Updated: Apr 6, 2022
It feels like fur. It makes a soft rustling sound in the wind. It smells like lemon. Touch, sound and fragrance are what the new sensory garden at Urban Autism Solutions’ Growing Solutions Farm is all about.
“Any garden is really a sensory garden because it stimulates all your senses, but in the sensory garden, we take that a step further by using plants that really appeal to those senses,” said Tucker Kelly, lead grower at UAS’ Growing Solutions Farm. “Except for taste – the rest of the farm takes care of taste.”
The sensory garden is situated within Growing Solutions Farm, a 1.2-acre produce farm where young adults with autism and related challenges participate in vocational training programs. In addition to agricultural skills, participants also gain workplace-readiness skills such as following directions, interacting with co-workers, managing work schedules, working as a group and showing up on time.
Above: Volunteers with the Windy City Lions Club plant raised beds in the sensory garden.
The sensory garden consists of five circular beds with different groupings of plants selected for their heightened ability to stimulate the senses. A raised bed composed of tiers with herbs is located in the center.
The new garden is in partnership with the Windy City Lions Club. It originated when Carole Burke Hallberg, chairperson of the Windy City Lions Foundation, reached out to Urban Autism Solutions. “I knew a little bit about what the organization did and I was really impressed with the concept of providing vocational training to people with autism at their urban farm,” said Hallberg whose son Jayson, 16, is on the autism spectrum.
After a few rounds of discussion with Kelly and Heather Tarczan, executive director of UAS, they decided to build the sensory garden. The Windy City Lions Club funded its construction and the purchase of all the plants. In May, 15 members of the club came out to help create the garden and construct raised beds.
The garden was designed by Kelly who consulted with Kay Knight, a teacher and horticultural therapist who selected and sourced the plants. He designed it to appeal to the senses and to be accessible to anyone who visits the farm. The circular beds are far enough apart to accommodate people with mobility issues who may need a wheelchair or other mobility supports. Kelly and volunteers built the herb containers so that they are short enough for younger children to enjoy the plants inside.
Above: silver mound artemisia feels like fur. The standard blue spruce provides a visual pop to this bed.
“I made the beds circular because I envisioned people working through the garden in a figure-eight, mobius pattern to add the sensation of motion to the garden,” Kelly explained.
Sensory gardens have grown in popularity. They can be specifically designed for children or for people with health or mental health issues, including autism and related disorders. People with autism can be especially sensitive to noises and touch. Repetitive movements and hyperactivity are other common symptoms of autism. Sensory gardens designed with attentive landscape architecture principles can help people with autism slow down and focus, and provide opportunities to engage the senses in ways that are less challenging than those presented by interacting with other people.
“We really had such a fun time coming out to build the garden,” Hallberg said. “And knowing that our contribution is helping support programming that helps young adults with autism reach their potential is really rewarding.”
Some of the plants in the sensory garden include:
● Silver mound artemisia – a low-growing, mound-forming plant with threadlike silver foliage. The plant feels like fur when you touch it.
● Alchemilla mollis, or Lady’s Mantle – the unique texture of this plant’s leaves cause them to be superhydrophobic, or water-repellent. Water forms unique jewel-like droplets form on the leaves.
● Ornamental grasses – their movement also produces soft, rusting sounds.
● Herbs – rosemary, basil, lemon basil, lavender. These herbs pack a powerful punch in terms of fragrance.
● Two varieties of sedum
● Two varieties of sunflowers