Designing and implementing a wonderful sensory garden comes down to attention to detail.
The 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show entry by the SeeAbility charity organisation was an excellent example of this fundamental principle at work—and the results were simply stunning. It is clear to see why this garden received the Silver Gilt award for 2013!
The goal of the garden was a simple one: to produce a sensory garden that raised awareness and understanding of visual impairment. However, the difficulty lay in the desire to raise this awareness in a garden that not only catered to those with normal sight, but to create a garden that was also fun, exciting and interesting for individuals with visual impairment.
Careful planning and consideration of every element of this outstanding sensory garden was the only way to achieve the designer’s goals. With a relatively small space to work with, 10 square meters, every plant or hardscape element had to serve a purpose in the scheme for the garden.
The garden’s designer, Darren Hawkes, idea in raising awareness of visual impairment was to demonstrate the ways that different medical conditions affected the vision of individuals. Darren wanted visitors to the garden to experience the impact of four common sight-specific conditions: Glaucoma, Cataracts, Diabetic Retinopathy and Macular Degeneration. Visitors would have the opportunity to see the garden as suffers of these conditions may see the garden, realising firsthand the limitations of these conditions for themselves.
Darren approached this task in an extremely creative and insightful fashion. Installations were built that mimicked the way vision is affected by each of these conditions.
Glaucoma: this condition alters the peripheral vision of the individual, an effect also known as tunnel vision. Darren chose to represent this effect by using steel cylinders to create a telescopic view. The cylinders were lined up with plants in the garden to show a particular view of the plant to the exclusion of all its surrounds. This installation showed the limitations imposed by the effects of glaucoma but also shows the extraordinary beauty that sufferers can still visually experience in a sensory garden. The telescopic view allows people to see the delightful details of plants that they may otherwise overlook when surrounding visual stimuli compete for their attention. Vertical oak panels were also placed in the garden, again to mimic the effects of having peripheral vision removed.
Cataracts: this condition can make the vision of suffers very blurry. Darren used frosted glass screens in the garden to mirror the effect for the experience of fully sighted people. The installation highlighted how cataracts remove all the detail from the vision of individuals but could still allow people to see colour if it was in sufficiently large blocks.
Diabetic Retinopathy: this condition alters the vision through the appearance of floating spots, dots or cobwebs of dark strings. The vision may swing between blurry and clear intermittently. This effect was demonstrated by the installation of a water feature where water flows slowly over strings of metal spheres. This beautiful piece emphasises shape and texture, as well as light and darkness.
Macular Degeneration: this common condition destroys the central vision of sufferers. Straight lines can look distorted and black, and blurry spaces appear in the centre of the view. This impact was cleverly represented with curtains of polished steel spheres.
Whilst the creative approach and the insights these installations provided into the sensory experiences of visually impaired individuals were a wonderful tool for raising awareness of these conditions, they did not form a garden by themselves. It was the way the installations were placed in the natural garden environment that really gave them the power to convey how visually impaired people experience and interact with sensory gardens. The installations also did not fulfil the purpose of providing an interesting, exciting and fun sensory experience for visually impaired people themselves. It was the carefully chosen plants, the layout and the other thoughtfully crafted hardscape elements that provided the sensory experiences for the visually impaired. Screens and other hardscape elements were predominantly curved to provide a softer, more natural feel to the space, as well as providing tantalising glimpses of plants and spaces yet to be discovered in the garden. This garden provided discovery, drew the visitor in and offered new sensory experiences around every bend in the path.
As we have mentioned, visually impaired individuals have a variety of visual limitations ranging from complete loss of sight to partial loss of sight. Some individuals can still see colour and this ability is extremely important to them. The designer used blocks of plants, rather than a massively diverse mixture of plants, to help partially impaired individuals to discern different hues and separate portions of the garden. He also used bold colours in places to provide excellent contrast between different kinds of plants. The result is striking and is also very visually appealing for both fully sighted people and those individuals with only partial visual impairment. It is also this approach to planting that helped Darren to use a wide variety of building materials throughout the space without it looking messy, disorganised and lacking in harmony. For example, 20,000 hand-cut pieces of slate were used at the centre of the garden and arranged in a radiating circular pattern that is reminiscent of the iris of the eye. This forms a truly beautiful centre-piece for the space that was both inviting and stimulating visually, as well as an excellent sensory touch experience in the garden.
To make the most of the small space provided, the designer provided three entry points to the garden and used a variety of plant heights to engage the eye at every level. The choice of the plants included in the garden had been very carefully considered and were crucial to the success of the sensory garden. Hardy plants that could handle being touched were used to sustain the sensory purpose of the space. Plants that provide year-round interest were also selected to allow the garden to be a place worth visiting regularly for sensory stimulation.
The garden plans were, of course, considered from a practical perspective to allow disabled and visually impaired users to make the most of the space. Seats were placed at regular intervals and the paths were sufficiently wide and flat for wheelchair access.
No garden can be all things to all people but this one definitely achieved its aims. It raised awareness of visual impairments, drew attention to SeeAbility and the life-improving services they provide, as well as being a beautiful garden and sensory experience for both visually impaired and fully sighted individuals alike. This sensory garden largely focused on the senses of sight and touch (for obvious reasons!) but other gardens could take inspiration from this space whilst expanding the sensory stimulation of the other senses as well. This case study demonstrates that the form of any sensory garden you create should be dictated by the intended users of the space. It is also a very real example of how attention to detail can create magical results. Excellent planning and implementation can lead to sensory gardens that encompass a range of varying materials, plants and sensory experiences that are pleasing to all who use the space.
To see a list of garden designer Darren Hawkes list of key plants for this magnificent garden, please click here.