Visually impaired take time to smell and feel the flowers

Peggy Garrett and Lavera Diggins are typical gardeners, which is to say they're totally goofy in springtime. This morning, they're huddled over daffodils.

"Oh, my God, Lavera, look at this one!" Garrett exclaims, running her hands through the sun-yellow blooms.

Garrett and Diggins rest in Fairmount Park with Garrett's dog, Mandie. Garrett oversees the volunteers at the Hands-on Garden. "It's not about the disability," she says she tells those who marvel at the work.

Visitors to the Hands-on Garden, behind the Horticulture Center in West Fairmount Park, are often amazed that visually impaired people such as Garrett and Diggins are able to enjoy this place, let alone plant and maintain it.

"They come by all the time and say, 'Wow! Look what you did.' I tell 'em it's not about the disability," says the feisty Garrett, who oversees the garden and its 10 volunteers for Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

So-called gardens for the blind - also called sensory, scented, aromatic, or fragrance gardens - are an ancient horticultural concept that emphasizes scent. Modern sensory gardens also highlight texture, sound, touch, and sometimes taste as well.

"Sensory gardens are not just for the blind. They're really the way to go," says Patty Thompson, conservation director at the Lower Merion Conservancy, which takes care of the newly restored Sensory Garden in Wynnewood Valley Park in Lower Merion.

In fact, sensory gardens are becoming ever more popular, according to Mark Epstein, a Seattle landscape architect and advocate for more accessible garden design.

He cites several factors: the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, a push by the American Society of Landscape Architects and other professional groups, and a growing emphasis on personal health and fitness.

"People with physical limitations tend to get less time outdoors and less exercise, and there seems to be a greater push now in the health-care community to get people moving," Epstein says.

There's no excuse now, at least in Lower Merion.

The Sensory Garden was established by the Ardmore Rotary in 1977 "for blind people and children" and maintained for years by a local garden club that eventually was unable to keep up.

In 2007, the Rotary stepped in and raised $250,000 to refurbish it, a process that culminated last fall with the installation of 3,500 plants, shrubs, and trees. Many are poking through the soil or budding now.

The gently sloped site is ringed by a rouge-y cloud of cherry blossoms; the trees, some dating to the 1970s, were gifts from the Tokyo Rotary, with whom the Ardmore group has close ties.

Like the 15-year-old Hands-on Garden, the Sensory Garden has benches, wheelchair-wide walkways, low walls for sitting and reaching over, and plentiful birds. A melodic wind chime tingles sweetly, occasionally in concert with nearby church bells.

"We wanted it to appeal to all the senses, and for every plant to have an appeal," says landscape architect Marc Morfei of Pennoni Associates, which designed the garden.

Public gardens, too, are in on the trend. They're always looking to attract bigger audiences and to embellish the traditional visitor experience. Gardens aren't just about pretty flowers anymore.

Neva Fairchild of the American Foundation for the Blind estimates that 15 percent of the visually impaired are completely blind while 85 percent can distinguish light and dark or shapes and shadows - which underscores the idea that color, while important, is just one way to enjoy a garden.

And that the inability to see does not disqualify someone from being a gardener.

"It's an amazing, amazing revelation to people that you don't have to be able to see to enjoy gardening," Fairchild says, conceding that "if you're behind the wheel of a car or driving a plane, train, or bus, I'd like for you to be able to see."

"Pretty much anything else you want to do, there's a way to do it," she says. "There are many ways to experience a garden."

For example: The Elsie McCarthy Sensory Garden in Glendale, Ariz., highlights texture-rich native plants, such as prickly pear and Baja fairy duster, and labyrinths etched in rock that people can follow with their fingers. But water is the major draw.

The garden has five water features, including a tile-mosaic "story totem" with openings that visitors put their hands in.

"You can feel the water running down, and it makes a lovely sound, everything gurgling and bubbling," says Marcheta Strunk, the garden's marketing manager.

There is no water feature - yet - at the Sensory Garden in Lower Merion, but utility lines were installed with that in mind.

For now, native plants are the focus. Fuzzy fothergilla and bee balm, swishing grasses and spicy catmint are massed in wide swaths, providing impact for those who see and for those who don't, "offering the ability to touch a whole lot of the same plant in one place," says Thompson.

Garrett, a Chestnut Hill "senior" who is totally blind, and Diggins, a South Philadelphia octogenarian with some vision in one eye, have that ability in spades. The two friends can't keep their hands off the daffodils, which fill raised beds and whiskey barrels positioned around a square patio with a picnic table.

Garrett's sense of touch is so acute, she can identify a plant by caressing its leaves and petals.

"Look in this barrel!" she shouts to Diggins. "These are big fat daffodils! Aren't they beautiful?"

Each plant feels different - soft, dimpled, frilly, stiff, fragile, substantial.

"Flowers are very feelable. It's not magic," Garrett says. "We see with our fingers."

The Hands-on Garden is 30 feet by 30 feet, with each bed assigned a letter from A to E for easy reference and navigation. Garrett serves as teacher.

It's a role she earned. In 2004, she became the first blind person to receive a master gardener certificate from Pennsylvania State University, and she did it by studying 20 volumes of plant biology and related topics printed in braille.

So, yes, sometimes being a blind gardener takes extra effort. But eavesdropping in the Hands-on Garden is an exercise in utter humdrummery:

What a day! Feels like 80 degrees already.

Something ate all the tulip bulbs. Darned squirrels . . .

And - of course - the garden looks nice today, but you need to come back in a couple of weeks when we plant the annuals. It'll be much more colorful.

Garrett airbrushes an arm over the daffodils, from the tip of bed A to end of bed E.

"This is nothing compared to what it will be," she says.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or