GARDENING FOR NON-VISUAL
Gardens serve many purposes around human
dwellings. They function as windbreaks and
temperature controls. They provide visual and
auditory privacy. But the primary function most
people consider when planning a garden is the
While most gardens are designed for visual
aesthetics, a wide variety of other sensory
experiences can be enhanced by the careful
selection of plant materials.
The sensory experience can start for any
gardener with screening. Dense evergreens
around a perimeter supply not only auditory and
visual screening, but also serve as windbreaks.
Let's not forget the standard of planting
deciduous trees on the south side of the house.
They provide shade and temperature during the
summer, but allow the sun to warm the house
during the winter.
With these basics for a start, let us see what else
we can accomplish for enhancement of the non-
visual sensory experience. We have already
invoked the senses of hearing and temperature
sensitivity. We can also create for touch and for
the sense of smell.
1. Sound aesthetics can be the most diverse in
nature. We can provide experience in:
2. We feel warmth through every part of our
bodies. The warmth of the sun, especially on the
face or the hands, the chill of snow, and the cut of
wind through even the warmest clothing are
experiences common to most of us. What we do
for these senses is often simply to avoid
discomfort, but we can do more. We can include
an appeal to a variety of related sensations here.
- Solitude. Screening from street and other
- Wildlife sounds. These are primarily birds, but
amphibians, mammals, and insects also make
- Wind. The wind sounds different when heard in
different tree species. It takes acute hearing
and some practice to appreciate some of the
- Water. Running water can be part of the
garden. It serves its own aesthetic purpose as
well as attracting wildlife.
3. The sense of smell is a powerfully evocative
one. We often associate smell strongly with
important experiences in our lives. Of course, the
degree to which we do this depends on the acuity
of our sense of smell and our training of it. For
the sense of smell, like hearing, can be trained.
4. Tactile sensations provide a great deal of
information about the world. Blind and visually-
impaired participants in tree and plant classes
can quickly learn to make distinctions among
trees that are beyond the knowledge of most
Americans. The tactile contrasts available in the
plant world can provide pleasure and interest as
The screening effect of vegetation has been
described. With the proper selection, evergreens
can keep out much of the clamor of the cities in
which most of us live. However, if you live near
the runway of a major airport, earmuffs may be
the only choice. Good trees for screening are
those which grow rapidly and retain foliage to the
ground. The best thing to do is consult a nursery
or landscape designer in your area. You can
often combine functions here and choose a
screen that provides shelter, food, or nest
locations for birds or an interesting scent -- such
as Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea).
Birds with their variety of songs, chirps, and
chatter provide a life and movement to the world
of the garden. We can attract them with the way
we design our surroundings.
Books have been written on attracting songbirds
by planting for them. The main things to
remember are that birds, like all living things,
need food, water, shelter, and places to breed.
"Most yards," says John V. Dennis in A Complete
Guide to Bird Feeding, "are too open and lacking
in the tangles of trees, shrubs, and vines that are
seen in natural habitats."
How to provide these features without making the
yard impenetrable to humans is the art of wildlife
gardening. We should start with trees, preferably
those that also serve other functions as well, such
as screening, temperature control, or other sound
qualities. After trees come shrubs and vines, then
perennials, and finally annual plants.
John K. Terres in Songbirds in Your Garden
provides extensive lists for different regions of
the country. Some general types of trees, shrubs
and vines can be listed here. Consulting a
nursery for what is available and will grow well in
your area is a must, though. For Maine. The best overall
- Pines (Pinus spp.)
- Oaks (Quercus spp.)
- Cherries (Prunus spp.)
- Grapes (Vitis spp.)
- Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
- Beeches (Fagus spp.)
- Cedars or Junipers (Juniperus spp.)
Herbaceous plants include the sunflowers,
various hummingbird attractors, and local
Nut trees can also attract squirrels which can
become a problem in crowding birds from feeders
and chewing insulation and wiring in houses.
However, care in how bird feeders are arranged
and protected can minimize the problems and the
siding of many houses provides a good deterrent.
Insects are also attracted to flowering plants, and
this can be both a blessing and a curse. The
drowsy sound of bees buzzing in the garden is a
soothing one strongly evocative of spring and
summer memories. Being stung by a bee is not
nearly so soothing.
We generally think of wind as simply something
we want to protect ourselves against, but the feel
of it and the sound of it can be attractive as well.
The aspens (primarily Populus tremuloides) have
flat leaf stems that produce a fluttering sound in
the wind. Long-needled evergreens such as the
pines (Pinus spp.) sigh, the exact sound
depending upon needle stiffness and length.
Others, such as oaks (Quercus spp.) produce a
rustling sound. In warmer the various species of
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) can be selected for
year-round production of just about any wind-
related sound that can be produced. On some
trees, seed pods can produce a faint sound when
striking together in the wind, though this is often
drowned in the other wind sounds. Some
consultation with a nursery person or landscape
designer will be necessary here to find materials
tuned to your own hearing and interests.
Running water holds a fascination for human
beings. The variety of fountains in public places
carry their musical message to visitors. Water
recirculating to splash and gurgle over rocks is a
familiar part of the individual garden also. Here,
consultation with an experienced person is vital.
Once you have the waterfall or fountain, though,
wildlife will make use of it. It is here that you will
find your main source for amphibians. All frogs
and toads have their distinctive call. The
American toad sounds like a thumbnail run down
an old fashioned comb that was of quality to
produce a musical trill. Wood frogs quack.
Peepers peep. Others bellow, belch, squeak, or
even roar. The sounds may not be as pleasing as,
for example, the song of the Hermit Thrush, but
they are sounds of nature and add something to
the evenings of spring and summer.
Here also we can mention such completely
manmade devices as windchimes. These are a
matter of taste, but should not be selected to be
so loud as to drown out all other sounds.
WARMTH AND SIMILAR SENSATIONS
We have already touched on the feel of sun, wind,
and snow. We can add cold water to the
contrasts we can feel. A garden with alternating
shade and sunlight will be a place where we feel
in contact with the world. Even shade can have
different qualities. The shade under a dense,
heavily needled evergreen is usually warmer and
more humid than that under a light, high-canopied
hardwood. Good trees for these contrasts can be
found in the lists of food and screening trees.
Pines (Pinus spp.), Spruces (Picea spp.), and Firs
(Abies spp.) often produce a warm shade, though
the more columnar forms, unless tightly grown,
may produce too little to show the effect. Maples
(Acer spp.), Oaks (Quercus spp.), and Beech
(Fagus spp.) are among those which can produce
a high canopy with a cooler shade, partly because
of air movement. Consult your nursery or
Here again your nursery is your best friend. A few
general comments can be made, though. Some
cherries (Prunus spp.), apples (Malus spp.), and
other plants in the rose family produce a sweet
fragrance every year. Some do not. Ask. The
common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is quite fragrant
while other lilacs may not be.
Many common kitchen herbs such as sage,
wintergreen, mints, and others can be grown
throughout much of North America. These are
generally perennials and will provide their
particular scents in increasing abundance year
after year. Pick your favorites. And then you can use them for
fragrance in your kitchen -- and in cooking. Roses provide a
wide range of choices of fragrance.
The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), where it will
grow, produces the scent commonly associated
with the north woods. 'Pine' some people call it.
Of course, most people don't distinguish between
pine and fir or spruce, anyway.
In producing fragrance, the choices are almost
unlimited. Get what you like that will grow in your
area. Try to select plants such that a changing
kaleidoscope of scent will greet you each time
you step into your garden throughout the year.
The sense of touch can be stimulated by
differences in leaf texture. Each species of plant
has its own characteristics so that it is impossible
to cover the whole gamut. However, some
evergreens have long, more or less flexible
needles. These are mainly the pines (Pinus spp.)
Others, including some pines, but more often
spruces (Picea spp.) and firs (Abies spp.) have
shorter, stiffer, and sometimes sharper, needles.
Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) can draw blood if
you grab it too firmly. Here, as with the various
thorny plants, the tactile can be a liability.
The bark of trees can be profoundly interesting.
Trees are sometimes called the structural units of
the ecosystem or garden. As such they provide a
feeling of solidity and should be a major focus of
The various textures of bark are endlessly
fascinating. The white pines generally have
smooth bark when young but blocky and platy
near the base of older trees. The oaks usually
have deeply ridged and furrowed bark. Some
ashes (Fraxinus spp.) have an almost diamond
shaped pattern as does Norway Maple (Acer
Beech (Fagus spp.) is smooth. So is young Red
Maple (Acer rubrum). Some bark is shreddy like
the Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and
Northern White-cedar or Arborvitae (Thuja
canadensis). Some is smooth and fluted like
American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).
Much birch (Betula spp.) is smooth with horizontal
peels, but several species are not like that. Betula
papyrifera, Canoe or Paper Birch and Yellow Birch
(B. alleghaniensis) shred, but Gray Birch (B.
populifolia) and most of the European species do
so much less, though they are still smooth and
In short, the bark of any tree trunk will provide
interesting tactile sensations as well as a feeling
of stability and permanence. Take your pick.
SELECTION AND CARE
Unless you have the services of a gardener or are
an enthusiast yourself, pick minimum
maintenance plants. For myself, I like to plant
them and then appreciate them. For intensive
care, talk to somebody else. But everybody is
Different seasons produce different effects. Try
to plan for the times when you will be in the
garden -- or when wildlife you have invited will.
Birds need a year-round food source because
some remain in even the harshest winters. The
only fragrance you will get in winter is from up-
close contact with such trees as firs, but plan for
changing scents for the spring through fall.
And have fun. There is a lot more to gardening
than meets the eye.