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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Long Island's sensory gardens offer a feast for the senses

Visitors to the AHRC Suffolk's sensory garden at

Visitors to the AHRC Suffolk's sensory garden at the Shoreham Homes in Shoreham are invited to make music, touch smooth and rough stones, listen to (and feel) a cool spray of water, taste herbs and vegetables and fully interact with plants to experience a feast for all their senses. Photo Credit: Leeana Costa

When most of us plant gardens around our homes, we tend to focus on aesthetics: What colors best coordinate with the siding? What’s the view from the street? Which ground-hugger would look best under the roses?

The desire to experience the beauty and fragrance of plants — and the positive emotions they impart — drives many of us to garden in the first place. But focusing only on sight and smell leaves our remaining senses out in the cold — and sells our gardens short.

There are a few gardens on Long Island, however, that are digging deep to touch all our senses, and they’re available to everyone. The Sensory Garden at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, which opened on the iconic property in 2015, is just such a feast for the senses.

The sound of wind chimes punctuating the steady, soothing trickle of a nearby streaming fountain perks up the ears while calming the mind. Sage, thyme, parsley, lemon verbena, chives and other herbs appeal to our noses, for sure, but in this place, we’re also invited to pluck a leaf to taste.

Purple coneflowers and fuchsia hardy hibiscus shamelessly call for attention, while the more introverted Joe Pye weed blooms quietly in mauve. But the butterflies take notice, and they divide their dance cards between him and the dashing plum-toned Buddleia waiting nearby.

There’s plenty to see in the 3,500-square-foot garden, where visitors are encouraged to enjoy the tactile feel of such plants as the prickly-yet-soft native shore juniper and the pleasantly velvet-leaved lamb’s ears.

There is something for everyone here — and that’s by design. Paths are wide enough for wheelchairs, and plants in raised boxes are the perfect height for seated visitors to smell, touch and taste. The navigation of the garden was planned to ease access for all, according to Winn Keaten, director of communications for the Planting Fields Foundation.

Although the garden is intended for all ages, it’s “particularly effective in getting children to interact with the park,” Keaten said. “It’s a great learning space that’s entirely intended to be an experiential educational experience.” To her point, some 1,600 schoolchildren visited the sensory garden on group trips this past spring.

Children and adults alike can have a veritable field day, too, at The Association for Habilitation and Residential Care Suffolk’s therapeutic Sensory Garden at Shoreham Homes in Shoreham. The interactive, all-abilities garden incorporates elements not only to stimulate but to regulate the senses, as it aims to benefit Shoreham Homes’ 96 residents, some of whom have sensory-processing disorder, which interferes with the transmission of sensed information to the brain.

The nearly 1-acre garden is divided into five sections — one for each of the five senses. A Braille map at the entrance greets some 500 visitors each year. All are invited to make music, touch a collection of smooth and rough stones, listen to (and feel) a cool spray of water, taste herbs and vegetables, and fully interact with plants and props as they move from one section to another. There’s a quiet sitting area to retreat to if senses get overloaded, a life-size checkerboard for those in the mood for a little competition, and even a reflexology-inspired labyrinth paved with river rocks that’s meant for bare feet.

Elementary school summer program attendees are frequent visitors, as are groups of adults and children who receive support from other nonprofit human services agencies. Families from the community also drop in to play and enjoy the interactive spaces.

“The sensory garden was a special project that was designed to be an integrated space,” said Leeana Costa, director of development for AHRC Suffolk Foundation. There’s a xylophone and drums, and signs nearby encourage visitors to "notice the crunch of the leaves underfoot. Listen to the sound of the water as it tumbles onto the ground … enjoy nature's concert as the birds sing from the birdhouses above … make music yourself [because] our ears help us to make sense of our environment through our sense of hearing."

If you visit, you’ll be reminded to attune to the breeze, focus on the sensations of your feet touching the ground and "meander your wheelchair underneath raised garden beds built to be perfectly comfortable just for you.” And you. And you.

Sensory gardens to visit on LI

Sensory Garden at Planting Fields State Historic Park, 1395 Planting Fields Rd., Oyster Bay. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission to the arboretum is $8 per car from Memorial Day to Labor Day; 516-922-8600, plantingfields.org.

AHRC Suffolk’s Sensory Garden, 283 Rte. 25A, Shoreham. Open 7 days a week from dawn to dusk (June to November). Admission is free; 631-585-0100, ahrcsuffolk.org/sensory-garden.

Sensory garden at Hofstra Arboretum, designed specifically for blind and physically disabled visitors, features plants that stimulate all five senses that are in raised beds accessible to all. Many plants in the somewhat shady garden are tropical, and all are tactile or fragrant. Spring and fall plantings boast the most visual interest; 1000 Hempstead Tpke., Hempstead (behind the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Theater, along California Avenue). Open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is free; 516-463-6623, hofstra.edu/community/arbor.

Our Backyard at the Long Island Children’s Museum, an interactive outdoor exhibit that invites children to unplug and explore the natural world, includes a flower “bed,” sunflower house, gravel and sand pits, vegetable garden and water exploration area. Visitors are encouraged to bring a towel and change of clothes; 11 Davis Ave., Garden City. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 1, then Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission ticket to the museum ($14 for adults and children) required for entry. 516-224-5800, licm.org.

Create your own

You don't need a lot of space to create a sensory garden. Start small, incorporating just one or two elements to stimulate each of the senses. Here are some ideas:

  • A pebble or wood-chip path will create sound as well as a tactile experience for feet.
  • The sound of a fountain, wind chimes or even spa music (piped in through speakers) can help create calm after a stressful day.
  • Garden ornaments, such as statues or mirrors, create visual interest.
  • Consider replacing a closed gutter downspout with a rain chain to provide the sound of a fountain, the appearance of a garden décor element and the function of a leader.
  • Celosia, dill, lamb’s ears, feathery pampas grass, hairy mint-scented geranium and yarrow practically beg to be touched.
  • Plant lemon verbena, chocolate mint, sages (purple, golden and tri-color), basils (Genovese, lemon, lime, cinnamon, spicy Greek), stevia and your favorite herbs for plucking and tasting. Invite guests to play “Name That Herb!” And don’t forget berries and other fruits, vegetables and edible flowers, like nasturtiums.
  • Plant lilac, lavender, catmint, heliotrope, hyacinth and other fragrant flowers. Be sure to plant spring-, summer- and fall-bloomers so you’re never without a sweet scent.

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