A Garden That Really Makes Scents!
by Bruce Zaretsky, Affiliate ASLA
Wow! Look at the colors in that garden! Look at the bright flame orange of the Red Hot Poker! The blue flowers on the Delphinium are amazing. And look at the pink flowers on the Astilbe! They’re stunning, aren’t they?

If you’re reading this, then you can probably picture these flowers in all their glory. But what if you were blind? How would you see them? How would you picture the colors in your mind? Imagine trying to describe color to someone who has never seen color (“well, blue is like.... it’s like... blue!”).

Now, try to imagine approaching a garden, being enthralled by its smells and textures, and not being able to bend down to touch the plants. Or being in a wheelchair and trying to navigate the broken stone or mulch paths after a spring shower.

These were the challenges we faced when approached in the fall of 2001 by a private donor wishing to have us design and install a garden for the visually and physically impaired in Mendon Ponds Park, Mendon, New York. We were charged with designing a garden for all of the senses (which all gardens should be anyway), not just the eyes. We needed fragrance, texture, color, and sound. And it had to be accessible by all—the blind, wheelchair-bound, children, and the elderly.

There were not many precedents for us to study. In fact, at that time, there were less than ten sensory gardens in all of the United States. So, instead of turning to others for inspiration, we closed our eyes, sat in a chair, and imagined. What would this garden need to have for us to enjoy it? Well, it would need to have lots of texture, raised gardens, extremely fragrant plants, and the sound of running water. It would have a solid path smooth enough for wheelchairs, but not so soft that the wheels would sink in. Of course, there was the ever-present budget. And that’s where we started.

Sharon’s Sensory Garden (named for the donor’s daughter) was to be placed in an area approximately 3,600 square feet behind the Nature Center at Mendon Ponds Park. We wanted to provide pathways wide enough for people in wheelchairs, as well as those on foot, to navigate comfortably and unhurried. The gardens needed to be raised high enough for wheelchair-bound folks to be able to touch the plants. Typically, this is anywhere from 18 to 24 inches high. We opted for 18 inches so small children could also reach the plants. The gardens were elevated using five different types of stone (dolomitic limestone, granite, Medina sandstone, Laurel Mountain stone, and cobbles) because people who can see will also use this garden. Besides, the different stones provide differing textures for the visually impaired to touch. We built a small waterfall in the center of the garden, with a concrete bridge traversing the stream it feeds. The bridge was built right up against the waterfall so folks in wheelchairs (and kids as well) could put their hands in the falling water.

Touching the Water, Mendon Ponds Park
Photo courtesy of Zaretsky and Associates, Inc.

In the far reaches of Sharon’s Garden, a wall of Medina sandstone boulders incorporates a parking space for a wheelchair. This allows people to get out of the way of traffic in the garden, as well as the opportunity to be surrounded on three sides by plantings.

But, as always in a garden, the real stars are the plants. And in a sensory garden, the more, the merrier. There are over 170 linear feet of raised beds in this garden, incorporating over 75 varieties of plants, including summersweet, Virginia sweetspire, butterfly bush, astilbe, fragrant hosta, and geranium, among many others. The herb garden alone has over twenty varieties: three kinds of thyme, lemon balm, tarragon, lavender, rosemary, and three kinds of sage, to name just a few. These plants are in mostly raised beds for all to touch and smell. Ornamental grasses and bamboo cry out to be caressed. Visitors are encouraged to rub the plants, to smell them, and to experience their textures and scents.

Nameplates, Mendon Ponds Park Photo courtesy of Zaretsky and Associates, Inc.

A very nice touch in the garden is the inclusion of twenty brass nameplates, identifying select plants in both words and Braille. A custom-made mailbox holds literature describing these plants, again in Braille as well as English.

Sharon’s Garden was an exciting garden to design and install. We were forced to look at our garden design in a completely new way. We were forced to close our eyes and feel our way around. We were forced to use our other senses, which we often take for granted since our vision is our most-used sense. And we were delighted to find that creating a garden for all of the senses is what we do everyday anyway!

Sharon’s Garden has been developed for the public to enjoy. Experience the garden, its smells and textures, and its sounds. Go ahead; don’t be afraid to touch!

Bruce Zaretsky, Affiliate ASLA, is the co-owner and principal designer at Zaretsky and Associates, Inc., in Rochester, New York. He can be reached at bruce@zaretskyassociates.com.
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