Featured Garden: Sensory Garden in Lawrence, Kansas

| August/September 2010

  • A garden for all senses goes beyond visual beauty to embrace tactile, fragrant, delicious plants and soothing sounds.
    Photo by Diane Guthrie

Next to Audio-Reader, the radio reading service for the blind at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, volunteers developed a sensory garden for the visually impaired. In this multifaceted garden, colorful lavenders, thymes and roses take center stage. Gentle paths, fountains and sculptures add to the typical garden beauty—but the garden appeals to all senses, so those who can’t see its brilliant bursts of color and architectural elements can experience the garden, too. Everyone is encouraged to explore it with their fingers, ears, noses and tongues. Visitors smell cinnamon carnations, hear the wind whisper through red cedars, touch feathery yarrow and taste all sorts of mint.

“It’s especially nice after a good rain because everything is so fragrant; you feel the happiness of the plants,” says Susan Tabor, assistant coordinator of volunteers for Audio-Reader. Susan, who is blind, enjoys the heady scents of basil, peppermint and lavender; the touch of peony petals; listening to bubbling fountains and the songs of the birds. “A garden like this calls forth spirituality,” she says. “You feel wonderment as you experience its various cycles.”

The garden originated as a small bed planted in 1996: Now it has grown into a waist-level terraced garden that allows visitors in wheelchairs to savor a fragrant array of plants as they roll along winding brick paths. Specimens are labeled in both Braille and print. Benches and a gazebo offer spots to stop and soak it all in.

Anyone can enrich their surroundings with a sensory garden. Such a garden might be as simple as a pot filled with sensuous herbs or as grand as an entire yard. As you sketch your own plans, consider which senses you want to emphasize. You might want a garden, or series of gardens, dedicated to a single sense. Or, as at Audio-Reader, you might mingle all five senses together.

In selecting plants, consider color, texture and form. Smell, touch, and taste the contenders and consider how they might sound. Remember, this is a “hands on” garden so avoid pesticides and poisonous plants such as monkshood and foxglove.

In design, think in terms of similarities and differences. Pair plants that play off one another in both color and fragrance, such as Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’ with Rosa rugosa ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’. Elsewhere, mingle plants with contrasting color and form, say mixed waxy-leafed Begonia semperflorens with gold-edged lemon thyme (Thymus ×citriodorus ‘Archers Gold’).

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