy,” Terri said. (In my mind, I thought it looked smooth and slick—like costmary.) Then came lavender, which was attractive neither to Terri nor to the businesslike Marsha. We moved on to lemon balm, which Terri found hairy and pleasant-scented. She was like a walking catalog of my plants, comparing a plant two beds back with the one we just picked. She drew comparisons that had never occurred to me, made observations that I had never considered, and renewed for me the excitement I felt when first learning about herbs many years ago.

As Terri left the garden and hugged me goodbye, she thanked me profusely for sharing my knowledge. And I thanked her for teaching me so much: through her senses, I had discovered many new things about the herbs I grow. Over the years, I had seen, planned, planted, smelled, tasted, and talked to my plants, but I hadn’t really sat down and felt them.

After the other guests were gone and all the foods and tents were put away, I went out in my garden and closed my eyes to take a tour.

Jim Long, owner and chief gardener at Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, is currently involved in a nationwide education campaign on herbalism in the Civil War.

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