During the early summer months of the COVID pandemic, community members in my hometown sought refuge in the beautiful gardens at BAYarts, the non-profit arts organization where I work. The gardens provided a welcome relief for weary residents seeking solace in nature and also the opportunity to safely reconnect with others.
However, the notion of healing gardens is not new to us at BAYarts. Visitors have historically described the grounds as inspiring and magical, with people regularly enjoying the gardens on their lunch break or taking a moment to read, write, draw or paint on campus.
BAYarts has always been a welcoming place. The organization occupies two historic houses and a renovated playhouse on the northern side of the Huntington Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks. Perennial beds line walkways that connect the buildings. More than a decade ago, plant specimens were carefully selected to ensure the gardens are in bloom from early May through the beginning of November. Locally crafted sculptures and outdoor art installations remind visitors that art is the raison d’être. Ornamental trees and evergreens add color, texture, and a fresh scent throughout the year. In fact, it has appealed to the senses for as long as I can remember without any formal title.
In 2018, when the Cleveland Metroparks announced a 3-year Transition Plan to bring all of their buildings and public areas into ADA compliance, BAYarts was required to comply with renovations to the buildings we lease from the parks. As we began to research accommodations to our historic buildings, the seed was planted to bring a new level of accessibility to the BAYarts gardens as well.
“NOT FOR US WITHOUT US”
First, BAYarts secured grant funding from the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) to send two staff members to the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference in Atlanta, Georgia; sponsored by the Kennedy Center in New York. During the conference, I had the opportunity to connect with arts organizations and entertainment venues from around the country on ways to provide better accessibility to their facilities and programming.
The notion of “Not for us, without us,” that was expressed by people with disabilities at the conference, informed us on how to proceed with our own transition plan. As a result, we began working with our patrons with disabilities to learn ways to create the best experience possible. In 2019, the OAC awarded BAYarts another grant to attend the LEAD conference in Denver, Colorado to learn more. We wanted to go above and beyond the ADA code requirements to make people of all abilities feel comfortable while visiting the campus. In Denver, the idea of creating a sensory garden was born.
HISTORY AND BENEFITS OF SENSORY GARDENS
Sensory gardens can trace their early beginnings to the physic gardens of Europe in the early 800s that were first established at large estates and monasteries. Known originally as “apothecary gardens”, herbs and plants were grown for cooking, dyeing wool and fabric, and for medicinal purposes.
Today, while physic gardens still exist around the world, sensory gardens have gained popularity and contain plants and other garden ornaments that are arranged to stimulate the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. These planned spaces not only have recreational appeal, but they are also a valuable educational tool, particularly for children with special educational needs.
Sensory gardens are a good way to enrich children’s daily lives. Engaging with nature is important for the development of children of all abilities because it provides them with opportunities to learn, exercise and socialize with others in a more holistic way. Spending time in nature can also be beneficial for mental health. For autistic children, sensory gardens can be a helpful way of lessening some of the sensory challenges they may experience, while also encouraging them to engage with nature, which is proven to be beneficial to their wellbeing.
Sensory gardens also benefit adults with dementia. Color in the garden, tactile experiences, and familiar scents offer calming sensations, inspire distant memories, and help to create a soothing atmosphere where individuals feel safe.
PLANS TAKE SHAPE FOR SENSORY GARDEN INSTALLATION
In 2020, COVID hit, and BAYarts’ plans for a new sensory garden were temporarily sidetracked until this year when the organization was introduced to the Ground Works Land Design team who had recently completed a new landscaping installation at Huntington Beach in the park. After several brainstorming sessions, BAYarts is now working with Ground Works to develop a sensory garden and outdoor classroom in between the Huntington and Fuller Houses on the western side of the BAYarts campus.
Plans include butterfly/sensory gardens, interactive planters and water features, a gas fire pit, outdoor art, and more. Fundraising efforts are underway and installation of the gardens and outdoor classroom is slated for spring of 2023.
More to come as the project progresses…
Please check out our plans below. Comments and suggestions welcome!