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Lerner Gardens Embraces the Senses

Compiled by Gregory Harris, LASN

The upper pond in the Lerner Garden has a small fountain to create both a visual and audible orientation element near the center of the garden. Note the bold visual foliage texture and color contrasts and the interesting spatial quality created by the grade change and use of terrain. The creation of a bi-level interior water feature provided the drainage, detention, and spatial, visual, auditory, and tactile elements needed to unify the garden. The strong use of natural stone walls and boulders in conjunction with natural ledges, a palette of adapted Maine plants, and the preservation of existing trees contextually blends the garden with its surroundings.

Photo Credits: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
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The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, located in Boothbay, Maine, is the most significant public garden in the state of Maine and one of New England's top visitor attractions. CMBG has a tremendous economic and social effect on the region.

CMBG officials note that since opening in 2007, the Gardens has become one of the most distinguished botanical destinations in the country. Its exquisite gardens, dramatic and compelling natural landscape, stunning visitor center, and waterfront make it a unique and charming and destination. The Gardens presents limitless potential to inspire learning about natural history, habitats, botany, and ecological connections.

The plan shows the one-acre site of the Lerner Garden, the five sensory zones, the looping meandering path that joins the zones and the central water feature, which is the spatial organizer and means of visual and auditory orientation. Note the various nooks and features adjacent to the path. To the left of the garden is the CMBG Visitor Center; below is the Great Lawn; above and right are forest and other naturalistic gardens. Except for trees and ledge rocks at the edges, this was a completely disturbed and barren site

It also has a powerful influence on the attitude of the region's population about design quality, horticulture, sustainability, and conservation. One of the newest additions to the CMBG site is the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses.

The bridge railing is constructed from a locally harvested, storm damaged oak tree and is smoothed and sculpted for the tactile experience. There is much to hear on the bridge, including the sound of footsteps on the wood decking, the babbling brook below and central fountain splashing to the left, frogs croaking and wind swishing through the larches, the flapping of cottonwood leaves, and the rustle of rain tree pods in plantings beyond the right of the photo.

After an avid gardener and one of the most active Garden members was suddenly struck blind due to an illness, the CMBG Board of Directors was moved to include a special garden in the master plan that would appeal to all of the senses, allowing the blind and others with disabilities to fully enjoy both being in the garden and actively gardening.

The Lerner Garden of the Five Senses is now one of CMBG's primary "designed gardens" and is prominently nestled in a forest setting between the visitor center, great lawn, and forest pond. The idea is that once visitors fine-tune their perception in this garden, they'll more fully appreciate the remainder of the 250-acre, waterfront Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens property.

This front view of the hip-high water wall shows the adjacency to the main walkway, enabling even disabled visitors to feel and hear the water as they move by and across the babbling runnels in the walkway.

The Sensory Garden
What's the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses all about? As visitors enter each successive area of this highly interactive sensory garden, they find features devoted to each sense in turn. The areas blend into one another, as sensory experiences tend to do in life.

Entry to the sensory garden is through an archway covered in weeping larches and colorful, fragrant vines. Illustrated plaques welcome us and introduce us to the garden and its layout. Inviting plantings, cobblestone pathways, and finely crafted stone walls stretch before us. Visitors will notice a continuous "striker stone" that borders the path and help those with visual disabilities navigate.

In this overview of the lower portion of the garden from a sitting nook, the upper pond is to the right and has a small fountain to create both a visual and audible orientation element near the center of the garden. Note the bold visual foliage texture and color contrasts and the interesting spatial quality created by the grade change and use of terrain. In the foreground is Variegated Comfrey Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold'. To the right is Echinacea 'Fragrant Angel.'

Smell - Within just a few feet of the entrance, visitors arrive at one of several free-form "nooks" beside the path. The "cracked-ice" paving in these areas helps differentiate them from the walkway. Here, plantings focus attention on the sense of smell through flowers and herbs with delightful and intriguing aromas. Benches -- the first of many -- and boulders provide a place to sit a spell and enjoy the fragrances.

Taste - Waist-high garden beds delineate the area devoted to taste. Herbs, fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers grow in profusion in the beds and in 144 green-wire cages that fill what look like fine-furniture bookcases, but that the Gardens staff members call flower towers. Whether sweet or savory, minty or bitter, plants are there for the tasting. Stone sinks with pump-like faucets invite us to "cleanse our palate" before we touch or taste other plants.

In this corner of the sensory garden, an imposing pavilion and massive, fan-shaped pergola create an indoor-outdoor classroom. They provide shade and a spot to enjoy a little relaxation, gardening activities, or a workshop. A display of ergonomically designed gardening tools adds further interest.

Blind visitors standing or in wheelchairs can use this bronze tactile map to feel their way through the garden before entering. Labels are in raised letters and Braille. Note the bold visual contrast of the flower bed behind. This is a typical cue for entries to each garden nook.

Sight - A multitude of colorful plants in a vast array of colors, shapes, and sizes offer eye appeal. A recirculating brook leads to a pond with a tall fountain at its center. The water tumbles from a stream into an upper pond, cascades over a wide lip of stone at the pond's edge, and falls into channels that run beneath our feet to a lower pond. The moving, sparkling water, impressive stonework, and the garden itself -- as well as the Central Gardens beyond -- are all visual treats.

Touch - The centerpiece of this section is a classic labyrinth whose pattern is made of smooth stones in graduated sizes. If we take off our shoes, walking the labyrinth serves as a reflexology exercise. In the middle of the design is a boulder topped with moss. A large, flat-topped stone in this area is etched with a mini-labyrinth we can trace with a finger. We're invited to touch textured plants and the water that surrounds us at several levels.

This Gathering/Education Area on permeable surfacing under the bold wood-pegged trellis was constructed by local craftsmen and provides a shady place to linger, take a class, or socialize while tasting fresh garden produce, berries, and herbal teas. In the background, notice the contextual color coordination of the compost bins and visitor center. The vertical planter and raised working bed are to the left.

Sound - Our sense of hearing is heightened as water from the fountain, waterfall, and stream trickles and splashes. Plants rustle and rattle in the slightest breeze, and the towering granite "Sound Stone" reverberates with every whisper or hum.

To exit the sensory garden, we cross a bridge with sides made of tree trunks and large, interwoven branches stripped of their bark. It leads to a dozen other ornamental gardens and paths along nearly a mile of waterfront and through forests filled with majestic ledge, wildflowers, and ferns. As we continue to explore the Gardens, we realize that our visit to the sensory garden made us more aware and increased our enjoyment, even as it heightened our senses.

These vertical planters make the edible and aromatic plants more accessible. They are an original design of curved shelves upon which sit blocks of 12" x 12" x 8" planting cages made locally by lobstermen of the same materials as lobster traps. The blocks are filled with soil; they are placed in the horizontal position in the greenhouse during the winter months to allow disabled gardeners to negotiate while planting and tending the vegetables. The raised working beds in the background have hand guide railings and wheelchair niches. The paving is four inches of permeable stone dust over 12 inches of gravel.

Design Team
In 2004, renowned landscape architect Herb Schaal, FASLA created the master plan from which the garden was built. In designing the sensory garden, Schaal, a principal at EDAW, Inc. in Colorado, drew on his extensive experience designing accessible and therapeutic gardens. He is exceptionally pleased with and proud of the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses.

The skilled artisans of Jorgensen Landscaping in Bath, Maine, built the walkways, labyrinth, stonework, and water features throughout the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, and Boothbay Home Builders constructed the pavilion and adjacent pergola. Many sub-contractors were also involved in the project.

These hollowed out sound stones from local quarries are located at various heights to be universally accessible. Humming in the hollows resonates with the stone and creates a primal hearing experience that intrigues visitors of all ages. Note the paving change to visually and tactically indicate a node.

Project Manager Nick Caristo of the Gardens staff pulled together the many elements into a unified whole that will delight and educate visitors for generations to come.

Schaal led a collaborative design team composed of members of the Board of Directors, Garden staff, and members of the Iris Network for the visually impaired and blind people in the community. Schaal conducted on-site workshops and built tactile models for blind participants to understand and provide feedback to alternative garden layouts and tactile clues for wayfinding and accessibility.

This Foot Reflexology Labyrinth is midway along the main path and welcomes visitors to take off their shoes and feel the stones underfoot while stimulating pressure points as the labyrinth is negotiated. The stones become progressively smaller toward the center, creating different sensations and cueing for the blind. The stones are round river rock placed flat in a bed of grout. The size is about six inches to eight inches at the outer edge of the labyrinth and then gradually transitions to one inch at the center The central stone block has rough, polished, and mossy surfaces to feel. Plants that are interesting to the touch surround the entire nook. A finger labyrinth is provided at the edge for those who are unable to negotiate the stones.

The one-acre site is surrounded by other gardens, including existing mature trees and rock ledges at the edges. The site is in a natural depression with over six feet of grade change in the center, and consists of shallow soils on bedrock ledges. The design challenge was to use the topography to advantage, minimize grading, expose and accentuate the natural boulders and ledges, save all existing trees, visually integrate with adjacent gardens, and retain site runoff. The creation of a bi-level interior water feature provided the drainage, detention, and spatial, visual, auditory, and tactile elements needed to unify the garden. The strong use of natural stone walls and boulders in conjunction with natural ledges, a palette of adapted Maine plants, and the preservation of existing trees contextually blends the garden with its surroundings.

The use of a disturbed site, preservation of trees, minimal grading, drainage retention, permeable paving, use of appropriate plants and local materials and craftsmen, all demonstrate a sustainable approach to garden design.
The garden is designed to be highly accessible and with specific provisions for people with impaired sight. During the design process, Schaal met with blind clients and the Iris Network, and researched critical "wayfinding" criteria.

Looking back from just beyond the water wall, note the runnels just left of the low center and the foot reflexology labyrinth to the low right, with lamb's ears to feel above the wall.

As a result, the garden has many raised features, including hip-high working beds and vertical planters, a tactile map with Braille at the entry, boundary railings and curbs, a "wayfinding" texture in the pavement that runs throughout the garden, seating nodes in each section with bold visual entry cues and tactile pavement changes, wheelchair places next to all benches and wheelchair insets and railings for planting and tending, a shaded potting shelter, and trellised social and educational gathering area.

Although the path through the garden negotiated terrain with six feet of elevation change, no slope exceeds five percent. The sound of water from the centrally located fountain provides a critical point of auditory orientation for the sight impaired.

This final overview shows the overall quality of the planting design with artistically composed color, form, and textural contrasts of plants with tactile and aromatic characteristics. The grass is dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Hameln'). Flowers include: the rose in the foreground is Rosa 'Oso Easy Paprika'; the pale yellow rose to left is Rosa 'Yellow Submarine'; the pink flowers to the rear are Rosa 'Nearly Wild'; and the purple flowers behind that are Salvia 'Caradona.'

By the clever use of terrain and a meandering path system, this one-acre garden has 600 feet of primary path and another 400 feet of secondary path, which provides a rich variety of sequential views, vantage points, and nooks. Even with high visitation, there are many opportunities for intimate experience.

The Lerner Garden of the Five Senses is a model for public gardens everywhere, and demonstrates how the quality of design and artful integration of universal accessibility can enhance visitor experience for all people by elevating the engagement of all the senses and including interactive experiences. The Lerner Garden blends seamlessly with its immediate and regional context and exemplifies sustainable thinking by use of local materials, adapted plants, and permeable paving.

Sources: Herb Schaal, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

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September 19, 2019, 5:08 pm PDT

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