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As a largely visually-reliant society, much of botanical garden design have focused primarily on visual presentation, whether in flower color or in garden composition. Slowly, however, sensory gardens appealing to our more underutilized senses of smell, sound, touch, and even taste are appearing around the country and the globe. While these unique parks may specifically have blind individuals in mind, sensory gardens also appeal to anyone in the general population who would like to expand their sensory horizons. The following is just one proposal for a sensory garden design:
The entrance to the garden should be visually, nasally, and tactilely stimulating. A metal gate covered with entangled goldflame honeysuckle vines (Lonicera x heckrottii ) would serve as a colorful, aromatic greeting and give visitors a small taste of the experience to come. These perennial plants also attract hummingbirds and butterflies, whose activities would surely stimulate the ears. The general layout of the garden would include a continuous serpentine path lined with raised plant beds (to minimize stooping and bending) on both sides. The path can even wrap around a standing rectangular planter to maximize usable area. The path would also have several alcoves or nooks, which would give visitors a resting area where they could linger about, smelling flowers and feeling leaf textures. Park benches present throughout the park would accommodate walking visitors who want to simply breathe in the lovely smells of the tea olive tree, for instance. Smooth wood railings on both sides of the path should run all throughout the garden to serve as directional guides. A change in material texture (to a metal, for instance) could be used to indicate an alcove area. Metal plaques in Braille embedded in the edges of the concretealcoves would provide general information about the various plants. These plaques can also have buttons that can be pushed for an audio reading of the inscription.
According to the book Sensory Design, uneven pathways heighten our awareness of surfaces by compelling us to use our kinesthetic sense to perceive the changes in the ground. For the disabled, a slow-sloping path (upward and downward) would engage the visitor in using this sensory system.
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An interesting feature of the sensory garden would be a concrete alcove almost submerged in a pond. The water surface should reach a maximum height of approximately six inches below the edge of the alcove so that visitors can reach in and touch the water. Water lilies and other aquatic plants would be perfect for tactile exploration. A small rock waterfall facing the visitors can even provide auditory stimulation. The alcoves should cover a large enough area to accommodate multiple disabled and non-disabled visitors.
As the blind rely largely on sound cues as a navigational tool, different sources of sound must be present throughout the sensory garden. A prominent waterfall in the center would provide blind visitors with a continually streaming audio signal that would help them orient themselves. A few wind chimes of different low to middle frequencies in different sections of the garden would also help visitors to distinguish among its various parts as well as aid in their navigation.
Plants themselves can also create sounds that evoke subtle moods in visitors. Weeping trees, such as willows and birch for instance, have a calming whisper. Quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides), so named for the rustling sound of its leaves, would be another source of audio stimulation. One to three of each around the perimeter with significant space in between may be best, so as to function as distinct way-finding cues. The park benches would work great under these trees. (The haptic system would also be stimulated here as visitors distinguish between sunlight and shade.)
To stimulate visitors’ sense of touch, the sensory garden would house a variety of textured plants. Especially chosen for their distinctive feel would be the “lamb’s ears” (Stachys byzantina), which have velvety, gray leaves favoring its namesake. Irises, liriopes, nandinas, and philodendron should also line the edges of alcoves for quick access. Varieties of ferns differ in composition, including the Southern maidenhair fern, Boston fern, and the holly fern which has a fine, glossy texture. The crepe myrtle tree, with its smooth, exfoliating bark, should also be tactilely stimulating. A small park bench under this tree would be ideal.
While the blind can detect a myriad of different sounds and textures in the garden, it is perhaps their olfactory systems that will most frequently be excited. Seating areas can be enhanced by the floral overtones of gardenias, scented geraniums, flowering tuberose, varieties of lilies, gardenia, roses, and jasmine. Another alcove can display a set of spicy-fruity scented plants, including magnolias (with their strong, lemony scent), daphne, Korean spice vibernum, and garden phlox. Spicebush, sage, chamomile and Carolina allspice have earthy scents, which most people find appealing.
With their sweet fragrances, lilac shrubs would certainly please the visitors’ olfactory system as they follow the garden path. If possible, the lilacs would complement flowering crabapple trees quite well (it also has a sweet scent). Shrubs of red magnolia (also known as Florida Anise) can also line both sides of a small, un-railed section of the path. This plant has smooth, glossy foliage which emits an aromatic scent when bruised; it also tastes like licorice. Oleander shrubs are another fragrant plant, emitting a slightly fruity smell, which can line the garden path.
A trellis with a climbing sweet pea vine (Lathyrus odoratus) would be a perfect addition during the spring. Its vibrant blue, rose, and lavender blooms carry a fragrant scent that would surely stimulate anyone’s nose. The scented trellis could serve as a fragrant divider between two alcoves. Chilean Jasmine, with its gardenia-like scent, can also be trained to climb a trellis.
An herb section would be a great addition to the sensory garden. Naturally, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, sage, parsley, and thyme would be included. Various plants of the mint (Mentha) genus, including the licorice mint, bergamot mint (has a citrus scent), chocolate mint, peppermint, pineapple mint, spearmint, apple mint, and others would surely entice visitors. Though not exactly an herb, the flowering onion (Allium rosenbachianum), which bears small, star-shaped, dark-violet flowers in loose, ball-like heads in summer and has a mild oniony scent, would complement the culinary scents of this herb section. Most, if not all, of these herbs are also edible. Thus, with proper care of the herbs, visitors can taste the wide range of flavors of plants long used by Native Americans and others for medicinal purposes.
After weaving through the winding paths of the sensory garden, visitors can exit through a gate adjacent to the entrance. This exit gate should have the same honeysuckle vine on it to hark back to their first arrival at the sensory garden.