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A Garden for Senses Other than Sight


Q. We bought our first home last year and I'm beginning to plan out our gardens. My wife is completely blind, and I'd like to have plants throughout the garden that she can enjoy. We have a lot of space and plan to stay here awhile; do you have any recommendations for ornamentals, vegetables, herbs, trees or shrubs that have tactile, fragrant or even auditory interest? Fragrant summer flowers are not hard to find; same for common tactile plants like Lamb's Ear. But I'm hoping for more interest throughout the year and ideas in general. We did hang suet feeders on your recommendation, and as a result, hear great bird songs starting at dawn. But the squirrels are staring to jump onto them.

---- Kai in Boston

A. What a great topic! But first, we have to defeat the Evil Squirrels!

Now, Evil Squirrels are not commonly pests of suet—they greatly prefer to attack seed feeders. When they do launch the rare suet attack, I get a big jug of hot pepper shake or powder and roll the suet around in it. Keeps the Evil Squirrels away, but the birds love it—in fact, I saw some hot pepper 'flavored' suet cakes in a store the other day, and the packaging didn't say anything about repelling squirrels; just attracting birds.

Now, back to our main topic: plants that smell, sound and feel good. The first plant that comes to mind is lemon balm. You have to grow it in containers and still be careful, as it can easily become invasive. But, unlike many other herbs, if you sink the pots into the ground at the end of the season, the plants will survive even a Boston winter. (They'd survive just planted in the soil as well, but then you have to keep a closer eye on the rascals.)

Yes, there are lots of other lemon scented herbs, and I suggest that you grow virtually all of them—but lemon balm is special. We've explained many times that all of the lemon scented herbs repel mosquitoes when they're crushed up and rubbed on the skin—which can come in handy in any garden—but lemon balm is also a natural anti-depressant.

Dr. Andy Weil once told me that he felt that lemon balm was a much better mood-lifter than St. John's Wort, especially for 'SAD'—Seasonal Affective Disorder—when people get blue from the lack of light in the winter. He brings pots of it inside, puts them on his windowsills and just rustles the leaves up in his face whenever winter starts getting him down. (I first met Dr. Weil when I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer back in the late 70s, and then got to attend his Clinical Course in Botany at Columbia University back in the 90's. Great guy.)

Anyway, thinking about lemon balm's added medicinal benefit got me thinking about retired USDA plant specialist Dr. Jim Duke, author of many great books (start with "The Green Pharmacy") and probably THE authority on the medicinal possibilities of plants. Jim always likes to say that "the herb sage will not make you 'sage', but rosemary will." Inhaling the (wonderful!) fragrance of fresh rosemary, he explains, gives you a potent mental boost, makes you more alert and may well help fend off dementia. (I probably need to grow more of it!)

Anyway, rosemary would not be hardy outdoors in Boston, so you would either start with fresh plants every Spring or experiment with bringing the plants inside in the Fall. Rosemary is a temperamental houseplant, but I've mastered the art, so it's certainly achievable—and, like lemon balm, would be a great sensory plant to have inside in the winter.

But just because it doesn't make you sage doesn't mean we should neglect sage; some of the scented sages are really cool, especially pineapple sage. That scent is such a perfect match to its namesake, you can play a party game getting people to sniff the leaves. And the variety of scents and feels in the genus is almost endless; just search under Salvia. (That's right—not all Salvia is sage, but all sages are Salvia.) And don't neglect scented geraniums!

Now, Kai already knew about Lamb's ear for touch, but I also like the leaves of common mullein; they have the same kind of velvety feeling on a plant that typically grows four or five feet tall, with HUGE fuzzy leaves to feel. And trees that have exfoliating bark like the river birch are great for a four-season 'feel'. Although rosemary is my favorite plant for both feel and scent. (Hmmm; maybe Jim Duke was wrong about the dementia thing…)

I was also able to find a list of 'sensory' plants online at the Purdue University Extension site. Although I have issues with some of the choices, one idea I especially liked was scented groundcovers, like chamomile and creeping thyme, that would release a great smell whenever you stepped on them. The author, Larry Caplan, also recommended indoor citrus, which I thought was another great idea, especially in a short-season area like Boston, where again, you'd want to carry over as much sensory experience as possible into the long winter.

Sound gets tricky. You HAVE to have a gurgling fountain or other water feature that makes a pleasant background noise; it's just too much of a good idea to pass up. But plants are another story. The Purdue article recommended 'running' bamboo, which does make the greatest sounds in the wind, but is also one of the most invasive things you can grow—so you'd have to install rhizome barrier to contain it. (But if you have the room and are willing to restrain, it's a magnificent plant.) And some of the clumping bamboos—which are NOT invasive—have great 'bark'; that is, the surfaces of the culms have a really neat feel to them. A giant bamboo I saw during my recent trip to Cuba had an absolutely amazing 'feel'.

The Purdue article also recommends ornamental grasses, which do rustle beautifully in the wind, but some types have blades that are much too sharp for my comfort level in this situation (although strategic planting could easily solve that). Many, however, are soft and feathery--and they might be great plants for both sound and feel.

The most renowned 'sound' plant in general is the Quaking Aspen tree, which is hardy even North of Boston. It does have aggressive roots and shouldn't be grown near structures, but it gives great sound.

Facebook Extra—only available here at GA!:Now, we liked this question so much that we also posted it on the You Bet Your Garden Facebook page, where frequent (and very welcome) visitor Kendra made a lot of great suggestions. Here's a slightly edited version of her wonderful entry: "Coming from Pennsylvania, Witch hazel, viburnum, and hyacinth are among my favorite scents. And almost all of the cooking herbs are great to crush and smell.

"Paper-bark maples and other trees with "exfoliating bark" feel really neat to touch. You might want to go on a walk through an Arboretum and have her feel different trees to see what type of bark she prefers. Different trees have very different textures. You could do the same thing at a nursery and see if she likes the feel of any foliage. While you're there, pick out a wind-chime that she likes the sound of too. {McGrath note: How did I miss that one? Great idea!}.

"Some other plants that are fun to touch include pussy willow, eucalyptus, silver-dollar plant, Chinese lantern and some succulents—some have fuzzy leaves, while others are fun and "fleshy" like the jade plant. 'String of pearls' is also fun. We're hoping to make a sensory garden for our small children, so I've been thinking about these types of plants for a while. Good luck! Sounds like a really fun garden to plan!"

Facebook friend Bonnie added: "There is a garden of scented plants in the Parc Georges Brassens in Paris; perhaps someone from the park service there would have a list? The signs are in Braille, too." And Heidi chimed in with a similar suggestion closer to home: "The Missouri Botanical Gardens (in Saint Louis) has a garden for the blind. They have a great website; might be worth checking out..."

Great, great ideas all; special thanks to these fabulous folks for 'chiming' in!

Finally, a lot of the articles I found online were about blind people actually doing the gardening and not just enjoying the plants, which I found very empowering and cool. The Purdue 'plant list' article has a nice selection of resources on this topic at the very end.

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